The normal process of making a purchase for goods and services reveals a lot of data. Merchants collect names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and anything else they can get you to provide for their marketing purposes and for building a profile on you. They also have your credit or debit card information that links to a financial institution. Your bank has a record of everyone you do business with as well. Think about everywhere you use your credit cards, every payment you make and every company you deal with both online and in the real world. That is a tremendous amount of data, all of which is traded and sold to other companies who market their goods to you and build profiles. Your data is also vulnerable to data breaches, which happen to major reputable companies on a regular basis. The ability to make purchases anonymously is a huge victory in protecting your personal information and maintaining privacy.
I shop for everything I can online. The convenience of having items shipped to my doorstep or office is amazing. None of those shipments have my true name on them though. Remember; separating your real name from your home address is critical for privacy advocates. The packages arrive at whatever address I designated. The label is in an alias name, and the company who sold me the item(s) does not have a record of my real name associated with the shipping or billing address. Any purchases I make at traditional brick and mortar stores are made with cash, prepaid cards, or an alternate credit card. None of those methods reveal my personal information. If anonymous purchases intrigue you (and they should) I highly recommend studying the process in depth. The Complete Privacy & Security Desk Reference covers this topic at length and in a manner that anyone can follow. For an overview of the methods I use, I offer the following tips.
Cash is always the most anonymous way to make a purchase and leaves no paper trail back to you. Unfortunately this only applies to offline purchases. Using cash for fuel, and at retailers keeps your credit card data out of the system and unable to be compromised. Any cash purchase should be done without giving out personal information at check out, or of course alias information can be used if necessary.
See also: ‘Paper vs. Plastic – The Case For Cash LINK
Vanilla Visa Credit Card
One of the most common ways to shop online anonymously is by using a Vanilla Visa credit card. Vanilla Visa is a prepaid card that is excellent for anonymous purchasing. These cards are one time cards and aren’t associated to you in any way possible. You can get cards that range from $25 to $500. If you buy a $500 card, you pay $505 at the store, so you are basically paying a 1% fee for your anonymous credit. You need to register the card through the Vanilla Visa official website, otherwise your card will be rejected by retailers. The registration process simply involves entering a zip code, and nothing else. Most other prepaid cards require a SSN to activate. Any zip code will work, and if you choose obfuscate your IP address while activating the card, you could use the zip code associated with the location your VPN is connecting to. See: “Why You Need A Virtual Private Network’ LINK
For the sake of discussion, you could withdrawal cash for the prepaid card purchase from an ATM machine located at a different store from where you are purchasing the card. Most retail stores keep their surveillance footage for a maximum of 30 days, so if you waited until after that time period to activate and use your card, there would be no link back to you at all. Assuming you purchased the card at a store you don’t normally frequent and the clerk would not be able to recall your appearance. This is extreme I know, but I know people who have gone to this length to stay anonymous.
Masked Credit Cards
Abine’s Blur offers tracker blocking, password management, and masked email addresses in their free edition of Blur. For access to masked credit cards and other advanced features, you must upgrade to the premium edition. New users get to try premium features free for 30 days See: ’BLUR: The One Stop Privacy Shop’ LINK
The concept behind a masked credit card is similar to the way masked email addresses work. You register an actual credit card with Abine; online merchants never see that card. When you click in the credit card field to pay online, Blur pops up and offers to create a masked card.
At the time you create the masked card, you fill in the precise amount that you’re about to pay online. In truth, a masked credit card is more like a prepaid gift card that happens to hold precisely the amount needed for your current transaction. The merchant can’t charge more than the specified amount.
When you confirm creation of the masked card, Abine bills your actual credit card for the amount you chose. You use Blur to automatically fill in your own shipping address, and Abine’s address for billing. The transaction shows up on your credit card bill as a charge from Abine. If you wind up not using the card, you can cancel it and request a refund with one click.
I use this service and love it. It works very smoothly, and I have had no trouble getting the correct amount refunded if necessary. Note that you can’t create a masked card worth less than 10 dollars, but if you truly need to charge a smaller amount, you can spend it and then refund the remainder. It keeps your personal information out of the hands of online retailers. Combine this strategy with using masked email addresses and alias information and you have a very effective way to keep your purchases private.
Another option for masked credit cards is a service called Privacy.com. This service issues you a masked credit card for each purchase and connects behind the scenes directly to your bank account. The charge on your bank statement will show Privacy.com. Your bank does not know what you purchased and from where, and the merchant does not know your personal details including your banking information. This is an excellent strategy and one I have used flawlessly so far. The only problem that I have heard of while using masked cards is that if the merchant is located outside of the U.S., then the transaction will not go through. Privacy.com is free to use and does not require a premium subscription. Here is an in-depth review of this service (LINK).
Alternative Credit Card
Many banks offer credit card holders the ability to order an additional card with a different name on the card. The card number is the same as the number on your card holder’s account, only the name is different. A scenario where this may be helpful is if a parent wanted to give their child a credit card to use for purchases. Or maybe the card holder trusts a roommate or other family member with the ability to make purchases using their credit card account. The bank allows the account holder to order a new card, with someone else’s name for that purpose. The account holder is ultimately responsible for the payment because the card shares the same number / account. I personally would not trust someone with using my credit card number in any of those scenarios; however the ability to have another card issued in an alias name offers an advantage that I see value in.
If your bank gives you the ability to order a card with an alternate name, this is a good way to make purchases without providing your true name. Any place that accepts your credit card without checking ID (which is many places in my experience) would be a good use case for this card. The purchase is still recorded by your bank, however the merchant does not have your true name in their system. Once you have an alternate credit card it allows you to think of scenarios and be creative where it may come in handy. I always have this card with me as another way to avoid using my actual credit card if for some reason I haven’t elected to use another means of payment discussed above (cash, prepaid, etc).
Another option that may suit your needs is Entropay. I have not personally use this service yet, however I have heard good reviews from the privacy community on this Prepaid Virtual Visa card.