Corporate data gathering of consumers private information has exploded over the last few years. The new normal seems to require registration to use any website, device or app. The company almost always wants your name and email, and some require address, phone number and credit card as well. After you provide that information your usage is tracked and data mined for corporate profits. Online privacy is becoming scarce (if not non-existent).
This article offers a practical guide to opt out of this pervasive data gathering by setting up an alternate online identity. Companies get something to track. You get to use their awesome service and you get to preserve at least some of your privacy.
This guide will show options to set up an alternate online identity, using commonly available and legitimate services. It will specifically cover setting up an alternate
- email address
- phone number
- credit card
The order in which these are set up will vary a bit depending on the services used. I'll note dependencies where possible.
- This is US centric since that's (mostly) what I know.
- I am not a lawyer. While I've looked at some of the legal aspects of doing this, I will not be giving any legal advice today. If you have questions, please consult legal advice for your jurisdiction.
- This may help avoid some US government mass surveillance, but that is not the purpose of this article. Any US agency (or state and local law enforcement) could easily defeat some or all of these techniques.
- And there are many other ways to accomplish these same goals. These methods are ones I know from personal or friends' experiences. Do your own research and find what works for you.
You can make up whatever name you feel like. But if you want help, try the Fake Name Generator. They have lots of options for coming up with something suitable. Copy and paste this name somewhere to save it since it will be the "new you".
There seem to be about a million different email providers. I'll list a few here for you to review.
I would seriously consider using a non-US provider for email. European privacy laws are far stricter than in the US. This will certainly keep email out of (easy) reach of the US government. Setting up the email address as .ch or .de may also suggest to other companies to treat your data under European and not US procedures (but results will likely vary wildly). The Tutanota and ProtonMail services described below topped every article I reviewed on best email providers for security or privacy.
For more information on European privacy laws, look at The new transatlantic data Privacy Shield. The Privacy Shield agreement between the European Union and US is a new attempt to replace the older "Safe Harbor" agreement which crashed and burned after the Snowden revelations.
Everyone knows and loves/hates gmail. But the last time I tried to set up (yet another) gmail account, it required a phone number for verification (and they were quite good at detecting attempts to use free phone number services.) You can wait until you get a different phone number (see below), but the phone online account setup requires an email. Catch-22. Agggh!
Tutanota is a free encrypted email service based in Germany. Their website states (slightly paraphrased):
"The Tutanota servers are located in secure data centers in Germany. All saved data are subject to the strict German privacy protection laws. Independent of that all data is end-to-end encrypted and cannot be read by the provider or by any third party."
ProtonMail is a free encrypted email service based in Switzerland. Their website states (slightly paraphrased):
"ProtonMail is incorporated in Switzerland and all our servers are located in Switzerland. This means all user data is protected by strict Swiss privacy laws. All emails are secured automatically with end-to-end encryption"
There are quite a few options for no-contract cellular plans. I specifically looked for low cost, pre-paid plans on an "alternative" carrier. Known as MVNO or "Mobile Virtual Network Operator", these carriers rent space on the larger carriers (AT&T/Sprint/Verizon) networks in bulk, so can give better rates or different types of plans than the big carriers do. Articles on attractive providers include:
For most pre-paid cellular plans, the phone has to be purchased outright. Carriers only support limited types of phones. Some carriers only allow you to buy the phone from them. Others allow any "compatible" phone. This raises the initial cost, but generally leads to a lower monthly cost. If you have an older, unused phone, look for services that will let you use it.
I found two that looked promising: Red Pocket and Page Plus Cellular. In addition to monthly plans, they both offer refillable plans where you can buy a certain number of minutes usable over the course of a year. I tried Page Plus cellular because they have local dealers near me. But there are certainly other options out there, so don't limit your options to just these two.
The store was tucked away in a strip mall. They offered phones and plans from several carriers. They had maybe a dozen types of phones for the Page Plus service. Maybe one looked new. The rest appeared to be used phones. After fending off the $400 phones, I settled on a used, cheap (but probably overpriced) iPhone 4. It is well out of Apple support, so I can't upgrade to the latest IOS. That absolutely will make the phone less secure. But for basic phone calls and text messages, it's still decent. Store selection will be random, so others may have better or worse luck.
They couldn't directly activate the phone under the Page Plus "Pay-as-you-go" plan. I had to activate it under a monthly plan. When the month runs out, I can contact Page Plus and switch to the Pay-as-you-go plan. Then I can buy their $80 card, good for 1000 minutes and lasts up to a year. Phone calls, texts and cellular data all deduct from the balance. It doesn't give a lot of usage, but I doubt even that much is really needed.
They asked for a name to activate the phone under. I paid in cash. It took about 10 minutes to activate the phone and have it ready to go.
The very first thing I did was charge the phone a bit and do a "Erase All Content and Settings". See the Apple article on What to do before selling or giving away your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. After going through the Welcome screens, the phone successfully re-registered itself on the cellular network. If you are using a non-Apple phone, you'll still want to erase all content and settings. Google the phone name/model/manufacturer to find instructions for the particular phone you ended up with.
The online options will likely provide more selection of phones at a cheaper price. I'm guessing a shipping address, credit card, and possibly email address will be needed to make a purchase.
Consider a mailbox from The UPS Store. This gives you a mailbox for mail and packages. It has a street address, so no package delivery issues like PO boxes have. I have been told I can add additional names for delivery, and mail and packaged are delivered to the address, not the name. So getting stuff for my alternate identity should not be an issue.
You must use your real name and address and give two forms of ID to set up the box. This is because the US Postal Service requires PS Form 1583, Application for Delivery of Mail Through Agent in order for The UPS Store to receive mail on your behalf.
Alternate Names for the mail system
For mail, the use of alternate names seems to be a gray area at best. In general, the postal service seems to deliver mail to addresses, not people. But searching the issue, some people (particularly PO boxes) have mail denied unless it is specifically for them.
The most authoritative source I've found is USPS guidelines for addressing which states the addressee must be "Addressee name or other identifier and/or firm name where applicable".
I researched if this would be mail fraud. But the court system test is a person using the mail system to steal money/property/etc from other people. So definitely don't do that (or apparently try to mail lottery tickets)!
- U.S.C. Section 1341—Elements of Mail Fraud
- Laws on Federal Mail Fraud
- 18 U.S. Code § 1302 - Mailing lottery tickets or related matter
Credit cards are a little more difficult, since the US government really likes to keep track of money going places. But there are still many options. I discuss two options: one more anonymous, and the other with your alternate name on the card.
Anonymous gift cards
Visa gift cards make getting anonymous credit cards absurdly easy to get. They are sold about everywhere, but drug stores seem to always have the best selection. They have a giant rack filled with restaurant, iTunes, Amazon and every other imaginable gift card.
For this article, I picked up a plain (i.e. 'Vanilla') Visa gift card. You can select the amount on the card at the time of purchase, anywhere from $20-$500. There is a one-time $5.95 activation fee, so a higher-value card is better than several low-value ones. I took it to the checkout, paid cash and walked out.
To use the card to make online purchases, most gift cards allow setting the shipping zip code. For mine, I used the website on the card to "log in" using the card number, expiration and CVV code. There was a tab on the page for "Assign ZIP Code". Set. Go.
Reloadable cards may give lower fees and more personalization. But many of them require ID checks to comply with US money laundering laws. I wanted one that was low cost and allowed name personalization. The types of reloadable cards I looked for were ones that parents get for their teenage children. Some good articles to look at include:
- Which Reloadable Prepaid Card is Right for You?
- NerdWallet's Best Prepaid Debit Cards of 2016
- Best Prepaid Debit Cards of 2016
I tried the American Express Serve card. At $1/month, it was the lowest cost option that I found. Setting it up required giving over all of my real information to make the US government happy. This sets up the "master" account that you load money into.
With the master account, "subaccounts" can be set up. From the American Express website, these are "Perfect for paying allowance or the babysitter. Each one comes with its own Serve Prepaid Card". They require a name, phone number, email address and password, but no other verification. Best of all, the subaccount name is embossed on the card. Other than a small "prepaid" logo on the back, it looks like any other credit card.
The master account can then transfer money to/from subaccounts.
I hope this will be useful for people. Please use comments to ask questions, or provide information on other useful services.
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