It happens more regularly than people think. You’re sitting reading an email on your cell phone and suddenly a text message pops up. It reads, “I’m watching you right now, and I left a mess on your car.” You immediately look around and just see normal life passing by, nothing out of the ordinary. You look back at your phone again and a second message appears, “LOL, you can’t find me!” Frustration, anxiety and irritation all begin to pulse. You delete the message and move on with the day, but the idea of being spied on and taunted with no way to respond still irritates you. The next day it happens again, and again, and again. This is the mental harassment a teen gets when someone uses texting to bully from a distance. It’s a petty way to do so, but emotionally it can be very effective. And for the most part, we’ve been told that texting is impossible to trace back to the owner, which makes it more appealing to bullies. However, that myth is not so true after all. So, can text messages be traced?

Can Text Messages Be Traced?

The ability to trace text messages starts with the conduit that the message is sent through. That includes the carrier service or Internet connection. Tracing text messages has traditionally been difficult because there is usually no location passed along within the data of a text message, otherwise known as an SMS message. So just using the read message to identify anything is useless. However, if the text message is sent from a cell phone, the device itself can be triangulated using what is called a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) or an app or program that has access to the MNO records. The accuracy of the cell phone location then depends on how much data is saved by the MNO, which depends on the proximity to a cell tower as well as the device’s signal reception.

The Technicalities

It should be made clear that accessing location data via the MNO is not a simple matter of getting a related app and letting it do the work. This is a very technical approach that takes a good amount of computer and telecom knowledge to be accurate. So no one should think they can just get a tool or two on Google Play or the Android Store and be up and running on how to trace a text message location. For example, in some cases, those seeking to get the information desired may have to use an illegal method of “sniffing” or tapping the signal of a local cell tower traffic pattern or using malware to get the data.

Both are illegal, and anyone doing so and getting caught could find themselves facing serious felony penalties for doing so. In some states, illegal wiretapping can warrant a sentence of up to $10,000 or a year in jail. So no one should think going down this path doesn’t have significant personal risk. In these personal cases, an illegal wiretapping mistake is often made without finding out about it until much later when one thinks that collecting the information will make a good case. If a police officer gets involved they will take all the information and are obligated to pursue any crime present in the data. And that means arresting and pursuing charges against the person who provides the information collected the wrong way too.

Even after all the trouble, one would go through to catch SMS data above, because there are so many ways to send a text message, the effort may end up proving fruitless. Devices other than cell phones can send SMS messages without any trail and without having to use any kind of a tower conduit as well. These messages may eventually get to a cell phone, but they are often sent in data batches from the Internet to the cell phone network and then to the particular phone targeted. As a result, no location data is present to capture. This is a common issue when third parties are involved in the technical transit of data.

Additionally, another challenge has to do with the actual location named on the data. It can be very different from the location of the sender, depending on who the server happens to be. For example, those sent through the Internet may have a location attached, but it would be the service provider’s location. It’s a bit like looking at the WHOIS information of a website domain and realizing that the domain location is not the same as where the website entity is actually located. This is a common mistake because people just assume they are one and the same.

So can you trace text messages sent to a cell phone? Yes, it is possible in some instances to do so. However, the information gained may be incorrect, inaccurate, or incomplete. Further, some of the methods used to do so can be illegal and land a person in a whole lot more trouble than what is being dealt with in a texting bully situation. So “can text messages be traced?” may not be the right question; a better thought may be: can I get the text message sender to give up more of their identity by talking too much.