Loading…
0:00
22:49

All of us are frequently and routinely asked to provide our personal information to other people, organizations, and websites. Some of these requests arise from important or critical occasions in our lives: crossing a border into another country, registering to get married, or visiting a hospital for medical service. These are moments when we’re willing to provide our personal information to those who request it.

However, most requests for our personal information come from unimportant and noncritical sources: a nonprofit organization wants to contact you about a fundraiser, you sign up for an online cooking class, or you meet a reasonably cute human at a dive bar who wants your phone number. These are moments when we’re sometimes hesitant to provide our personal information to those who request it.

Despite our hesitation, we routinely provide the very same personal information to both critical and noncritical requests. We shouldn’t. Personal information is a top commodity in today’s digital world, and sharing it should be based on trust, not convenience.

As trust takes time to develop, we need a better strategy for how to navigate the world of information requests. Up until now, this series has focused on the digital efforts we can and should take to help secure our privacy and security online. Today, we’ll focus on combining common sense analog strategy with some really cool digital tools to help categorize, limit, or restrict access to our personal information.

Setting Categories, Evaluating Requests, and Sharing Different Data

Classifying our personal data is a three-step process.

Step 1: Establish Different Categories of Requests

Earlier, I broke down examples of requests into either “important/critical” or “unimportant/noncritical.” Feel free to use your own categories, of course. The names you choose aren’t important; establishing different categories is.

Is this REALLY an important request for your personal data?

Step 2: Evaluate Each Request for Your Personal Data

For the next week, here’s a fun assignment: simply observe every request you receive for your personal information. You’ll notice that some requests are less important than others. For example, you might be asked to provide your email address to save 15% on a future purchase. This isn’t a “critical” request: it’s a marketing technique to hand over your personal information.

Step 3: Create and Have Easy Access to Multiple Kinds of Personal Data That You Can Share

If you routinely get requests for personal data from both critical and noncritical sources, then you’ll need different data to provide for each of those requests. I never give out my actual cellphone number or email address to strangers, new friends, or organizations. Instead, I provide those people with my secondary data. They can still reach me, of course, but never in a way that will bother or spam me.

Obtaining secondary data to give to different people is 100 percent legal, 100 percent easy, and — I believe — 100 percent necessary in today’s digital world to guard our privacy. So let’s jump headfirst into living the Classified Life, everyone! We’ll start with our old friend: email.

Get Secondary Email Addresses

When I say “old friend,” I mean it: Email was born in the mid-1960s, before the advent of internet, making the technology more than 50 years old. The fact that most of us continue to lean so heavily on email as it was originally designed is nothing short of miraculous—and, frankly, questionable. Instead, we should use email the same way we use snail mail: by using different addresses.

When I’m sending holiday cards to family and friends, I place my home address on the envelope but when I’m writing about business-related matters, I place my business address on the envelope instead. My email strategy is no different: I write about technology on Medium, I’ve authored a funny book on “cutting the cord,” and I’m the artistic director of a well-reviewed theater troupe in Los Angeles. I use a different email address for each of those roles. This way, I can better sort my email.

However — and this is important — I also maintain a number of “burner” email addresses: These are the addresses I provide to any unimportant website, organization, or individual that demands my email for one reason or another. In fact, here’s one of those burner email addresses I regularly hand out: “sputch@mailnesia.com.”

Why would I share this with you publically? Because I never check this account. Mailnesia’s two best features are (1) auto-confirming any email verification links that are sent to it, and (2) auto-deleting all emails within three to five days. In truth, Mailnesia is a service that’s designed to catch the spam and crap I never want to see in my important email inboxes. Just look at all the random crap that’s in my inbox right now. I mean that literally: click this link and log in to the actual account yourself. You can do that because burner email accounts aren’t protected with passwords. If you’re worried about my security, don’t be — the emails that go to this account aren’t a security matter. It’s an address that’s meant only to receive unimportant or trash emails I don’t need or want.

There are a ton of great free services like Mailnesia that provide similar functionality: Maildrop, GuerillaMail, and FakeMailGenerator, to name but a few. Each service provides a similar set of features, including:

  • The ability to register your burner email with most any website.
  • Ease of use, including no passwords to remember.
  • Auto-confirmation of any email verification requests it receives.
  • An inbox that holds a limited number of emails, say 10 to 20.
  • An inbox that auto-deletes messages that are left unread for a certain period of time, usually from 10 minutes to five days.
  • Spam filtering, to check all incoming emails against a centrally managed list of known offenders.
  • The ability to create many burner email addresses at the same site.

It’s worth noting that some websites that require an email address for verification actively block some of these burner email sites. If that happens, try a few of the websites I’ve listed. You’ll eventually find one that works.

My burner accounts on Maildrop (at left) and Mailnesia.

Get Secondary Phone Numbers

If giving a stranger your personal email address gives you pause, then I’m guessing that giving that same stranger your personal phone number is even more awkward. Given today’s technology, there’s no need to worry, because there’s no need to limit yourself to one phone number. I no longer give out my personal phone number to people I don’t already know and trust: instead, I give them a secondary, virtual phone number that they can use to call or text me. This secondary phone is perfect for interacting with folks on Craigslist, social media platforms, and on any non legal form I’m asked to sign.

This second number not only provides me with peace of mind, but also leaves me with far fewer spam and cold calls to my personal cell. I highly recommend using the same strategy for yourself. There are a number of different companies that provide this service—some for free, and some for a reasonable cost if your needs are more advanced.

The options below include products I’ve personally used or tested. They’re all among the best reviewed, the easiest to use, and don’t require special setups. Simply give people your virtual phone number and it works just like your actual number… only better!

The Free Options

Google Voice works on all computers and Chromebooks, and on any mobile device running iOS or Android. The service is easy to use, integrates seamlessly into Google’s ecosystem, and offers some of the same powerful features that Google pioneered, including a powerful search engine and effective spam filtering for your phone calls. Getting to the app is easy if you’re logged into your Google account in a web browser: click the “dialpad” icon (below, shown in the red box at top), and then click “Voice” from the dropdown menu. Mobile apps are available for those not using a computer.

How to find Google Voice.

Once you’ve created your Google Voice account, you can record a personal voicemail greeting or use the built-in one provided. Now you can use your virtual number for placing/receiving calls and text messages. If you like, you can forward texts and calls to your physical cellphone, or choose to leave them on Google’s servers. Either way, nobody using your virtual number will ever know the difference, not even your parents.

I’d never suggest that you don’t already have a fantastic relationship with your parents. Clearly you do, because you’re a very fine person who obviously loves how frequently your parents like to text and call you. Obviously.

Google Voice’s best features include call blocking, voicemail transcription, spam filtering, and a powerful search engine. Here’s a short video tour I made to help explain some of those functions:

Two paid features are also worth mentioning. First, you can port your actual phone number into Google’s system for a one-time $20 fee. Let’s say you get a new mobile phone number but want to keep your previous one for friends and family. Not a problem: Port your old number into Google Voice, and you’ll continue to have that number forever, accessible from any computer or smartphone. Pretty neat, actually.

Second, you can pay a few dollars to purchase minutes and use Google Voice to make international phone calls (via WiFi) when traveling. I mean “a few dollars” quite literally: When my wife I and I travel internationally, we pay $3 to $5 and have plenty of credits to call family and friends back home in the United States from a U.S.-based phone number.

Just remember: if the service claims to be 100 percent free, then you, friend, are the product. Nothing is “free”. Google mines your personal data to help advertise to you and others, like it does with all of its free services.

Pinger Textfree is 100 percent free and available for iOS, Android, and over the web on any computer. The free version is funded by ads that display in various parts of the app when you’re texting and calling. There is, of course, a paid version without ads ($2.99/month) or with a reserved number ($4.99/month), but honestly, why bother for a burner number? Texting is totally free, but placing calls will cost you credits. However, there’s good news here: Playing one-minute video ads earns you free calling credits. Additionally, you can purchase 100 voice minutes for $1.99. Textfree works on both cellular or WiFi and offers an easy-to-use interface that allows you to integrate with your existing contacts, save and listen to voicemails, and, like Google Voice, auto-forward your texts and calls to your actual cellphone or leave them on Pinger’s servers.

Screen grabs from Pinger Textfree. Note the ad at bottom right.

The Paid Options

Sideline is an app that lives on your iOS or Android smartphone. Not surprisingly, it’s owned by the same folks who own Pinger Textfree. It’s very well reviewed and offers many features. It offers a virtual number for texting and voicemail, the ability to block numbers, and voicemail transcription. Unlike Google Voice, Sideline can be used on both WiFi and cellular networks—a nice touch. Sideline is completely free to use for seven days, then costs $9.99/month, with higher prices (and extra features) for enterprise customers. Of course, you can use Sideline as a free burner phone for exactly seven days if you like. Just make sure to cancel your subscription as soon as you register. The “cost” of gaining use of the app for free is agreeing to be billed on the start of the eighth day.

Phoner is an app that’s available on both Apple’s and Google’s ecosystems, as well as via the web. Customers start with 100 free credits for texting or calling, but those go quickly. Pricing starts at $1.99 for 1,000 additional credits and goes up to $99.99 for 60,000 credits. Phoner offers many of the same features as its competition but adds something interesting: easy recording of your calls. There’s a small “rec” button on the phone screen (shown here) that, once pressed, will record your incoming or outgoing calls for later review. Just be careful with this feature: Most states and countries have laws that govern recording people without their knowledge. Those laws differ from place to place, so be educated before you press record, especially if the other party hasn’t given verbal consent.

It’s probably worth sharing what a phone call to one of these virtual numbers actually sounds like. I used Phoner to call my cellphone and leave a message. Here’s what it sounded like:

Here’s what a call made from the Phoner app sounds like.

Get Secondary Mailing Addresses

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also discuss some of the legal options (in the United States) for obtaining a different physical mailing address. The benefits of doing so are just as powerful as having a secondary email address or phone number: privacy. Most of us forget that we’re under no obligation to provide our home address to any nonprofit organization, frequent flyer program, or doctor. Ditto for any bank, lawyer, or employer. In fact — depending on the circumstances — U.S. citizens are sometimes under no legal obligation to provide their residential address to the police if they ask. In truth, while we need to provide some address for certain requests or forms, there are few legal requirements to provide our actual, residential address to anyone who asks.

The solution, therefore, is to have a secondary mailing address and to provide that information instead. Most local post offices offer P.O. boxes, as do public corporations like UPS. Expect to pay at least $80 to $100 per year for smaller mailboxes, and expect to travel from your home to these secondary locations to pick up your mail.

However, some of the newer services available have made even this obsolete. Now you can spend a bit more and have your snail mail opened, scanned to PDF, and then emailed to you. You’re in charge of how to proceed: Scans of your letters can be stored for later use, unimportant items can be trashed or recycled, checks can be deposited (#MindBlown), scanned items can be shared with anyone you wish, and original documents can be mailed to your actual physical location — wherever that may be.

Want or need an address in Oregon or Delaware? You can have one. Are you living in a mobile home but need a more permanent address? You can have one. Desire a second, virtual address because you desire better privacy? You can have one! There are many reasons why having a second, virtual mailing address might be attractive to you, and there are many providers that can help you achieve this goal.

However — and this is important — not every provider is able or willing to offer you the same level of security for your personal mail. The short list I’ve assembled here only includes companies that offer security-related features, such as being certified in HIPAA compliance standards, providing mandatory employee background checks, or maintaining 24/7 video surveillance inside their scanning facilities. These features keep everyone accountable and allows customers to have the peace of mind that their private matters will remain just that: private.

My suggestion: Call up any mail-forwarding service that you’d like to use and ask questions in advance. It’s worth digging into the details that matter to you prior to making a purchase. Caveat emptor, as the Latin man said.

Earth Class Mail: My family used Earth Class Mail for several months when I started a tech job at Nike and we moved to a different city. I found the service both easy to use and extremely convenient. It offers HIPAA compliance standards, mandatory employee background checks, yearly recertification with HIPPA compliance, and 24/7 video surveillance of its scanning facility which gets monitored by operations leadership and even the executive team. I consider it to be the best option available, but its services don’t come cheap: Monthly fees start at $49 and can easily be double that.

Earth Class Mail scans the front and back of every envelope. Each is presented like an email with an attachment for you to review. You decide what happens next to each letter using the dropdown menus at the top of the user interface.

Mailbox Forwarding: A worthy competitor to Earth Class Mail, this company offers many (but not all) of the same features and security for a discounted price. According to the company’s security page, it uses mandatory employee background checks and has 24/7 video surveillance in its scanning facility. Their online service uses a 256-bit SSL certificate from Verisign, which is considered best-in-class. The company even gives you one month free; after that, monthly fees run $15 to $50 based on the level of service. It’s a very reasonable rate for a reasonable amount of security and service.

PhysicalAddress.com: Of the three choices on this list, this company offers the lowest fees and the least amount of security that I’d personally consider. However, it offers many (but not all) of the same features as the competition, so if you’re on a budget, it’s an excellent option to consider. The company’s security page states that PhysicalAddress.com employs background checks on mail-handling staff, has 24/7 video surveillance and alarm systems at its physical facilities, and employs PCI compliance (credit card security) and SSL certificates for its digital operations. Not bad, given that its pricing starts at $8 per month and goes up to $42 per month, based on the level of service.

A Final Thought

Now that you’re armed with a new classification strategy, actually put it in place! Take the time to start practicing and categorizing how you give out your personal information. Instead of giving out your personal cell, email, and residential address to anyone who asks, go “top secret” and classify yourself! Be the secret agent you’ve always wanted to be, and guard your data with stronger protections.

We live in a world that thrives on all of us willingly giving over our data. Just remember: In most cases, there are no laws requiring us to do so.

Lastly, if you have a really good tip, trick, or tool that you use to classify yourself, please share! Leave a note in the comments section so the entire community can learn. Until then, everyone:

Surf safe!