When the news hit that Hillary Clinton had a private email account that she used in her duties as Secretary of State, I thought, “Doesn’t everyone?”
Maybe that’s my default reaction as a millennial who has picked up and dropped about 10 email addresses over the past decade or so. But it’s also because the value of navigating the online world without exposing all of your personally identifying information is so clear to me. We’re living in a post-Target, post-Anthem, post-[insert next company here] world. The reality for the average Internet user is that guarding your personal information online is getting tougher.
First, a few caveats. I’m not a security expert. I’m not an organizational guru. I’m not doing anything illegal a la “The Wire” that would require a complex system of burners to evade law enforcement (though I do love that show). I’m not catfishing anyone. I’m not creating entirely new identities in order to dupe, scam or hurt anyone. I’m just explaining a system that has worked for me personally and that could work for you.
I introduce to you the “burner email” — an email address that you use with the intention that you’ll delete it at some point down the road. Here’s how it works: I have an email address with a reputable, secure free service, with no personal information about me included in the handle — it’s entirely random and has no personal information included. I use that email address for usernames, login credentials, etc., whenever I don’t want to use my main email address. This could be for everything from writing my email address down to enter a raffle at a local lunch spot to signing up for an online service that I may not use frequently. My main email address stays separate from my “burner” account and it helps me compartmentalize my life a bit. Here are the perks.
1. To Keep My Identity Secure
When it comes down to it, your email address holds a lot of personal information about you. For some people, their name is their email address. Others include some seemingly meaningless information like their alma mater or their pet’s name in their handle. While that information may be easy to remember and seems innocuous, an identity thief can piece together answers to security questions and other details about you to get access to other online accounts you may have.
It also can help protect my main email account from hackers. For example, when a minor data breach of an online retailer where I shop exposes only usernames (and the usernames are email addresses, as they commonly are), I can rest easy if I know I’ve used my burner account. The information those hackers have unearthed may be used in a phishing attack on me, but I can “burn” that email and create a new one just as easily.
2. To Confuse Microtargeters
With many email providers skimming your ingoing and outgoing messages for clues about what you’re buying, eating, drinking, watching and talking about, a burner email account can give you a little peace of mind when it comes to ads that are targeted at you. I don’t know about you, but it gives me the creeps when I check out a dress online, then am followed by that dress for the next few days in the form of in-email ads and customized units on other websites. A burner email can help me hide from the cookies, even if it’s just for a little bit.
3. To Keep My Main Inbox Clean
I’ve found there are two types of email users: People who are OK not reading every email they get, and those who have to read everything as soon as it comes in. I’m the latter. So keeping my main email inbox free of coupons, newsletters, daily deal offers, promotional and marketing materials saves me a lot of time. I can get to the emails from my parents, friends, etc. without having to delete 20 emails from companies that I may want to browse from time to time, but clutter my inbox and drive me crazy.
It’s also helpful to use a burner email address for projects. For example, if you’re applying for a job. With all of the job hunting sites and alerts you can sign up for nowadays, you could be getting hundreds of messages a day from potential employers and hiring websites with job recommendations and interview requests. Creating a burner email account for this ensures important emails don’t get lost in the process and it helps compartmentalize your life a bit. Having a baby? A burner email could help you sign up for all of your baby-related stores, websites, community boards, etc. without exposing any personal information online. Selling stuff online? Posting to Craigslist anonymizes your email address to a point, but if you’re setting up a meeting to exchange goods, a burner email could give you a little extra protection.
Let’s be clear — this is by no means a silver bullet. Identity theft really is the third certainty in life, and a burner email won’t stop you from getting got — but it might make you a tougher target for thieves and hackers. Monitoring your financial accounts regularly can help you reduce the impact of fraud. Experts recommend you check your bank accounts daily, and monitoring your credit can be useful as well. You can get free annual credit reports under federal law at AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can get two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.