How to stay anonymous online

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

Although it seems a little suspicious creating a fake online identity, it's actually the best way to protect your personal details online. Obviously, there are some services that are trying to clamp down on fake identities, such as Facebook that has banned anyone from opening an account under a pseudonym or even their business name, but there are plenty of other opportunities to create a fake account to prevent anyone from being able to track your online activity.

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Creating a fake identity doesn't have to be a criminal activity. We are by no means suggesting you should forge documents, dodge tax or partake in any other illegal or illicit activity, but simply to protect your true identity from fraudsters or other websites/services that should not be able to access the data they can when you sign up for an account.

One of the most frustrating things about creating an online identity be it genuine or fake is that so much data is collected when you fill in the form, it can be used to target you with unwanted marketing messages and sales pitches, in some cases from companies you didn't even sign up to. This is because businesses can sell on your information if you fail to tick the right boxes.

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Although some of this unwanted activity has now been eradicated by the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), there are still some companies that will continue misusing your data and so the best remedy is to fight against any unsolicited intrusion.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Use a fake phone number ethically

Do you ever get annoyed by websites that force you to provide your phone number when you register, especially if there's no obvious reason why they need it? We know we do, and although you can use one of the fake-data tools we've already mentioned to generate a fake number, there's a risk it might actually be valid and cause misery for the unsuspecting real owner.

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One way around this is to visit Fake Number to get a number that's guaranteed not to work except for fooling online forms that it's valid. That's because this "ethical service" suggests 01632 and 0770 numbers, which are reserved for use in British films and TV shows. Amusingly, in 2008, a reported 2,500 Doctor Who fans were left disappointed when they dialled the 0770 number the Time Lord's companions used to contact him. You can copy an entry directly from Fake Number, which also warns you not to answer if you receive a potential scam call from one of those codes.

There are also mobile apps that assign you a disposable 'burner' number that lets you make and receive calls, and send and receive text messages, without sharing your real phone number, of which the best known is Hushed (hushed.com). However, these tend to be US-based, require a monthly subscription (after a free trial) and seem ripe for abuse, so we're hesitant to recommend them unreservedly.

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