COLUMBIA, Mo. - Authorities in at least five Missouri cities have now gotten reports of suspicious phone purchases at Wal-Mart stores.
ABC 17 News reached out to law enforcement in Ava, Missouri and has confirmed through a news release that last Saturday a man purchased a large amount of cell phones from a Walmart there.
Police said they reached out to Walmart employees at the Lebanon and confirmed the same man had also purchased about 60 cell phone at that Walmart earlier that day.
They released the man after they found they had no legal reason to detain him.
The latest report is in addition to four other reports of similar incidents in Columbia, Jefferson City, Macon and Lebanon. Authorities in all five cities said they had contacted FBI agents. However, The FBI only confirmed it is investigating three of those reports.
On Thursday, a television station in Cape Girardeau reported that the FBI was investigating more suspicious phone purchases in Cape Girardeau and Jackson. ABC 17 News reached out to the police departments in both cities to confirm these reports and has not heard back.
ABC 17 News confirmed Thursday someone tried to buy a suspicious number of phones at Wal-Mart East in Jefferson City over the weekend as well.
ABc 17 News reported Wednesday that 100 prepaid cell phones were also purchased at two Missouri Walmarts over the weekend, and employees reported the incidents to authorities.
The Columbia Police Department was notified on Monday of a suspicious purchase at the Walmart on Conley Road. According to the police report, several men bought multiple phones around 9:30 Friday night.
ABC 17 New talked to a witness who didn't want to be identified said the men paid with cash.
"Right then and there I knew there was not something adding up about this. It's not right, it doesn't make any sense," he said. "Who's going to order 50 phones for Christmas? Who does that?"
"I think on the surface that is suspicious," said Paul Fennewald, the former Missouri Homeland Security Coordinator. "If I had seen the same thing, I probably would have called somebody also."
A similar situation also happened hours later at a Walmart in Lebanon, Mo. Police said two men bought about 60 phones. They were taken into custody, but later released because police said they had no legal reason to detain them.
Macon police and the sheriff's department also said they are investigating a "recent suspicious purchase of multiple cell phones" at their local Wal-Mart.
Fennewald said the prepaid phones are used as a way for criminals to communicate without law enforcement tracking them. He said in many past terrorist attacks cell phones have been used to trigger an explosive device.
The man who saw the phones being purchased in Columbia said he instantly thought the men were up to no good.
"That's the first thing that ran through my mind that something bad could happen," he said. "You know, they could be using these phones for terrorist acts."
Fennewald said the Walmart employees did the right thing by reporting the odd purchase to police. He said everybody should do the same when they see something suspicious.
"If we're going to prevent that next terrorist attack, especially the next terrorist attack in Columbia, Missouri, or Boone County, it's not going to be the FBI, it's not going to be law enforcement, it's going to be the viewers of this broadcast that are probably going to be the key to preventing."
ABC 17 News reached out to Walmart Corporate for comment on the incidents in Missouri.
"Because this is an ongoing investigation, I'd refer you to law enforcement for any information for your story," Betsy Harden, a Walmart spokeswoman, said in an email.