Editorial Policy

Shop, hide your identity: sunglasses optional

Allie Johnson

April 3, 2014

Ever pull out cash so you won't have to swipe your card at a sketchy gas station? Make up a fake email address to give a store clerk? Want to tell a nosy retailer to buzz off?

And, let's face it: You probably aren't feeling too secure about retailers' security systems, what with the massive breaches of recent months.

There's a product that gives you everything except the floppy hat and sunglasses to hide your identity from retailers — and hackers. From Boston-based privacy company Abine, it's called DoNotTrackMe 3.0, and it has been out for six months. It allows you to hide your email address, card number, address, even your name. It's simply a question of what information you want to protect.

The lowdown

The basic version of DoNotTrackMe 3.0 is free. To get it, go to Abine.com and click the “Get DoNotTrackMe” button. It works with any browser or device, and will let you browse the Internet privately and disguise your email address to prevent spam. You can use it online or in-store (when you download the app to your smartphone).Click to email me

The premium version, which lets you mask your debit or credit card number, costs $5 a month or $45 a year. (To buy it, get the free version, go through the start-up guide, and click the blue “upgrade” button.) When you sign up, you give Abine the debit or credit card information you want to use for your purchases; the company stores your encrypted data with its partner bank.

Any time you shop, you create a one-use, virtual credit card.

[Related article: Curb your cab fare with this credit card]

Let's take an imaginary shopping trip to Target. You've loaded up your shopping cart with  indispensable items — fuchsia nail polish, a month's supply of paper towels and a garden gnome — and you're ready to check out.

The cashier rings up your purchase, which totals $69.19. You pull out your phone, open the app, click “create a new card” and enter the amount you want to authorize.

Instantly, the app generates a card on your screen with a unique card number, expiration date and security code that will work only for the purchase amount you choose. The “card” will have Abine's billing address on it instead of your own, if you choose that option. You also can use any name you want, but you should probably stick with your own when shopping in brick-and-mortar stores in case you are asked to show your ID. You show your phone to the cashier, who keys in the card number. Cha-ching!

You're now the proud owner of a garden gnome, and the retail giant never got its hands on your real card number or other personal info. So, if another data breach is announced tomorrow? No worries.

The service works easily for online shopping, and prevents irritating situations where you have to call a company — and probably get put on hold — to cancel a subscription or service with a recurring charge, because you gave up your credit card number.

[Related article: Want rewards for buying that 79-cent candy bar?]

The letdown

It could be awkward to hold up a phone with an image of a credit card and tell the person at the cash register to key in the number.

“We use our own technology a lot — it's like we eat our own dog food,” Abine's CEO Rob Shavell says. “Most of the time the cashiers think it's pretty cool, but, yeah, on occasion they go, 'Hey, what's this? A credit card in your phone?'”

And, if it's store policy, the cashier might ask to see your picture ID, since there's no “back” of the virtual card with a signature, Shavell says.

Also, if you're a person who never carries cash, this could be a hassle. Are you going to create a masked card every time you run into the store for some Tic Tacs?

And, finally, the biggest criticism of the product? The company — well, its partner bank — stores your real credit or debit card info. Couldn't they get hacked?

Of course. “But instead of being on 100 databases, your card number is in one,” Shavell says.