MaskMe: The next best thing to total Web anonymity

Abine's MaskMe browser app lets you keep spammers, scammers, and telemarketers at bay -- and even shop anonymously on line.

When it comes to online privacy, you can run but you cannot hide.

You can fake it on Facebook. You can assume any number of pseudonymous identities on Twitter. You can sign up for disposable email addresses and online phone numbers, use a browser plug in to tell ad trackers to sod off, and surf the Web via a Tor connection to keep spies guessing as to your actual identity and location.

But when you want to do anything real – like buying or selling something – all those privacy safeguards melt away. Unless you’re willing to dive into the shady world of virtual currencies, you’ve got to pull off the mask and pony up a real name, a working address and phone number, and an actual 16-digit credit card number.

That is, until now. Earlier this week Abine unveiled the latest incarnation of its fremium privacy plug-in for Chrome and Firefox, MaskMe. It’s a virtual smorgasbord of privacy tools.

ty4ns - maskme dshobard 550p.png

The free version does the following:

* It randomly generates email addresses you can use when you sign up for a Web site, then forwards messages to your real email inbox. If you start getting spam at that address, you can simply turn off forwarding from MaskMe’s dashboard.

* It also randomly generates inscrutable passwords and makes them easy to manage and change.

* It lets you sync your masked emails and passwords and use them on any other device, as well as on MaskMe’s Android and iOS apps.

There are lots of different tools that do these kinds of things, though I don’t know of any that do all of them, or any that make it so simple. But if you’re willing to fork over $5 a month, that’s when MaskMe gets interesting.

The premium version of MaskMe gives you:

* A disposable phone number that redirects to any number you choose. So if telemarketers (or your ex) start haranguing you, you can block them with just a click. They’ll hear a “Sorry, this number is not available” recording.

* A virtual pre-paid credit card that lets you make purchases online without revealing your real credit card number. When you’re done using it, you can de-activate the card with a click.

It’s that last one that got me really excited. If you can conduct actual business without have to open the kimono and show the Web merchant your particulars, true online pseudonymity starts to become a reality.

To check it out, I signed up for the premium service, created a new account at Amazon, and purchased a digital download for $15. Here’s the card I used:

ty4ns - maskme credit card.png

Instead of plugging in my own credit card number, I clicked inside the Credit Card No. field, told MaskMe how much money to put on the card, then clicked Next and Use My Masked Card. It automatically generated a virtual version of the prepaid card you see above.

In this transaction, Abine acted as the intermediary; their name shows up on my credit card statement, not Amazon’s. And as far as Amazon was concerned, Abine bought that Mumford & Sons album, not me.

Of course, there are some caveats. At present, MaskMe only works with U.S.-based accounts. The minimum amount you can put on a card is $10 (though you can continue to use that card for smaller purchases until the money runs out). The cards max out at $100, though if you take a couple of extra steps to verify your card you can bump the limit to $500. If you run into problems with the merchant and request a refund, the money will have to go to Abine first, before they put it back on your card.

Still, the process is not entirely anonymous. If you want to actually receive the goods you’ve ordered, you’ll need to provide a valid shipping address, which can usually be traced back to your real name. (Though I always use a UPS Store mailbox for this sort of thing – harder to trace back to my actual identity, and easily worth the $10 a month.) 

Disturbingly, even when I used a bogus name on my Amazon account, the virtual card still displayed my real name. Not to worry, says the vigilant and angelic Sarah A. Downey of Abine. Though the card displays my name, it’s just part of MaskMe’s user interface – it’s not information that’s shared with the merchant, she assures me. That means you can legally shop under a pseudonym.

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