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What Is Call Tracing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Call tracing is a technique available to telecommunications companies to determine the origin of a call. Upon request, companies can furnish this information to subscribers or the police, depending on the type of call involved. For telephone subscribers, this is usually an extra feature only available for a fee. When police request call tracing, charges are typically waived because the tracing is performed in conjunction with a law enforcement investigation. The phone company may require a warrant before it will perform a tracing for law enforcement.

Two forms of call tracing are available for subscribers. One is permanent. Every single call that comes in to a number will be traced and the documentation can be available upon request. This includes calls from blocked or private numbers. Consumers with concerns about phone harassment, recurring obnoxious calls, or threats may consider permanent tracing to ensure that a record will always be available.

Another option is on demand call tracing, which is available by dialing a special code after hanging up. This service is typically only available to subscribers with enhanced service packages. If people do not have such packages from the telecommunications company, it will not enable call tracing. Thus, subscribers who receive harassing and threatening phone calls are advised to talk to the phone company to see if the feature is available. If it is not, they can request a service upgrade to access it.

This technology allows a phone company to determine how telecommunications data was routed, to find the source even if the call is spoofed or protected in an attempt to conceal the origins. Subscribers can choose to block calls from harassing numbers, turn records over to law enforcement, or use the information to determine where to file a complaint. If debt collectors are violating the law with harassing calls, for instance, the call tracing can be useful when discussing the situation with a government agency or representative who can pursue the issue.

Threatening, harassing, and abusive phone calls may be reported to police. Police may not necessarily be able to take immediate action, even with a call tracing, but the complaint creates a record in the system. This can be important in the future when people need police assistance, or decide to take a harasser to court. A clear record of requests for police assistance and any actions taken by the police can help people get restraining orders and other legal remedies to address harassment.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon343760 — On Aug 02, 2013

Can earlier calls be heard which were made before tracing?

By mrkakgolfer — On Jul 10, 2013

Is it possible to find out where someone was when they made a call from a mobile phone two weeks ago?

By snickerish — On Sep 28, 2011

Call tracing is a good idea for everyone to have access to, in my opinion. When I still lived with my parents they had on demand call tracing and that helped a lot because they did not have an answering machine or caller i.d. back then, so it was nice to at least figure out who the last caller was, so we could call them and see if there was an emergency or anything important.

Caller identification and other technologies have made things so much more convenient and revealing. Call tracing is a very important tool when people prank call or harass someone from a private or unidentified number.

By jcraig — On Sep 28, 2011

How is call tracing different from wire tapping? I know wire tapping was a big deal with George Bush and the Patriot Act a while back. When someone is tracing your calls, can they hear what you are saying, or can they only tell where the call is coming from?

If they can't hear the call itself, can the fact that you called someone still be used against you in court? For example, if two drug distributors called each other, and one of them was arrested, could the police use the first person's traced calls as evidence for a reason to arrest the second person if they suspected him of being involved in the drug trade?

That's probably not the greatest example, but hopefully you get the point.

By stl156 — On Sep 27, 2011

@jmc88 - I've wondered that too. Maybe someone else here will know.

What I was wondering about was how cell phone call tracing works, since that is what most people use now. I'm guessing it would be a lot easier than tracing a land based phone, since all of the information has to pass through satellites and computer systems. How does it work, though? Is it possible to do what they do in the movies where you can trace a cell phone call down to the person's location, just based on the signal, or that just for movies? Is this legal without a warrant?

By jmc88 — On Sep 26, 2011

I had to have my incoming calls traced before. It was before everyone had caller ID, and I kept getting random prank calls from someone I didn't know. The police finally traced who it went to, and it turned out to be someone from across the country. I guess they just randomly picked my number out somehow. Once the police contacted them the calls ended pretty quickly.

I always wondered, though, how do they figure out where the calls come from? Whenever the calls come through your phone company, is there some sort of "tracking number" that identifies the phone that it came from?

By Izzy78 — On Sep 25, 2011

Before I went to using my cell phone for all of my calls, I always had automatic call tracing added to my bill. I was never worried about getting harassing calls from anyone, but it helps you see where the cost of your bill is coming from. Sometimes you will notice a number that you call a lot that costs a lot if it's long distance. Then you can try to cut down on calling that number if possible. It was helpful a couple times for finding a phone number of someone who had called me, but I had lost their number.

If the police ever trace your calls with a warrant, do you have to be told by the police or phone company that it is happening? Obviously if you're the person wanting the calls traced, it wouldn't matter much, but if police need to see where your calls are coming from for whatever reason.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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