Renting off the grid? Is is possible?
December 17, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

It's a little complicated, but it's about identity and renting.

I asked this question a while back and figured out how to apply for work without plastering my name all over the internet. Now I have a similar difficulty.

For the past few years, I've been living in a very small town and renting rooms from family and friends without the necessity of a lease. I've lead a fairly quiet life here and my footprint has been small.

Well, it's time to leave this town and I'll be renting from strangers again. This means signing a lease somewhere, which will put my name back into the public sphere. Even though it's been years since I ran from that certain dangerous someone, I know he will randomly search for me and I really don't want him to find me. My name is uncommon (if I Google it, I find four hits in the United States, and two of them are old addresses of mine). This means I cannot simply hide in a sea of Mary Smiths.

So, my question is... what resources are available for someone like me who isn't in immediate danger but still needs to lay low? How can I go about renting a room or apartment without putting my name back out where he can find it? Take my word for it that I cannot stay where I am. I've been here too long as it is.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Renting a room will not, generally speaking, put your name onto the Internet. Of all the google results for my name, none are related to where I live or the leases I've signed.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:02 PM on December 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

As a serial renter, my name has never gotten into any sort of public information on any of my leases. I'd stick to renting from individuals rather than from rental agents or complexes with management, and I think it's totally reasonable to explain the situation if you're nervous, but a rental agreement is a private document, not public information, so I don't think it's something you automatically need to worry about.
posted by brainmouse at 12:04 PM on December 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I am a subletter and did not have to sign a lease. Well, I guess I'm technically a squatter with a chill roommate who I write checks to so she can pay rent/utilities. I got into this situation on Craigslist so maybe you could find something similar?

If you can, maybe look into renting in a college town or in the university neighborhood of a big city. Landlords in those places seem like they'd be most focused on getting rent and not on exactly whom the check comes from. They're also used to people coming and going every few months/ years.
posted by thewestinggame at 12:10 PM on December 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

The website found every place that I've ever rented. So you might want to stick to something more informal.
posted by Balna Watya at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

The website found every place that I've ever rented. So you might want to stick to something more informal.

That is data likely gathered from credit reports and driver's license databases and the like. If you sign a lease, it's not like it gets entered in a public database or something.
posted by deanc at 12:29 PM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

That is data likely gathered from credit reports and driver's license databases and the like. If you sign a lease, it's not like it gets entered in a public database or something.

How on earth would you know that with any certainty?

I've seen some lease agreements where the agreement is worded to specifically exclude public recording of the lease, which suggests that in some jurisdictions there are cases where leases are or at least could be recorded, which in the 21st century means "entered into a public database."

I don't want to argue the point, but unless you have some knowledge specific to this domain, I don't think you should be making that assertion.
posted by mph at 12:44 PM on December 17, 2011

This might cost you both some money and some time (althought I doubt it'd be very much of either), but: consider seeing a lawyer to form a corporation, the sole purpose of which will be as a cover --- the corporation would rent an apartment, the corporation would have a phone number etc., so that the name on the lease would be "Wilson's Widgets, Inc" instead of either Mary Smith or Jane Doe. That way, it won't matter if someone stumbles across the rental agreement or not.

(I'm certainly not a lawyer, so 'corporation' may be the wrong term here, but make an appointment with a lawyer and see what they say.)
posted by easily confused at 12:58 PM on December 17, 2011 [13 favorites] probably gather information from your credit card/checking statements/utility bills addresses, not from landlords. When I rent, I do credit check of tenants, which also obliges me to enter the address of the property I'm renting. However, I check many prospective tenants, and only rent to one, eventually, so it'd be difficult to match the tenant to the address. The lease is completely private, unless there is dispute that involve the court. Then, it would become public evidence (but not necessarily public-searchable; many court documents, while public, are not fully computerized).

If I was you, I'd rent a mailbox and use that as your credit card/bank-statement addresses. This may not be possible with some credit-providers, but it will reduce your exposure. However, when I applied for a mortgage some year back, the lender found an obscure address where I sublet some year back. I suspect they do a very throughout search; and I did have a few online purchases sent to my sublet address; so you may have to watch out for that also.

tldr: it's hard to stay anonymous in this day and age.

PS: you may also are legally required to update your driver-license address when you move; unless you want to be called for jury-duty in your home town.
posted by curiousZ at 1:00 PM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember your last question, and it seems to me that your life is going to get more and more complicated as time goes on and you try to keep your identify hidden. If it was me, honestly, I'd look into getting a legal name change, and maybe a new social security number, etc. I would definitely get a lawyer involved, to see what your options are as far as keeping your name change out of public records. It would probably be somewhat of a pain in the butt to do, but your safety is worth it.
posted by MexicanYenta at 1:18 PM on December 17, 2011 [28 favorites]

You may find the links and discussion in this recent post informative: How to disappear completely.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:25 PM on December 17, 2011

I'd suggest renting from a private landlord as opposed to a large local/state/provenience/prefecture company. They're less likely to be interested in your real name.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 1:31 PM on December 17, 2011

You'll want to make sure that:
A.) your lease is not recorded. It's not necessary to record a lease and it's fairly rare to do so for non-commercial leases, but some landlords are overly cautious and will do it anyways; just consult with your (potential) landlord. If you're subletting or have a very casual relationship with your landlord (sounds like what you'd been doing) you may not even have to sign an actual lease.
B.) there aren't any utility bills that you're paying for in your name, for that address. Simplest way to handle that is probably to look for a place where utilities are included in the rent, or have a roommate who you pay and who then pays the bill.
C.) you don't update your driver's license to that address. This has potential to get you in trouble depending on how much/how often you drive, as you are legally required to update your address - but as long as you don't wind up in a situation where anyone in the government would have a reason to check and see if you're living at the address you say you're living at, it's pretty easy to get away with. (Meaning - if you do this, do not ever get in trouble with the police ever for any reason. If you get a parking ticket or anything, you *must* pay it right away.) Car registration/etc. in general can be problematic; best bet here is to live in a city with good public transportation and not drive/own a car.

PO Boxes are surprisingly useless for staying totally anonymous; you are required to provide both identification and a "real" mailing address when you go to rent one now (the guy at the post office when I asked about it told me this was a post-9-11 thing) which means you actually may wind up in more databases than you would be avoiding. Much better is to use a trustworthy family member or friend as an "unofficial" PO Box - get them to just collect your mail that goes to that address and swing by to pick it up every once in a while.

Talking to a lawyer about forming a corporation or an LLC to handle a lot of your affairs is a good but expensive option. I gather it's what all the "pros" do though, and as far as I know it's really the only way to keep yourself even semi-hidden from, say, the IRS. You'll need to have "agent contact info" for the entity but again if you have a trustworthy friend or family member you can use their contact info. You'll also need to pay some fees annually to keep the corporation or LLC "active".

Honestly though, if this guy's that dangerous is there a reason contacting the authorities, or legally changing your name under sealed record* isn't an option? I've gone through periods of my own life where I did or tried to do some of this stuff I'm describing (for different reasons than yours) and trust me, the extra stress is no way to live your life. A.) is easy but B.) and C.) in particular will add complications and stresses to your life that crop up in all kinds of unexpected ways. For example, utility bills with your name and address are frequently required as proof of residency for other things, and it sucks to be trying to open a bank account or whatever and they ask you for a utility bill, something that should be completely trivial, but is a major, workaround-requiring hassle for you if not a show-stopper. Plus, it tends to make people suspicious of you - you'd be surprised at how noticeable that split-second of hesitation is, when people ask you something simple like where you live or if they can see your license - and that suspicion introduces a whole new set of problems/hassles/stresses. Trust me, it's just not a pleasant way to live.

*changing your name under sealed record - procedure varies from state to state but if you don't have a criminal record or outstanding debts it would be worth looking into. Either of those two things will pretty much rule it out in most places AFAIK.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:46 PM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you tried contacting a realtor to see if there is a local homeowner who rents out a small apartment? I know in my neck of the woods, there are plenty of small places like that. The hard part is finding them and a lot of realtors have connections to those types of tenants. You can probably get away with not telling the realtor too much.
posted by Nackt at 1:49 PM on December 17, 2011

Datapoint: thinks I'm self employed, married, and living in the city of Chicago or a northwest suburb. I am none of these things. I'd definitely find a situation where you're renting from a person, instead of a corporation.
posted by mornie_alantie at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2011

Legally change your last name (or your entire name if you like) in court. There is an official record of your name change, but I haven't found mine online. If you are forced to run a newspaper ad, do it in a small local paper that doesn't publish that section of its paper online. I used to be in the first page of Google results for my old name; now I'm swimming in a sea of my new name (one version of my name being a porn star, hah. Good luck finding me in all THAT! And no, I didn't know that until after I changed my name.)
posted by IndigoRain at 2:06 PM on December 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing finding a sublet situation or a roommate who is willing to put the lease/utilities in their name. I have never used spokeo or other similar websites to run background searches, but I have used paid services through my job to run background checks. People's names tended to turn up all or most of the places that they had ever rented, paid utilities or held a mortgage. There were some exceptions to this, and my background check company probably did a much more thorough search than most of the online services that people could more easily access on the internet, but it seems possible that they could return some similar information with those.

If you end up needing to be on a lease, definitely talk to the landlord before signing it about this situation. The landlord should be able to tell you more about how and with whom they share your lease information. Definitely avoid any rentals with credit checks and try to stick with individuals renting their property over large companies renting out multiple properties.
posted by cheerwine at 3:57 PM on December 17, 2011

Set up another trail of documentation as M Jane Doe, so that you can tell a landlord you use your middle name and have gotten married and divorced, so all your docs have your married name. Another option, and something I've heard from 2 20-somehtings lately, is to state that your birth father left and has been vindictive and scary, and you've always used your stepfather's last name, as he was your 'real' dad. So, can they please not out your birth name?

Jane Doe may very well have a credit report. Maybe your family has a friend who can report credit information for Jane Doe. For work, on any Federal documents, you'll probably have to give your birth cert data, and certainly your SSN. Get your lawyer to write up a letter stating that you use an a.k.a. for reasons of safety.

Keep in mind that women don't have to do a legal name change when they marry; they can use the name they choose. And, at least where I live, they don't need legal action to resume an unmarried name.

Or, do a sealed name change; this stuff is going to always be a pain.
posted by theora55 at 4:23 PM on December 17, 2011

The website found every place that I've ever rented. So you might want to stick to something more informal.

Just as an FYI, I checked for me and it knows the town I live in but not the address. I signed a lease with my real name. I suspect this is because I have a PO box and do not receive any postal mail at my house. This is something that will be easy for you to do and will further obscure your location.
posted by jessamyn at 5:28 PM on December 17, 2011

IndigoRain's answer was my first. If your name is Barbara Jones, change it to Ann-Marie Jones, but continue to introduce yourself and ask to be called Barbara, as always. Never actually use the new name, except in legal situations (forms, etc).

This has minimum real impact on your life. Nobody you care about really needs to know, and any official government renty-type records for you that end up on the Internet are in the name Ann-Marie, a name your stalker person doesn't know and a name he will never ever search for.

Also, mornie's datapoint is true for me too, so you might even consider the rather sideways approach of 'seeding' all sorts of information about yourself online as a sort of safety net. While I didn't plan it this way, I am amused and a little delighted that a search for my real name online produces several addresses (none real or current or true), several different jobs, employers and professions (ditto), and a couple of different sets of wives and children.

Also not true, I swear!
posted by rokusan at 5:29 PM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Something I just remembered - there's a website I won't name here, that I used to use at an old job. You pay a moderate fee, and you can look up anyone's drivers license information. You can access it by knowing their name, or their license plate number, or their street address, and maybe other ways I've forgotten. For instance, if I had your address from 5 years ago, I could enter it and see everyone who has ever lived at that address. Once I found your name, I could click on that and then pull up every place you had ever held a drivers license, and your addresses listed on the licenses. I think in some cases it could also pull up jail records, too. This was ten years ago, so there may be access to even more information now. (I checked, the site still exists.) So for that reason alone, I would recommend a name change.
posted by MexicanYenta at 5:55 PM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can call yourself whatever you want as long as there is no intent to defraud or hide from the law. It sounds like you have dropped using the name your parents gave you and have no reason or intention to return to it. I would start my life in new town with the new name you have been using.

I would ask a trusted friend or family member to sign the new lease. If that is not possible or practical, I would ask to sign lease in your new name. If they do a background check and cannot find new name. explain situation (not details) and offer to put up 3 months security deposit in lieu of passing the credit check.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:40 PM on December 17, 2011

I'm not an expert on name changes/going off the grid, so I can't speak to that. That said:

Your solution is subletting. Like thewestinggame said, you want a situation where one "primary" roommate pays rent and has his/her name on the lease, and you just pay them for rent and utilities. Normally, this isn't an ideal option, because it means you aren't involved with the lease at all. For you, though, it probably is ideal. Just be sure your roommate knows up front that you're looking for a long-term situation, and be extra-careful not to piss him/her off because you're living there under their permission.

As far as where you'll find this, Craigslist, under the rooms/share or temporary/sublets categories. (The former's better for long-term, although people mis-file ads all the time.) College towns are rampant with this sort of thing, because student housing is an unregulated Wild West full of blatantly breaking town ordinances and nobody caring. Big cities also have a lot of this sort of thing; the problem there is that it might actually be in higher demand than standard leases because no broker fees are involved. Of course, this assumes you have a roommate. I'm not sure how it'd work for a one-person apartment, but I imagine you'd definitely need a private landlord.

FWIW, Spokeo missed out on every single sublet I've done this way (although I also didn't pay for it.)
posted by dekathelon at 11:34 PM on December 17, 2011

deanc writes "If you sign a lease, it's not like it gets entered in a public database or something."

This is only sort of true. Many renter's black lists exist and you can get registered on these lists for essentially no reason at all.

JohnnyGunn writes "explain situation (not details) and offer to put up 3 months security deposit in lieu of passing the credit check."

Be aware: this is illegal in BC and though you are unlikely to get caught many landlords are going to refuse because it can leave them open to significant liability (2-3x the amount taken in excessive security deposit (IE more than 50% of a single months rent)).
posted by Mitheral at 12:30 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was able to get spokeo to delete my info by going to their FAQs and following their instructions.

posted by anniecat at 7:25 AM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm in the same situation as thewestinggame. Found my roommates (four students) on Craigslist, let the one who was coordinating the rental house know that I was steadily employed, etc., but had crappy credit. I was prepared to show paystubs and/or pay an extra couple of months as a deposit, but that didn't turn out to be necessary. He said I could be on or off the lease with him and one of the other roommates; I chose off. I pay with checks because that's easier, but he would have been just as happy with cash. Otherwise, I'm basically anonymous and could pretty easily have gone completely so, if I had needed to.

Five to six months' rent paid in advance around here will indeed get you in with most of the rental companies. I'm saving up for this, myself. Good luck.
posted by notquitemaryann at 1:07 PM on December 18, 2011

The problem is utilities. Look for a place to rent that includes utilities in the basic rent, obviating the need to put them in your name.

I've worked for a detective agency, and when trying to locate someone, the best ways are via credit report, and if you can narrow down what city someone is in, utilities. But credit is the #1 easiest way to find someone. It costs less than $12 to pull a "credit header" search. The _only_ way to not be found easily is to have no credit, which is pretty crippling in this day & age. It's possible to get by on debit cards, but not fun. But if you can't or don't wish to lock down the credit situation, then trying to hide from someone who really wants to find you is pretty damn useless.

I also hid from an ex. I wasn't sure if he was looking, but he made the threat, so I hid for five years, until I was sure he'd moved on. I had roommates (found through mailing lists before the advent of craigslist, and later roomed with coworkers.) Because I found roommates, utilities and phone were never in my name. I also moved more than 1000 miles away. I had no credit cards, and no loans in my name. If you don't want roommates, you can find apartment complexes that include utilities in the rent.

If he doesn't have your social security number, and you can trust people you know to keep a secret, think about changing your name. The fee is small, and you can download the form to file with the court from the internet.

Good luck.
posted by thelastcamel at 6:48 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm, just read the last question and realized you already have the credit situation sorted. So concentrate on not having utilities under your real name. And if the certain someone you're hiding from doesn't know what city you're in, even utilities in your name are pretty safe.
posted by thelastcamel at 6:56 PM on December 18, 2011

I know its like 3 months later, but anon, you should (if you havent already) read How to be Invisible by JJ Luna. I believe he offers a free download of the old version of the book here to give you an idea of what he writes about.
posted by Fiat124 at 12:12 PM on March 4, 2012

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