How to stay anonymous online
Create a convincing pseudonym, mask your location and keep your phone number private with these tips
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 Pokmon 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. Last year, the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed it will advise lawyers to prosecute people who create fake online profiles deliberately to target others, saying: "This may amount to an offence, such as grossly offensive communication or harassment". 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 feature 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.