Fake names and throwaway phones used to be the stuff of spies. Now, they’re for everyone, thanks to concerns about digital surveillance.
“Burners” — or prepaid phones not tied to your name — can be a last-ditch option for the privacy conscious. But you can also spin up virtual burner email addresses, phone numbers and credit card numbers online to stop companies from collecting and sharing your real information. Burners help protect you from data breaches, spam and unwanted charges, and they’re easy to use.
DoNotPay, which makes automated tools that speed up annoying processes like contesting a speeding ticket or canceling a gym membership, has seen a spike in demand for its fake phone number and credit card generators since Apple launched its App Tracking Transparency privacy feature, according to founder and CEO Joshua Browder. That might be because without constant tracking, companies are hungrier than ever for your personal data.
Since Apple and Google unveiled plans to limit companies tracking you across apps and the Web, companies have increasingly relied on the information people hand over willingly — like names and phone numbers. People often have different email addresses, but phone numbers stay consistent, Browder explained. That means data brokers can use phone numbers to organize all sorts of information about you, since you’ve likely provided your number almost every time you’ve bought something or signed up for an account online.
“Not many people know this, but a company can get everything that’s ever existed about you just from your phone number, including your social security number, where you live, who you are — it’s all tied to your phone number with these data brokers,” Browder said.
Burners also help protect you when hackers steal information from company databases. If you used a fake name or one-time-only credit card number, your real credentials stay safe even when data falls into the wrong hands.
But burners serve more lighthearted purposes, too. Demand for DoNotPay also shoots up when a TV series turns into a megahit, Browder said. Want to use a Netflix free trial to watch Squid Game, but worried you’ll forget to cancel and get charged once the trial is over? A burner credit card solves that problem.
Here’s the long and the short on burners, where to get one and how they help.
Q: Wait, what exactly is a burner?
A: A burner is a tool — in the real world or online — that helps hide who you really are. Maybe it’s an extra Gmail account to field all those marketing emails from companies or a prepaid cellphone you can get rid of at any time.
Q: Why are they useful?
A: Burners are designed to be tossed. That’s why they’re probably best known as a tool for criminals. It’s harder to get in trouble for doing something illegal over the phone if that phone was never tied to your name – and if you eventually just drop it in a dumpster.
But, as more people get worried about the personal information that companies and governments collect and pass around, burners have become a valuable privacy tool as well. It’s harder for companies and scammers to pepper me with texts if I never provided my real phone number in the first place, for instance.
Q: Where do I get them?
A: There are lots of sites and apps that spin up fake phone numbers, email addresses and even credit card numbers.
– Email addresses: If you’re not looking to spend any money, I recommend temp-mail.org for quick burner email addresses. Just open webpage page, and the site generates a fake email address you can use when you’re buying things online or signing up for new accounts. It even spins up a temporary inbox under the email generator, so if you need to open an email to confirm your address, you can.
For a more long-standing burner, create a Gmail address you only use when companies ask for it. That way, your main inbox doesn’t get littered with marketing emails. But keep in mind: If you punch in the same extra email address every time you create an online account, companies can still associate the account with your name and could use it to piece together your activities.
– Phone numbers: For a burner phone number, try Google Voice. It’s an app you can add to your smartphone, and it creates a totally new phone number tied to your Google account. Just sign into your Google account and tap “Get a Google Voice number.” Any calls or texts to your Google Voice number get funneled straight to the app, and you can turn off the app’s notifications if you don’t want to see them.
For a single-use, throwaway phone number, check out DoNotPay. The app, which you can use in a browser at donotpay.com or download from the Apple App Store for iPhone, is subscription-based and costs $36 every three months. Along with a bunch of other timesaving automated tools, DoNotPay spins up phone numbers that work for 10 minutes, and the app shows you any verification texts that come in.
If you need a burner phone that’s totally separate from your existing one, grab an inexpensive prepaid phone at Walmart or Target.
– Credit cards: As data breaches at high-profile companies get more frequent, plenty of people aren’t comfortable sharing their credit card numbers with online sellers – especially smaller ones, said Bo Jiang, co-founder and CEO of virtual credit card provider Lithic, known formerly as Privacy.com.
Instead, you can always use a burner. Privacy.com lets you create 12 virtual cards each month for free. They can be single use, or you can use different cards with different companies. Just like on a payment app like Venmo, you tie each virtual card to your bank account or debit card. You can pause and close cards whenever you want, or set a spending limit. For example, if you use a virtual card for your Netflix payments, you could set a limit so that if the company suddenly increased the price of your subscription, the charge wouldn’t go through.
Burner cards come as part of a DoNotPay subscription, as well. One-time-only cards are useful for things like hotel and restaurant reservations – any surprise charges will bounce.
Q: Why can’t I just make up a fake phone number or email address?
A: Companies use phone numbers and email addresses to verify your identity. This helps prevent fraud and abuse, but it also helps companies market to you later. If you punch in a totally fake phone number, you won’t be able to receive those little verification codes via text. (Plus, you might accidentally input someone’s real phone number and sentence them to a lifetime of texts from your hair salon.)
Q: What if I only want to use a burner sometimes?
A: Burners are easy to use, but they’re still not an everyday privacy practice for most people.
“People don’t really know much about it,” Jiang said. “It’s one of those things – kind of like a password manager – it seems like it’s more effort than it’s worth to some folks.”
(For the record, my password manager has been worth every ounce of effort it took to set up.)
If you’d like to add burners to your cache of privacy tools, start with a single extra Gmail account and Google Voice number you can use when you buy things or make accounts online. It won’t stop companies from collecting and sharing your data, but it will put a layer of privacy between you and your online activities.
Jiang advised anyone new to burner credit cards to start by using them for subscriptions.
It’s easy to forget what you’ve signed up for and how much you’re paying, he said. A virtual card lets you cap what a company can charge you. Privacy.com also sends alerts each time you’re charged, which should help with those “Wait, when did I sign up for this?” moments.
Q: Is this shady?
A: That depends on whether you think companies are entitled to your real information. If not, using a burner shouldn’t make you lose any sleep. As for credit cards, Browder said he doesn’t see a problem. Companies should let you opt in for more charges after a free trial period, not count on you forgetting to cancel.
“All these big companies are already being sneaky by charging people,” he said. “By using a burner, you’re taking that power back.”