How to shop (somewhat) anonymously
By Dinah Wisenberg Brin | Published: May 8, 2015
You may fear hackers, or desire to avoid sharing personal data. Or maybe you just want to keep your sweetie from finding out about a birthday gift. Whatever the reason, sometimes you want to keep a purchase secret.
Sure, you can use cash, but often that's just not practical, especially if you shop online.
There are other ways to cover -- or at least blur -- your tracks, experts say.
"It's almost impossible to buy anonymously online but there are things you can do to mask yourself a little more," says Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum.
Data breaches have raised Americans' awareness of the risks of having personal information stolen. Dixon was on a plane to London when two of her credit cards were canceled because of the Home Depot data breach. "I landed in London and if I had not had a third credit card ... I would not have had any place to stay or go," she says. "It is a huge inconvenience."
Masking your purchases can also provide a degree of privacy from data miners who track your spending. Marketing companies buy consumer data to build profiles on potential customers, which are used by retailers, health insurers and colleges, according to Dixon. "You get away from being profiled by retailers and having your information sold to data brokers about what you purchase," she says.
A 2014 World Privacy Forum report details secret, mostly unregulated types of "consumer scores" -- health risk, consumer prominence, discretionary spending and medication adherence scores, among many others -- that are derived in part from data about credit card use. These scores can affect people's lives, well-being and privacy, unknown to those individuals, the group says.
"They are used widely to predict behaviors like spending, health, fraud, profitability, and much more," the report says. "The information can be derived from many data sources and can contain financial, demographic, ethnic, racial, health, social and other data."
Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert and founder of IDTheftSecurity.com, agrees "There's no such thing as 100 percent security, there's no such thing as 100 percent privacy, no matter what tools you invest in."
Consumers, however, can put in place layers of protection to mitigate the risk, he notes. Here are ways -- other than carrying wads of cash -- to make your shopping less traceable.
1. Gift cards or prepaid debit cards
Walk into most any drugstore or supermarket and you can buy gift cards from restaurants, retailers and e-tailers, then use them for purchases that won't be linked to your credit card.
Data brokers that track your purchases by your credit cards, therefore, won't know about that overnight shipment of Texas barbecue or the case of Napa wine you may not want factored into a health risk score. You will also have exposed your credit card to one less potential data hack.
If you're buying online, to make the purchase totally anonymous, you'll need to use a fictitious name, have the product sent to your work address (or another alternate location), or both.
You get away from being profiled by retailers and having your information sold to data brokers about what you purchase.
-- Pam Dixon
World Privacy Forum
Prepaid debit cards from American Express, Green Dot, USAA and other vendors -- available in stores and online -- serve much the same purpose as gift cards in keeping your purchases separate from the consumer profiles that companies build based on your credit card purchases. But they often come with other services that gift cards can't provide, such as the ability to withdraw cash at ATMs. And unlike regular debit cards, they won't provide access to your whole bank account if thieves hack them.
"Gas stations are one of the places where debit cards are very frequently breached," especially if you use them at the gas pump, says Dixon. If you purchase a prepaid debit card at a grocery store, it may cost you a bit, but "it's a lot better than having $100 stolen," she says.
That said, pay attention to the terms on prepaid debit cards. Some are much better than others.
Dixon also notes there's a fraud risk with any card with money on it. "I am very conservative when it comes to any kind of financial transactions," she says. "I really like brand names in this space," companies with a "reputational stake" in the matter.
2. Third-party services
Third parties can help you mask your purchases and identity by providing virtual account numbers and email addresses you can use instead of your own.
Boston-based Abine Inc. offers services under the Blur name that allow you to mask your phone, credit card and email while shopping. Blur, the next generation of Abine's MaskMe, aims to secure all the personal information you post online.
When you make an online purchase, for example, Blur allows you the option of using a masked card. You provide Blur with the exact purchase amount through a browser extension. Blur gives you a virtual card number (a new one for every transaction) and its Massachusetts billing address, and charges the purchase amount to your regular credit card.
When you get your credit card bill, it will show a charge for Abine, instead of Amazon, Old Navy or whoever you actually made the purchase from. Although CreditCards.com found the service glitchy, it's winning praise from privacy advocates.
"I think it's a really good service," says Dixon, who notes that it can help keep the names of crime or domestic violence victims out of circulation. Even if a shopper supplies a real name and a work address, "the credit card information is not there and they cannot track you by your credit card information," she says.
Abine co-founder Eugene Kuznetsov adds, "when the next 100 million credit cards end up being stolen, that doesn't affect you very much."
3. Mobile wallets
Some mobile wallets protect your information against merchant data breaches, too. For instance, Dixon says her credit cards wouldn't have been canceled if she had been able to shop at Home Depot with Apple Pay.
That's because ApplePay, which is available on some iPhone models, uses tokenization to keep your card number and other details out of merchants' hands. The retailer receives only a device-specific token and a dynamic, one-time-use security code. The token is translated into a credit card number when it reaches the payment network, meaning that only your bank and payment network have information about both you and the transaction.
Google Wallet also uses tokenization -- protecting your card information from merchant-level hacks -- but it stores your card data and all of your purchase history on its own servers. Given the company's advertising-focused business model, you may not want that.
With both Google Wallet and Apple Pay, the names of merchants you pay will show up on your credit card bill, so neither wallet will keep your purchases secret from anyone who can peek at your statement.
PayPal, on the other hand, will. Whether you fund your PayPal account with a credit card or bank account, the purchases you make through PayPal show up as "PayPal" on your statement. If someone else knows how to access your PayPal account, though, they will see the names of who you've been paying.
Bitcoin, an electronic currency that uses peer-to-peer technology with no banks or central authority involved, also can help you cover your purchasing tracks. You can install a bitcoin wallet on your mobile phone or computer to start making or receiving payments.
There's no such thing as 100 percent security, there's no such thing as 100 percent privacy, no matter what tools you invest in.
-- Robert Siciliano
Dixon says bitcoin may be great for the technologically oriented, but she doesn't recommend it for the average, non-techie shopper. The bitcoin website assures that you needn't know the technology behind the currency in order to use it, but Dixon felt differently.
"It's actually very complex," she says. "The value of the bitcoins, how many bitcoins are there, if the bitcoins are real or not. It's a real rabbit hole ... I found it really, really enervating."
Blur parent Abine recently launched an invitation-only beta service, Bitcoin Anywhere, to help bitcoin users "more fully participate in online commerce," Abine's online privacy blog says. Customers can use their bitcoin wallets to fund masked credit cards generated through Blur, "ensuring maximum financial security throughout the entire online checkout process."
Abine's Kuznetsov says the pilot allows consumers to use bitcoins anywhere a regular credit card is accepted. "It solves the 'last mile' problem of bitcoin, which is very exciting," he says.
As for keeping your spending completely anonymous? "There really aren't any perfect solutions," says Dixon, "other than paying cash."See related: 6 ways to outsmart data brokers, Do predictive scores violate your privacy?, Synthetic identity theft crimes growing fast, targeting kids
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