Our phone number is one of the most personally identifying pieces of information that we have. With it anyone can find our name, address, track down our social media profiles, and totally dig into our lives with very little effort. Since most of us aren’t international spies with an arsenal of burner phones and throw away numbers we tend to hold on to the same phone number for years so that the people we want to communicate with can still find us, and also recognize us when we call.
Yet with so much on the line (pun intended) when it comes to protecting our privacy and security, anytime we are asked for our phone number to sign up for something, or get $2 off of our purchase we instinctively blow our own OPSEC (Operational Security) and give it up without any resistance.
Additionally, (and related) spam calls are out of control. By some estimates as many as 50% of all calls in the U.S. is spam. It may be virtually impossible to ever stop offshore companies (and the U.S. companies who hire them) from respecting any U.S. laws governing this, and it doesn’t look like any major advancements in IT security is going to ever be able to stop the continuous data breaches that dump personal account information into the public domain. There is a better way.
The first thing you need to do is let go of the notion that you can only have one phone number like it’s 1913 and yours was officially assigned to you by the Wilson administration. Like email addresses, you can have as many phone numbers as you want.
The goal of having alternative phone numbers in your privacy toolkit that you can deploy at a moment’s notice is to be able to provide a layer of protection, and even anonymity, between your real information and who you’re sharing that number with.
How virtual phone numbers work
A virtual phone number is not attached to one line or device. Generally you forward calls to a virtual phone number to a device of your choice that already has phone service. There are ton of virtual phone services out there, and you’ve likely heard of some popular options like Grasshopper, Ring Central and others. It would be impossible to mention them all, so I’ll stick to the services that I have personally used to give you an overview of how they work, and how you can use such services to protect your privacy.
Google Voice virtual phone number
12+ years ago when I started my first web company I needed a free/ cheap way to have a phone number I could use online, that was not my personal phone number. I found Google Voice (https://voice.google.com/about), a VoIP (Voice over IP Protocol) phone service that allows you to create a virtual phone number, and have calls and messages to that number forwarded to an actual phone.
At the time I was able to find a vanity number and still use that number online today. Today available numbers are limited, but in most cases you can still pick your area code. If your alias lives in a different city you may want to see if a number in that area code is available before you create your alias’ address.
Google Voice features
- Free to use for calls and texts in the US.
- Uses VoIP which means you use it online
- Has a companion app which lets you choose whether to call from your Google Voice number of actual carrier number
- It has voicemail with text transcription which you can access through the app or online.
- You can have your Google Voice number ring to multiple devices.
For more info just go to Google Voice, check out the Google Voice article on Tom’s Guide.
If you already have a Google account, you can create a Google Voice number and use the basic service for free. Or you can create a new Google account just for this purpose.
Note: In order to use the calling app and be able to choose which number to use to make calls, your phone needs to be signed in to the same account as your Google voice number.
MySudo virtual phone number
MySudo (https://anonyome.com/)is a pretty neat application that provides more of an all-in-one solution of privacy tools and options. You will see me mention MySudo again but for the purpose of this article we’re going to hit on the phone number feature.
With MySudo you can create distinct profiles with their own phone number, email, and virtual credit card. It offers end-to-end encryption and free, unlimited communication (call, chat, and video chat) between MySudo users. You can create multiple phone numbers for different uses, and all without ads, or tracking. As a matter of fact they don’t even ask for your name.
MySudo is available on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. The free version is obviously limited but still very useful especially if you just need an alternate phone number with the ability to get incoming calls and messages.
Get a cheap second phone number
One of the issues you may run into when creating online accounts with a virtual number is that some service will not let you verify with a VoIP number. For situations where you don’t want to give up your “real” phone number, I recommend simply getting a cheap second phone.
You can find some good deals on second-hand phones on sites like eBay, at your local pawn shop, or if you have an old device lying around use that. For service, you can use any number of pay as you go services that can be purchased at most major retailers. Use cash.
A while back I picked up a used, dual sim, Xiaomi Redmi Note 7, running Android 10, in great condition off of eBay for $94.
I went to the local Walmart and purchased a TracFone sim kit ($10) which comes with 3 sim cards, and you can pick your network (T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T). I also purchased (2) TracFone $20 mo. pay as you go plan cards (2 GB data, unlimited talk, and text). Since I wasn’t using it as a main phone, and it would mostly be connected to my home Wi-Fi, I didn’t need much data. (I’ve since renewed with $10 mo. plans, still unlimited talk and text, and data rollover.)
When setting your service up you can choose your preferred area code. Also, TracFone doesn’t ask for accurate identifying information or credit cards. You can re-up your month-to-month plan by buying renewal cards with cash. This could come in handy if you’re using this to create one of your pseudonym profiles.
Update: It was reported on 6/14/2020 that Verizon wireless intended to purchase TracFone. Not sure how this will affect the flexibility of the service, but I’ll be keeping an eye on it for you.
The goal here isn’t so much anonymity, but to protect my phone number. If you sign up for something using your real name and use your alternate phone number, it will then be associated with your real name.
You could also use this phone as your 2-factor authentication phone. For extra protection from the normal tracking, I also de-Googled it and installed Lineage OS. (We’ll talk about Lineage in future articles)
Yes, you also could just buy an all-in-one burner phone (phone, sim, and reassigned number), but typically the models are cheap (because they are used as disposables) and overpriced. For the same to a few bucks more you can snag a nice used feature phone with decent specs that you may actually want to use.
Virtual phone number pro-tips:
- Check to make sure the phone you’re thinking of buying works on your preferred pay as you go to service before purchasing.
- Make sure it’s unlocked and works on GSM networks to give you more flexibility. AT&T, T-Mobile (and the rest of the world) are GSM. Sprint, Verizon, and US Cellular are CDMA. Phones created specifically for CDMA networks will not work on GSM networks, and visa versa.
- Make sure renewal cards are in stock where you shop most. Nothing worse than not being able to find renewal cards, and end up having to use your credit card to purchase another month of service.
- Walmart has a decent choice of pay as you go plans, and always has renewal cards in stock.
- If you ever get stuck, and can’t find plan renewal cards and have to re-up online or through the phone, go out and pay cash for a $20, $50, or $100 Visa, or MC gift card and pay with that.
- DO NOT use re-loadable cards since they require truthful information to adhere to banking laws.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of solutions and options. If you search for “virtual phone numbers” you will get a crap load of results. I merely wanted to let you know that you do have options, and touch on a few that I’ve used and can recommend.
Do your due diligence, look around, ask questions and find an option that has the features that work best for you and your specific needs.
Virtual or “burner” phone apps are plentiful. Many are not what they seem, are ridiculously overpriced, are just excuses for data tracking, and some are created by companies or developers whose existence I can’t even verify. Proceed with caution when thinking of installing apps on your phone.