We read an interesting article this week in CNET (“Enhance privacy by being deliberately inaccurate”). This article suggests people have Internet pseudonyms to protect their real identities when required for authentication. The article also offers tips for anonymizing personal information, as much as that’s possible anyway.
But the message is a good one: You don’t need to give away your personal information to registration forms for online shopping sites, just as you don’t need to give it away to any clerk at a retail store who politely asks for your phone number or ZIP code. Your can protect your personal information by providing erroneous information — criminals have known this trick for a long time.
Criminals Providing Errors to Hide Their True IDs
Can’t tell you how many times we’ve run across this in our investigative and legal work. Bad
guys and gals at the scene of a crime will purposefully “massage” their real information to the police, from the slightly wrong date of birth (for example, one or two digits off on the day and year), to an old address they lived at years ago (or maybe a current family member still lives there). Combine such incorrect information with a mangled surname (maybe the culprit provides his/her real middle name as their surname), and it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to track that person down.
I once found a woman who’d committed a crime, yet had fooled law enforcement and lawyers for years into thinking that her twin sister had done it. She did this by creating an ID where she made her real middle name the first name of her bogus-twin. Of course they shared the same birthdate and history of addresses, so the “twin” seemed bonafide to others.
See how often criminals base their incorrect information on correct data? That way, when the outdated street address or whatever is run through a database, it shows to be legit.
A Shady Business Used a Wrong, But Legit, Address
We were once hired by a law firm to find a shady check cashing business, which the law firm said “appeared to have moved recently.” We went to the address the law firm had on file…and found an empty lot, filled with dirt and rocks and weeds. But according to the assessor’s database, the street address was legitimate, which the shady business obviously knew. A great hoax on its part as the address was never flagged as bogus.
On a whim, we decided to look around a few strip malls in the vicinity. Our thinking being, maybe this shady business had researched this abandoned address and learned it had a real address associated to it. Sure enough, we found a small check cashing business in one of those strip malls whose proprietor matched the exact description the law firm had given us.
By the way, providing incorrect data to a police officer or government authority is a world apart from entering a wrong name and phone number in an online shopping form.
False Reporting Data to Authorities
Keep in mind that it is illegal to provide incorrect info to a law enforcement officer because that is false reporting to authorities (minor misdemeanor). Also, impersonating another individual by using his/her ID information to subject that person to criminal liability (tickets, court dates, debts) is a felony (criminal impersonation).
But falsely entering your name as Betsy Jones who lives at 123 Happy Trails Lane on a required shopping registration form? Go for it. Because every time you provide your correct personal information on such forms, the more opportunities for your private, personal data to find its way into a bazillion databases for others to search.
Masking Your Personal Information
In general, in non-government forms where there is no intent to mislead or defraud, using an incorrect DOB, phone number, address, name, etc. is okay.
Here’s a few resources for masking your personal data:
MaskMe: A free add-on email-masking service for Firefox and Chrome (plans were for it to soon be available for Safari and IE as well, if it isn’t already). A paid-for upgrade also masks credit card and phone number information. We use the free service, and love it.
GuerillaMail: Disposable email addresses.
10 Minute Mail: Another disposable email address service.
Burner: Disposable cell phone numbers for Iphones and Androids.
Virtualpostmail: One of numerous online services offering virtual street addresses. For similar services, check out our article “New Year’s Resolutions: A Few Tips for Protecting Your Privacy in 2014″)
Smart Devices Are Watching You
A last word on protecting our private information. I used to get amused at writers who still banged out manuscripts on old manual typewriters, or how the historian-novelist Shelby Foote continued to write out his tomes in longhand using a quill pen.
Remember former CIA Director Petraeus’s fall from grace when his personal privacy became public because he obviously did not understand that his “secret”drafts of Google messages to his paramour could easily be accessed via Google’s servers? Well, a few years prior to that he was talking about the “Internet of Things” where wired devices, like your smartphone or dishwasher, could tag your ID and geo-location in real time — he didn’t say it in so many words, of course, but I certainly got the impression he was musing about the CIA being able to easily access people’s real-time data.
Patraeus obviously knew the importance of erasing/blocking access to digital footsteps when he said, “Proud parents document the arrival and growth of their future CIA officer in all forms of social media that the world can access for decades to come…we have to figure out how to create the digital footprint for new identities for some officers” (Wired: “CIA Chief: We’ll Spy on Your Through Your Dishwasher”).
If Petraeus and his paramour had given more thought about their own digital footprints, he’d still be head of the CIA.
As to writing with manual typewriters or quill pens, makes them seem like the smarter devices after all, doesn’t it?