Being truly anonymous online means learning how to pay for online products and services anonymously too.
Here at Cogipas.com we share plenty of free and open source privacy tools and techniques, but sometimes you simply have to pay for good privacy protection and that part can be tricky to pull off without exposing a chink in your anonymity armor.
After all, the cards and accounts you usually use to complete purchases online are inherently linked directly to your real identity.
Any service or provider that values privacy, from the best VPN service to Usenet provider, won’t be keeping logs of your activity – and that’s a good thing. For the vast majority of people, it is sufficient that your activities using the service cannot be linked back to you.
Contents of 'Anonymous Online Payments'
But people engaged in very sensitive activities know that an adversary with sufficient motive and methods (such as traffic analysis) could trace your online activities back to your service provider or app vendor and get access to the information they have on file to uncover your identity. After all, most providers and vendors that you pay will usually have your name, address, email and credit card or PayPal details.
The only way to eliminate that risk is to avoid sharing any personal information in the first place. And that’s only possible if you pay anonymously.
If you’re scratching your head wondering how on Earth you’re supposed to pay for anything online anonymously, don’t worry. We’re going to walk you through the best methods to make anonymous payments online, including their respective advantages and disadvantages, as well a quick introduction to using them.
But we won’t lie: it’s not easy. So, ask yourself whether it is really necessary in your case.
For example, if you are a political activist operating on the fringes, then yes. But if you are an occasional content downloader, then no: you are fine relying on a non-logging torrent VPN or Usenet provider.
You Must Always Use an “Anonymous” Email Address for Anonymous Payments
Before we get to the anonymous payments themselves, there’s something else you need – and that’s an anonymous email address.
Most online payments and many sign-ups require a working email address. But using your everyday, personal email address obviously destroys any chance of remaining anonymous.
That’s why you should always use an anonymous email account for anonymous payments. Fortunately, it’s actually quite easy.
The only question is whether you want a single purpose or a disposable email address.
What’s the difference?
Single Purpose Email Address
A single purpose email address is one that you use similarly to your normal email account. You can check it regularly and it serves both to receive and archive your messages.
But in the case of your single purpose email account, you only use it for one purpose: your anonymous payments. That means no other emails, Facebook notifications, newsletter subscriptions, etc.
This method is the go-to for folks who are – or plan on – making anonymous payments on a regular basis. But it’s also a good option for people who want to keep records or leave open the possibility of recovering forgotten passwords for the service or product they paid for using it.
In some cases, you might even find it makes sense to have several single purpose email accounts, each serving their own purpose but kept separate and apart from the others.
They key is to never use the single purpose email account for any other purpose.
Disposable Email Address
The other option is a disposable, one-time, or “throwaway” email address. These couldn’t be easier. You open one up, use it once and then never use it again.
The downside of this method is that you won’t be able to reference those emails again or receive future emails related to the sign-up or purchase you used it for. For many online purchases this won’t matter as messages can be received and retrieved on the service’s online portal itself rather than by email.
Choose whichever of these two options works best for you. But you’ll still need to take one more precaution.
Hide your IP Address Whenever Accessing your Anonymous Email Address
Take this step whichever of the two methods above appeal most to you for anonymous email.
Unfortunately, even an anonymous email address can be linked to your IP address through email stamps or server logs kept by the email provider.
Top Tip – What's Tor? It's a free and easy way to browse the web while hiding your true IP address.
Or you could access your anonymous email account using public Wi-Fi that doesn’t need any registration information or from an Internet cafe that accepts cash payments. Either way, the point is to sever all connections between your identity and the anonymous email account.
Whether using free Wi-Fi or paying cash for Internet access, also make sure the location doesn’t have security cameras, just to be safe as the cameras could reveal it was you usisng a certain connection at a certain time.
You could also use open Wi-Fi or a cash accepting Internet café and use Tor browser. 🙂
The Four Ways to Pay Anonymously Online
Anonymous payments are possible but not easy, especially due to efforts to reduce money laundering and tax evasion, as well as banking regulations introduced in the wake of 9/11.
We’ve arranged these payment methods from the most anonymous to the “merely” private.
1) Anonymous Payments with Prepaid Gift Cards Bought with Cash
- Pros: Easy to Use, Can Be Easily Purchased with Cash; Highly Anonymous
- Cons: Getting Stuck with Unusable Balances; Not Widely Accepted
Prepaid gift cards are generally the best and easiest way to make anonymous payments online. They're widely available and you can buy them in person with cash.
For example, some of the online privacy protection services we highly recommend, such as Private Internet Access VPN, accept payment by major brand gift cards, including Starbucks, Best Buy, Target, Macy’s, Walmart and dozens of others.
These cards cannot be traced back to you if you purchase them with cash. When actually signing up to PIA VPN or other online product or service, if you also use your anonymous email address while hiding your IP address, no one in the chain will have any of your personal information. 🙂
Top Tip – To subscribe to PIA VPN with any of 100+ gift cards, scroll down the page to the heading ‘Pay anonymously with many major brand gift cards’ and select ‘Get VPN Access’ (see screenshot above). For example, a $25 Starbucks gift card will get you 100 days of VPN access!
Tips When Buying Prepaid Gift Cards
Keep in mind these important things when buying a gift card for anonymous payments.
First, make sure to use cash. Using bank or credit cards only creates a way for you to be traced.
Second, for ultimate privacy, you’ll want to purchase the gift card in an establishment that doesn’t have security cameras. Why? Because a truly motivated party (think “government sponsored”) could potentially find out where the card was purchased, then contact the store about the time of purchase and obtain the surveillance footage at that time, connecting you to the purchase. That’s why it’s important to make sure either the store has no cameras or you use other means to ensure your identity isn’t captured on camera (such as by wearing a hoodie or cap and sunglasses or even anti-facial recognition measures).
That last paragraph may sound truly paranoid or over the top, but we want to cover all the bases for you.
Other than these 2 tips, using prepaid gift cards is quite straightforward – and so much easier than Bitcoin (option #2 below).
Disadvantages of Prepaid Gift Cards
One minor disadvantage of prepaid gift cards is that you’re sometimes left with a small balance on the card that’s too small to spend. In such cases, simply donate the gift card balance to worthy charity.
Another disadvantage is simply that not many services or vendors accept gift card payments currently. However, more and more are. Plus, you can be confident that those that do are the type of businesses that highly value your privacy.
2) Anonymous Payments with Bitcoin
- Pros: More Flexible than Gift Cards, More Anonymous than Methods #3 and #4 below
- Cons: Can Be Difficult to Use; Volatile Value
We won’t dig too far into the what and the how of Bitcoin, since you don’t need to fully understand it to benefit from making semi-anonymous payments, but here’s the gist of it.
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, and its value lies in its decentralized nature. Instead of requiring a centralized authority or middleman, like a bank, to make transactions, it instead relies on peer-to-peer technology, much like BitTorrent or even Skype.
You can think of Bitcoin kind of like a foreign currency, which can be bought with or exchanged for other currencies; or be used to pay for goods or services, trade, invest, and more. But you can’t hold it in your hand, like a bill, and it’s not as widely accepted as cash or cards.
Making payments with Bitcoin is straightforward once you get the hang of it. In fact, most leading privacy services and tools now accept Bitcoin as a payment method. Again, leading privacy services such as PrivateInternetAccess VPN will happily accept Bitcoin payments.
Top Tip – The volatility of Bitcoin scares many people off, but it still represents one of the best ways to remain anonymous when paying online.
While there are plenty of cryptocurrency options other than Bitcoin, with some emphasizing privacy even more than Bitcoin, most of them don’t have the popularity or the acceptance of Bitcoin and are still working the kinks out, making them a little more niche and hard to use.
Making a Purchase with Bitcoin
Before making a purchase online anonymously with Bitcoin, you’ll need to set up your Bitcoin “wallet”. In short, this is the app you use to send and receive Bitcoins.
Once that’s done, you’ll need to fund it. Initially funding your wallet will often require a credit card or bank payment. That may sound counter to the aims of this post, but as any subsequent payments you make with Bitcoin are virtually untraceable, it doesn’t matter that you initially funded your Bitcoin wallet with a method linked to your identity. If this still worries you, you can initially fund your Bitcoin wallet with gift cards or even cash (see the heading further below).
Then, when purchasing an online service or product, simply select Bitcoin as your payment method and you’ll be presented with a Bitcoin wallet address. To make a payment, copy and paste the recipient’s (vendor’s) Bitcoin address and enter the amount to pay in your Bitcoin wallet. Or, if you’re using a mobile Bitcoin wallet, just scan the QR code.
In just seconds, you’ll receive a notification confirming the payment. You can complete the rest of the sign-up and setup process (remember to use your anonymous email address as described above!) and start using the service or product without worrying about your activities being easily traced back to you through the transaction.
As you see from the description above, once set up, Bitcoin payments can be as easy as PayPal. But the initial steps are often too much for most people and why we rank gift card payments as the first best option.
Very strictly speaking, Bitcoin is not totally anonymous (here's another good read). Although it takes a sophisticated adversary to trace you back through Bitcoin purchases, it is theoretically possible. Bitcoin is still a far better option than credit cards or bank payments for protecting your identity. There are even a couple more ways to further improve your anonymity when using Bitcoin.
Better Bitcoin Anonymity: Buying Your Bitcoins with Cash or Gift Cards
Not only can prepaid gift cards (option #1 above) be used to pay directly for products and services like VPNs, you can also use gift cards to buy Bitcoin.
Or there’s the cash option. Sites like LocalBitcoins.com connect potential Bitcoin buyers with potential Bitcoin sellers in their area, allowing them to meet and trade in person. Some sellers will even let you purchase online but paying in cash offers maximum anonymity (though who wants to lug around bags of cash at Bitcoin’s current prices?).
Better Bitcoin Anonymity? Using a “Mixer” Service
When using a mixer service, you essentially throw your Bitcoins into a pot of other users’ bitcoins, which are then “mixed” and redistributed. You end up with the same number of Bitcoins (minus a small fee) but the mixing process makes it harder to track them back to you since the Bitcoins you ended up with weren’t purchased by you directly.
This still doesn’t make you completely anonymous (as in theory the mixing could be reverse engineered) but the mixing further insulates you from your online transactions and payments.
Plus, you may end up with Bitcoins that were used to purchase nasty stuff on the dark web.
Top Tip – To learn more about how to completely anonymize Bitcoin, please see the recommended book, How to be Anonymous Online: A Step-By-Step Manual.
3) Private (But Not Anonymous) Payments with Prepaid Credit Cards
- Pros: Easy to Use; Easily Bought with Cash
- Cons: Not Anonymous, Only Private
Let’s get this straight: prepaid credit cards are not anonymous. But they do add an extra “hoop” to jump through for anyone trying to trace your transactions or online activity to your identity. So, they do serve some value.
They’re also easy to use. Most of the major credit card brands now offer prepaid versions of their cards, and you can find them on sale everywhere from drug stores or gas stations and even vending machines.
The secret to prepaid credit cards is buying them offline in cash, since there will be no verified name or banking details linked to the card purchase.
Once the card is purchased, you can use it anywhere normal credit cards are accepted.
Tips for Prepaid Cards Requiring Activation
However, many prepaid credit cards will require some form of activation. If the case, make sure you buy one that has an online activation process, which is most of them.
For the online activation process, take a step similar to getting an anonymous email account: mask your IP address with a VPN or Tor browser before going online and starting the activation process.
During the activation process itself, provide your anonymous email address and a made-up name, address and any other information you are requested to provide. Do not provide someone else’s name or address or other details as that could get you into trouble.
The activation process for prepaid cards is not a rigorous one because the credit card company already has your money.
Since the card has no verified name linked to it, you can usually use any name you want (including a fake name) when making purchases with it. Because the card is prepaid, the company that issued the card essentially ignores the name submitted with the purchase transaction data.
Using PayPal Anonymously
As an added bonus, obtaining an anonymous prepaid gift card in this way also means you can use PayPal anonymously too. How? Easy!
To sign up for any service or product that accepts PayPal, take these steps:
- First make sure to hide your IP address with a VPN or Tor browser.
- Go to the service’s or product’s buy page and select the PayPal branded Buy Now (or whatever) button.
- You will be directed to PayPal’s site. Choose “I don’t have a PayPal account” even if you do.
- A new page will open that will let you pay with your anonymous gift card.
Provided your real IP address is not exposed in the process and you took the proper steps above to buy the anonymous gift card in the first place, you will have made an anonymous PayPal purchase. 🙂
4) Other Anonymous or Private Payment Options
- Pros: Lots of Potential and Possibilities
- Cons: Not Yet Fully Proven
These are wonderful in theory, however, they’re still relatively new services, and the jury is out on their performance.
For example, the Forbes article, I Tried To Shop Online Anonymously (And It Was A Pain In The Butt), shows that it is not so easy just yet.
That means we can’t recommend them just yet.
How to Pay Anonymously in 2018 Wrap-up
There you have it! It’s a long, complicated post but you now have all the knowledge and tips you need to make anonymous payments and purchases online.
Chose the method that makes the most sense for you. This will depend on what type of sensitive activities you conduct online as well as how worried you are about the risks of identity theft, data breaches and online tracking and profiling in general.
Stay safe out there!