Create a convincing pseudonym, mask your location and keep your phone number private with these tips.

Last year was infamous for ‘fakes’ on the web: fake news across social and legacy media, fake accounts and bots populating social networks, and even fake apps in the Google Play Store carrying malware. Given 2018 hasn’t seen this tide overturned, what better way to mark this trend than by creating a new, fake online identity?

To clarify, we aren’t suggesting you forge documents to con people, or dodge paying taxes, but withholding certain information is key to protecting your privacy, especially from certain sites and online services that really have no reason or right to access your personal data or information.

Filling out lengthy forms, and pinning your location, are among an array of strategies the web has to convince you to relinquish your data so companies can store, share and analyse it. Here we outline how you can fight against any unsolicited intrusion.

You’ll learn how to generate false details in a flash, remove your photo, or avatar, from emails you send, and avoid giving away far more data than you bargained for, also taking a look at the benefits and drawbacks of using a fake identity online, and have some fun while doing it.

Pretend to be someone else

Create a fake name and personality

There are times when you can’t avoid using your real name online – for example, when you’re paying for a product or service, or joining Facebook (see next tip). For other sites, it’s both practical and advisable to adopt a pseudonym as an effective means of preventing online fraud, unwanted communication and intrusions into your privacy. However, coming up with a fake name – let alone additional details – can be surprisingly tricky (and copying someone else’s could land you in legal trouble) so we’d recommend turning to the brilliant Fake Name Generator.

This ingenious site not only creates bogus monikers for your preferred gender and name set – from American to Vietnamese – but generates a host of other info for your fictional alter ego including a realistic address and postcode (or ZIP code, for US names); a fake phone number that will be deemed valid by automated site tests; a birthday and astrological star sign; physical characteristics such as height, weight and blood type; a job and car; and even your favourite colour. We’re now called Jordan Thomas, an 83-year old bibliographer from Low Crosby.

For even faster access to fabricated personal information, try the Chrome extension Name Generator. At the click of its toolbar button, this pulls random details from the websites Name Fake Generator and Random User Generator, including first and last names, email addresses and passwords, which you can then copy into registration boxes.

Use a different name on Facebook and Twitter

Facebook insists that you use your real name and email address when you sign up for an account; its terms and conditions state explicitly that “you will not provide any false personal information” and “you will not create more than one personal account”. The social network’s reasoning for its ‘real-name only’ policy is to prevent people from setting up fake accounts for nefarious purposes, but it has still proved controversial.

Two years ago, a coalition of human-rights groups pointed out the difficulties the policy poses (and has caused) for the LGBTQ community, Native Americans and members of persecuted groups, and Facebook promised to introduce a workaround, but this has yet to materialise. Until it does, the only way to use an alias on Facebook is to specify a nickname. Go to your profile and click About, ‘Details about you’. Under Other Names, click ‘Add a nickname, a birth name’ and enter the nickname you want to use. Select ‘Show at top of profile’ and click Save Changes.

This won’t stop people seeing your actual name, but at least it allows for a twist on your real identity.

Ironically, earlier this year, Facebook was forced to admit that up to 60 million of its accounts are fakes, so clearly it doesn’t enforce the real-name policy too rigorously! It also now offers a Tor version for users concerned about their privacy.

Twitter is much more lax about its members using fake names, which is why celebrities are obliged to verify their accounts against imposters having ‘a bit of fun’. This means it’s also easy to sign up under a pseudonym or to change your existing username without needing to open a new account. Simply click your profile icon in the top-right corner, choose ‘Settings and privacy’ from the drop-down menu and enter an alternative handle in the Username field. Before you click ‘Save changes’, note that if your account has a blue-tick verification badge, you’ll lose it by changing your name.

Sign up with a disposable email address

Websites and apps often require you to register using your email address, not only so they can confirm who you are but also to potentially pester you with marketing messages – or “keep you informed of our latest offers” – if you forget to opt out. You can sidestep this intrusion of privacy and deluge of unwanted ‘grey mail’ by creating a fake, temporary address using a disposable-email service. Sign up with this address, click the link in the confirmation message that arrives in your alternative inbox and you’ll gain access to the site without giving away your real identity or anything else.

There are dozens of free disposable-email services of which our favourite is MailDrop. This couldn’t be easier to use: just enter the fake handle you’d like to use in the box on the homepage and click Go. MailDrop will then create your temporary address and accompanying inbox, which you can log into by entering your chosen handle. Unlike similar services, MailDrop has its own spam filters, so even your fake account isn’t swamped by junk mail, and provides an unguessable alias for your address for extra security. Usefully, it also suggests false addresses if you can’t think of one yourself.

Alternatively, try Mailinator, which offers shared public email accounts that let you (anonymously) see which services other users are registering with.

You can also use a browser extension to create a disposable email address on the fly. CrazyMailing for Chrome, which generates accounts that expire after 10 minutes, and Temp Mail for Firefox are both worth installing to keep your real inbox uncluttered and untroubled.

Fill in online forms using fake information

Entering your real name, address and contact details when you fill in online forms is not only tedious (unless you have the info saved in your browser, which can be a security risk), but places your personal data one step closer to spammers and scammers. You can protect your real information by entering bogus details instead using the excellent Chrome extension Fake Data. This generates random but real-looking personal and contact information and enters it in web forms without you needing to type anything.

Simply right-click a form field and choose the bogus details you want to enter from the side menu – be it a first or last name, email or postal address, password, phone number, company name or location. Fake Data even generates ‘Lorem Ipsum’ dummy text, for example “Amet iure rerum rerum reiciendis optio”, which is handy for online surveys that insist you answer every question. By default, the add-on is set to use US data, but you can change this to ‘en_GB’ in its Options to get UK phone numbers, British places and postcodes rather than ZIP codes. You can also save custom data, to enter it in forms instantly by right-clicking. Note that, unlike disposable email services, the fake addresses created by Fake Data aren’t linked to an actual inbox, so you shouldn’t use them when you need to confirm your registration via email.

Fake Data is also available for Firefox and Opera.

Conceal your real location

Tweak your browser to block geo-location

Most browsers have a setting that lets you stop websites tracking your physical position using geo-location.

In Chrome, click the menu button and choose Settings, then Advanced. In the ‘Privacy and security’ section, click Content Settings, then select Location and either switch the slider to Blocked to disable geo-location completely or leave it set to ‘Ask before accessing’
and decide on a site-by-site basis.

In Firefox, type about:config into the address bar, press Enter and agree to the ‘dragons’ warning. Search for the entry geo.enabled and double-click it to change its value to ‘false’.

For Microsoft Edge, you’ll need to disable the feature through Windows 10’s Location settings. Go to Settings, Privacy, Location and scroll down to ‘Choose apps that can use your precise location’, then set Edge to Off.

Use Location Guard to disguise where you are

If you’d prefer not to turn off geo-location altogether, which may prevent you from viewing useful maps, local news, relevant search results and accurate weather forecasts, you can disguise it using Location Guard instead. Available for Chrome, Firefox and Opera, this nifty extension adds ‘noise’ to your location so that it can’t be pinpointed with any accuracy by a website.

Location Guard offers three levels of noise that can be adjusted on a site-by-site basis – depending on how far from your real position you want to pretend to be. Unlike a VPN (see opposite page), your spoofed location won’t be in another country but up to 7,116m (about 4.5 miles) away, so you can still get relevant local information and updates at regular intervals.

Alternatively, you can set a fixed fake location – by default, this is tiny Manra Island in the Pacific Ocean. Location Guard also stops sites using JavaScript to identify your location from your IP address. Its noise is applied automatically in the background until you either pause it or switch to allowing your real location.

Browse the web anonymously using Tor

Tor provides one of the most effective ways to stay anonymous online by routing data from your computer through a series of ‘nodes’ so that nobody can see who or where you are. Tor gives you a different IP address every time you send or request data, and comes with NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere preinstalled to protect you from malicious scripts and hackers who may try to steal your personal information.

Despite its reputation as a tool for accessing the Dark Web, the Tor Browser is completely legal to use and unlikely to expose you to disturbing content unless you expressly seek it out.

Pretend to be in a different country

If Location Guard doesn’t go far enough in disguising your real location, a VPN (virtual private network) will relocate you to a completely different country – which is why many people use one to beat geographical restrictions. There are dozens of VPNs to choose from but the free options tend to restrict the speed of your connection, the amount of data you can use each month and the number of countries you can pretend to be browsing from. Good free VPNs include TunnelBear (www.tunnelbear.com), which has a low data limit of 500MB per month, but is very easy to use and has a handy stealth mode that evades VPN blockers; Windscribe (windscribe.com), which has a very generous data allowance of 10GB per month and 11 international servers; and Hide.me, which is faster than most free options, with a 2GB monthly cap.

Buy from the US with an American address

If you want to register with a site that insists on a US address and/or phone number, the Fake Name Generator tool we recommended provides all the details you need. But what if you’re looking to buy a product from a store that doesn’t “ship” outside the US? This could be because the item won’t work properly outside America or the company doesn’t want the hassle of sending orders overseas and potentially having to deal with returns. The solution is to use a ‘reshipping service’ such as BundleBoxAmForward or Borderlinx. These provide a US address to which items you buy are sent, and then forwarded to you. Usefully, if you purchase products from several stores, the services will combine them into a single delivery.

You can use calculators on the sites to work out the total cost of a delivery based on weight and value, including import duty. There are special offers, too – BundleBox offers $US15 off your first shipment, AmForward uses sales-tax-free Oregon addresses and Borderlinx will shop for you if the store won’t accept your card details.

Cloak your communication

Hide or change your profile photo in emails

Google’s desire to interconnect all its services means that a profile photo you once added to your YouTube, Hangouts or Google+ account may also appear in messages you send in Gmail, so recipients can see exactly what you look like. Have a quick browse of your inbox and you’re bound to see a few examples of other people’s pictures in the top-left corner of messages, next to the senders’ names. To stop your countenance appearing in correspondence, click the cog icon in Gmail, choose Settings and, on the General tab, scroll down to ‘My picture’. Click ‘Change picture’ and either upload a non-copyrighted image that doesn’t show your real face – such as a flower, a pet or a shoe – or select No Picture and choose Apply Changes.

To remove your photo from all Google services, go to your About Me page, click your profile picture and either choose an alternative, less personal shot or opt for ‘No photo’ altogether.

Outlook.com makes removing your photo from your account and other Microsoft services much easier – just click the profile icon in the top-right corner of your inbox, choose ‘Change picture’ and either click ‘New picture’ or Remove.

Don’t give away your mobile number

Caller ID is an invaluable feature for deciding whether or not to answer a phone call, but there are times when you might want to avoid the person or company you’re ringing knowing your number — for example, in case they phone back at an inconvenient time or if you don’t want your contact details to be logged. On a landline phone, you can press 141 to withhold your number from the caller you’re about to dial, but there’s also a similar feature built into your smartphone. On an Android device, launch the Phone app, press the three-dot icon at the top and choose Settings. Tap Calls, ‘Additional settings’, Caller ID and select the option ‘Hide number’. On an iPhone, go to Settings, choose Phone and move the Show My Caller ID slider to ‘Off’.

Send email from a fake account

Most of us use at least one of our real names in our email name and address as a means of stamping our identity on it. However, in circumstances when you don’t want to reveal your real details, such as when contacting someone anonymously or for a one-off message, you can use a fake name instead.

In Gmail, click the cog icon in the top-right corner, choose Settings and click the ‘Accounts and Import’ tab. In the ‘Send mail as’ section, click ‘Edit info’ and choose an alternative name to use. You can also enter a different ‘Reply-to address’ to prevent replies from arriving in your standard inbox. Click ‘Save changes’ to confirm, but remember to change these settings back again for normal communication!

Why fake your online identity?

There are plenty of legal benefits to pretending to be someone else online, as well as illegal – or at least unethical – pitfalls to avoid. Here, we outline the important points to bear in mind.

  • With so many big security breaches in recent years, using a fake name and disposable email address to register with an online service prevents your personal details from falling into criminals’ hands. This is especially true if you use the same password on several websites because a determined hacker will inevitably try your email address and login on as many other sites as they can. If one of those contains sensitive information such as bank details, then you could be defrauded. A quick check at Have I Been Pwned will tell you if any of your accounts have already been compromised.
  • Giving your real email address and phone number to a website you might never visit again leaves you open to spam and marketing messages and calls, which may be difficult to unsubscribe from. Faking details when registering with such sites – unlike, say, Amazon or eBay, which need to know who you really are – is therefore not only harmless, but a sensible precaution.
  • Sharing too much genuine information about yourself online allows potential stalkers and criminals to build a profile of you that could be used to track you down in the real world. Why create an account that contains your real date of birth, unless you want to be wished many happy returns every year? And why does any site aside from an online store need to know your exact postal address? Even if you’re uncomfortable creating a completely fake online identity, a few fictional details are in most cases unlikely to cause problems.
  • Spoofing your location using a VPN or the Location Guard add-on helps maintain your privacy, and can easily be paused when you want to share your location. There is no legal obligation to let online services know precisely where you are, although Pokémon Go blocks GPS tools that let players cheat by spoofing their locations!

What you must never do

  • Creating a fake profile on a dating service or social network to fool people into befriending you, trick them into sharing information with you or harass them from behind the pseudonym is both immoral and potentially illegal. Dating sites such as Tinder are increasingly clamping down on fake profiles that are used to ‘catfish’ their users (a means of discrediting former partners or attracting new ones under false pretences) and, as we mentioned earlier, Facebook forbids people from registering under different names.
  • We’ve deliberately steered far away in this article from such obviously illegal activities as forging a birth certificate or passport, but you should also never provide fake information where financial transactions are involved, such as selling goods on eBay, opening a bank account or applying for a credit card or loan. This constitutes fraud, and the advice we’ve provided is intended to help you avoid being defrauded rather than becoming a fraudster yourself.
  • If you see a fake account on social media that you suspect is impersonating a real one for malicious purposes, don’t just ignore it. On Facebook, click the three-dot icon on the imposter’s cover photo and select Report. Follow the on-screen instructions for impersonation to file a report. If you’re not on Facebook and someone has opened an account as you, fill in this form.



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