Have your cake and eat it too – enjoy some of what the online world has to offer without always giving out your contact details
We’ve all lost count of the number of times we’ve entered our email address and phone number to sign up for an online service, access a website or app, read the news or log into one of our social media accounts. own. Frankly, our contact information is all over the internet.
At the same time, being secure and private online can be hard work and time-consuming, especially if we have to think about managing our settings and what information we want to share each time we sign up for a new service or make a purchase online. It gets awesome and can definitely be made more efficient.
Can we make it easier? Just like taking a Sunday night to prepare a week’s worth of food, we can take time today to protect our online privacy for the next few months!
Disposable and temporary: the art of camouflage online
Temporary email address and secondary inbox
Since most websites require an email address to register, most of us will just enter our primary email address. Why do we need more than one inbox? However, the reality shows otherwise. When we register new accounts or even simply enter our email to access restricted content, we most often also consent to the transfer of our contact information from certain services to other services for marketing purposes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. What to do?
Strategy 1: Use disposable email addresses – for things you don’t really care about.
Some disposable email services allow you to use temporary email that self-destructs after a certain amount of time. This is especially useful for one-time use, for example when you are asked to submit an email address to access restricted content, but don’t want to risk being bombarded by spam and marketing communications.
However, caveats apply, and we cannot stress this enough: it is not a good idea to use these services for any communications that may involve genuinely sensitive data.
Strategy 2: Create a secondary email address for important logins and newsletters.
For all key government, banking and other contacts, use an end-to-end encrypted email service as ProtonMail. Don’t use your primary email address for anything other than keeping in touch with your friends and family. This will keep your inbox organized, free of spam, and protected from data leaks if the service you are registered with suffers a data breach.
Or, you can also use features like Hide My Email from Apple to sign up for the service without providing your real email. Apple generates a unique address that disguises your real address and assigns it to the service you signed up with. All emails will then be automatically forwarded from the masked account to your account. While Android doesn’t offer a similar feature yet, there are alternatives, such as Firefox relay.
Burner’s phone number
Along with an email address, your phone number is a must have to register and log in to a number of websites, to receive a timed password confirming your identity or even an online retailer to submit your contact details to a delivery service.
All in all, your phone number is all over the place, so it’s no wonder most of us have received random SMS and WhatsApp scam attempts.
Strategy 3: Get a cheap prepaid SIM card.
Usually, these are inexpensive cards that you only need to top up for a few dollars every few months to maintain and, in most countries, you are not required to show ID to use them. The goal is to use this phone number for all your online needs: you can link it to social media accounts, use it for parcel tracking numbers, share with potential dates you meet online, and use it for general anonymity.
Meanwhile, your real main number should only be shared with family, friends, and government or financial institutions. Since you’re using a burner number for your online purposes, if you get a call, you can immediately assume it’s a scam and, more than likely, some of the websites you registered with have suffered a data breach.
Disposable bank card
Buying online can be very convenient, no doubt about it! We just have to go to the website, choose the one we want and usually we have saved our bank card details from previous purchases. Everything is good. Unless there is a data breach affecting the details stored on that website compromising our card details or we fall victim to a nasty social engineering scam!
Strategy 4: Use single-use virtual cards.
Many banks, particularly those based on mobile apps, offer virtual cards instead, or as an additional option over physical cards. And most of these banks will also offer one-time-use single-use cards that link to your original card. After you make a purchase with a one-time use card, the bank’s system will detect the movement, destroy the details of the card and automatically generate a new one ready for your next purchase. Since it is a random card, hackers will not be able to trace your real information.
And if you’re wondering about refunds, sellers can still refund via the same single purchase card detail to your account.
Two-factor authentication and one-time codes
Most online services today allow – and recommend – the use of two-factor authentication (2FA). This means that in addition to entering your password, you may also be asked to perform additional authentication steps. This way, if someone steals your password, they still can’t log in without the 2FA code in their hands.
Strategy 5: Use an app-generated 2FA passcode.
Most often, 2FA involves sending an SMS message to your phone number (hopefully your burner phone) with a one-time access code (OTP). You just need to type it where it’s asked to prove your identity. The other – and better – way relies on using an authentication app like Microsoft Authenticator. Under their privacy settings, most websites offer the possibility to generate a QR or alphanumeric code that can be entered into the authenticator’s application; in turn, the app will generate a temporary code that works like an OTP.
This second method is something you might want to get used to – and not just because Twitter recently stopped supporting SMS-borne 2FA for non-paying users.
- Create a temporary email account for when you need to get past the restricted content wall asking for your email address for further access.
- Use a reputable email provider, such as Gmail or Outlook, to create a secondary account that you use for online services and website registration.
- Get a burner number to avoid scam SMS and calls.
- Use a virtual disposable banking card that self-destructs after one use.
- Use a one-time code for two-factor authentication in addition to a strong, unique password.
Embracing your online privacy as part of your normal routine will make it feel seamless and natural, removing the constant feeling of burden and doubt about whether you are doing enough to protect your digital life. Overall, using email addresses, phone numbers, and cards that aren’t directly linked to you is also a great way to minimize your digital footprint and cut your risk of falling victim to a data breach or fraud. Finally, we as users can do as much as we can to prevent malicious activity; it is always advisable to use digital security software that protects you from potential risks and other attacks.