How can I hide completely?
June 22, 2007 10:51 AM   Subscribe

How do I hide properly? Is a PO Box enough?

I'm moving to a new apartment, and I don't want my parents (specifically) or anyone (really) to know where I'm going to be living. (I don't live with them currently, but they do know my current address -- in case it's relevant) It's a local move, so it's still in the same general area, but the area is populous enough that it's plausible that I won't run into them. I'll probably still be in contact with them, but I'd rather they not know where I live.

I've already signed the lease, so my name is already there. I don't think my landlord is going to publish those details anywhere, though. Am I wrong? I intend to talk to him about it, if it's a personal decision on his part, but I don't know if it's standard operating procedure or anything. What else do I need to do to prevent my name and address from being listed? So far, my plan is to get a PO Box and have my mail forwarded there. Is that overkill/not enough? Do I need to do anything else?

I started thinking about it when I realized that I currently get lots of junk mail targeted to people from my ancestors' home country (yes, I'm being intentionally vague) -- my name is obviously [whatever]. This makes me think that there are giant lists out there somewhere with names and addresses, and people who have stuff to market just pick names off the list to send to. How do I keep my address off those lists? I guess I don't really mind if a PO Box address gets on those lists, as long as it's not my actual living address.

I won't have my name on any utility bills, I won't have a landline for the phone. What else is there? Throwaway address:
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Obviously, make sure you don't file a change of address form with the USPS.
posted by inigo2 at 10:58 AM on June 22, 2007

Well, in order to sign up for a PO box, you'll need to show an ID. I think it's a post-9/11 thing, althought it could be a post-War-on-Drugs thing. So the Post Office will know your real identity, and your real address (whatever's printed on your ID -- presumably your old address if you haven't updated it to reflect your new apartment yet). You used to be able to go to Mail Boxes Etc. type places and pay cash for a PO Box, but I'm pretty sure they make you show ID now, too.

But at any rate, unless the people you're hiding from have a relationship with the police, your anonymity is probably protected by the Post Office pretty well.

If you're renting from a small landlord, I don't think they would publish your name or address anywhere -- it doesn't become a public record or anything (at least not that I'm aware of). But you could just let them know that you're prefer your name not be released to anyone without your permission. They might look at you a bit funny but I don't think it's that ridiculous of a request. (If you're female, you might get less of a weird reaction than if you're male; just a guess.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:04 AM on June 22, 2007

I did this. Not parents: crazed people I went to school with. (I stopped answering their phone calls, so they drove FIVE STATES to sit outside my apartment for a few hours, until I came home. Yeaah, I got a PO Box when I moved.)

If you're renting, your name isn't going to be published anywhere. I've rented from people and from megacorps, and I think the key is not having a land-line. Don't sign up for anything with your address, don't put it on anything, and if you want to get really paranoid, see if the local Mailboxes etc will do package receipt for you.

Junk mail via your name will eventually end up at the PO Box, and junk mail to 'recipient' is going to come to your physical mailbox, which is generally unavoidable, especially in cities where everyone wants to let you know they deliver and you need to vote for Phil.

USPS is going to know who you are - as others have said, they are going to need to see your ID, and other places are as well, post-2001 - but they aren't going to tell anyone without police involvement, as long as you're just getting mail and not bombs or illegal objects. As others have said, set up your change of address is going to go to the PO Box.

Now, here's a note: I live in a decent-sized city and it took four months from my request to my PO Box being available. This might be another reason to go through one of the other companies.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:19 AM on June 22, 2007

It sounds like you're covered pretty well now, and I don't think a PO Box is overkill. Not having a land line for your telephone (not even an unlisted one) helps a great deal as well. I see no reason for your landlord to "publish" your information, but it would be a good idea to ask.

The major harvesters of my name and address for junk mail are as follows:
  • Land line telephone
  • Charitable organizations
  • Creditors (credit cards, mortgage)
Besides those, one rarely used source is voter registration. It's surprising how much personal information ends up on usa-people-search or zabasearch and available for a few bucks.

Also, I used to know somebody who was a skip tracer and they have a knack of finding people that's amazingly low tech. They'll start by sending a letter to your last known address to see if it bounces back with a good address. I've even seen them get information simply by phoning a family member or friend that knows where you are, and getting information by making them think they're a long lost friend.
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:21 AM on June 22, 2007

For a ton of ideas about how to disassociate your physical address from your identity, check out the book How to Be Invisible.

I started using a commercial mail-receiving agency (CMRA, like MailBoxes Etc.) for business stuff, and it has cut down on some of my home catalog spam. But when I signed up for the box, I has to fill out a USPS form that tied my new box to my home address. Not a big deal to me, but the book I mentioned has some alternative (and not-completely-legal) ideas.
posted by pb at 11:22 AM on June 22, 2007

If someone wants to sue you, they can contact the Post Office and find out who owns your PO Box. See for links to the form, etc.
posted by fings at 11:23 AM on June 22, 2007

This thread at FatWallet is a good guide to making yourself invisible from everyone, even those you do business with from the new location. Their intent is asset protection, but many of the same principles apply.
posted by smackfu at 11:24 AM on June 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

there must also be a clean break between your old phone service and your new phone service. the telcos sell your info to data aggregators, and sites like zabasearch get it from them. you go into their phone store and apply for new service, and when you do this, put a dummy initial in your name to make it more confusing for the aggregators (and to let you know when the telco has sold your name after you've already opted out). don't give them your social security #, pay a cash deposit if you have to instead. this will also give you the opportunity to ask for a custom, easy-to-remember #, you probably won't get one of the prestigious "thousand numbers" but you might get one that spells something, perhaps s-t-a-r, f-i-s-h, or even the old 3825.
posted by bruce at 11:28 AM on June 22, 2007

As a point of reference, I can tell you that when we moved and did not get a landline phone, we fell way off the people finder map. The only place that got our address that we did not specifically tell (I think) was our university's alumni association. We've had no junk mail for over two years. I've even searched the "people finder" databases and none of them have any idea where we are.

We're obviously not trying to hide like you are, but I'd say that you are on the right track.
posted by achmorrison at 11:56 AM on June 22, 2007

The only place that got our address that we did not specifically tell (I think) was our university's alumni association.

OMG, alumni associations are the most persistent organizations ever. The CIA should recruit from them.

I remember seeing a recent AskMeFi question about legally changing one's name, and the fact that you don't have to go to court to do it. I'm too lazy to search, but the gist of it was that you just start using your new name.
posted by desjardins at 12:16 PM on June 22, 2007

Good wisdom in here... over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the telcos are a MAJOR source of privacy loss. I do not know if there's an effective way to keep them from selling my information out or even if there are any alternatives, and even so how would you get DSL or cablemodem? It's a real sticky area. I also think utility companies are a concern, but less so.
posted by zek at 12:25 PM on June 22, 2007

(also cablemodem = cable companies, I know... same problem, I'm sure Time Warner is no better)
posted by zek at 12:26 PM on June 22, 2007

When you move, you're required by law to change your address with the DPS and get a new drivers license (at least Texas law, but I think it's the same throughout the US)

If you give them your new correct address, then you open yourself up to lots of people finding you because the DPS sells their databases in may places.

Your state might allow you to use your PO box for your license. If it doesn't, consider using a friends or family address.
posted by lockle at 12:40 PM on June 22, 2007

The Post Office, despite security precautions, is prone to social engineering. Yes, I know this for sure.

If your family are the social engineering kind, I'd contact each company to change the address and write off the mail you'll miss, rather than using a change of address form.
posted by SlyBevel at 12:41 PM on June 22, 2007

Your state might allow you to use your PO box for your license. If it doesn't, consider using a friends or family address.

A box at a Mailboxes Etc type business is actually considered a "physical" address, because your address with them will be something like "825 Main St PMB 25" (the PMB stands for "personal mail box").
posted by anastasiav at 12:48 PM on June 22, 2007

You don't need to provide a physical address to the Post Office to get mail. Many homeless people have their mail addressed to General Delivery at the main post office wherever they live. It's meant for travellers or new residents but there's nothing to stop you from using General Delivery on an extended basis.
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:21 PM on June 22, 2007

If you are employed, the IRS will have your new address when you fill out a W2 or W9. In the latter case, I suppose you could incorporate in order to obscure your real address. I don't know if you can use PO boxes for either.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:37 PM on June 22, 2007

Don't register to vote.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:57 PM on June 22, 2007

What if in addition to anonymity you went the red herring route somehow? Make all sorts of fake footprints leading in other directions while you simultaneously cover your own. I think I read that in a book once.

Perhaps the same prinicple could apply some how to the identity trail. Knowingly register for things using your real name but fake info for data you know will be sold and eventually end up public record. (except of course you dont want to register to vote with a fake address, i think thats a felony)

Anyone trying to track you down would grow frustrated at all the fake leads and hopefully give up.
posted by jlowen at 2:30 PM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're going to run into problems with opening bank accounts and credit cards also. I think as a provision of the Patriot Act they have get a physical address from you. You could probably just give them address of the Post Office branch and that'll work but I haven't tried that yet. Also I think the library has to have verification of your physical address as well before they'll issue your card. The one I use has a yearly expiration date so you have to bring in proof of your address every year.

I don't know about other states, but I've been able to use a PO Box on my driver's license. I can also use it on my W-2 without any problems. I was also able to file with the IRS directly using my PO Box on my 1040 so I think most of your problems will be on a local level.
posted by redtriskelion at 2:47 PM on June 22, 2007

I used to work at a Mailboxes Etc (now UPS Store). It's true that a "commercial mail-receiving agent" (CMRA) must see a legit ID with a legit address in order to sign you up (this was true long before 9/11). In theory, you could present your ID with your old address and they'd be none the wiser—though occasionally we would try to reach our customers via postcards at their (supposed) home address if their box was overflowing or something like that. We'd also occasionally get would-be scam operators who would try to "chain" boxes, using a box at one CMRA as their home address for getting a box at another.

A CMRA will be much more expensive than a PO box. If the place is well-run with experienced staff, they'll stonewall anyone trying to get past them to you.
posted by adamrice at 2:51 PM on June 22, 2007 will act as your mailing address for bills. They'll scan in anything that is sent to them. They also forward on items that can't be scanned. So if people need to contact you, you could give them the Sioux Falls address instead. Of course, paytrust knows where you are. And they aren't set up to hide your permanent adress, but they might work well for you.
posted by about_time at 3:46 PM on June 22, 2007

Also be careful that you and your residential address don't end up on WHOIS if you are a website admin contact. Do not become a director/insider of a public company, either.

I can totally relate. My mother's been pestering me for years with inane letters/postcards. We put the 'fun' in dysfunctional.
posted by solongxenon at 3:46 PM on June 22, 2007

I am currently in this situation. My family still has no idea where I live - they think I live at my Mail Boxes Etc PO box address, which is conveniently a "street" address. Anyway, here's what I did:

To sign up for the PO Box, I needed to show my drivers license and address. Conveniently, my drivers license showed my aunt's address. Signed up for the PO Box. After that, went to DMV and changed my address to the PO Box. As long as I keep the PO Box bills paid, I'm guessing Mail Boxes Etc won't send postcards and whatnot to my aunt.

Attempted to register to vote (absentee) at the same address, only to get a leaflet in my mail a week later: The address listed is a business address, blah blah blah, please provide your actual residential address. I threw the letter away and I guess I just won't vote.

When any forms come up asking for my address, I put down the PO Box. My bank, credit card, college bills, everything bills, they all end up at the PO box.

Currently, I'm renting a room in a house. My name is on a renter's agreement, but only my first and middle name. My full name is on the checks that I use to pay rent (although that can be avoided by paying cash), and the address on my checks is, again, the PO box.
posted by Xere at 5:29 PM on June 22, 2007

Don't forget you'll be listed in the phone book by default. It's pretty easy to be unlisted, or to list without putting in your address (eg. "J Merriam, Concord... 999-9999").
posted by joannemerriam at 5:33 PM on June 22, 2007

Some CMRAs will also route your mail correctly if you put something like ' Apt #1313' instead of 'Box #1313'.

I don't know about where you're moving to, but in my case, I went out to the area I was moving to ahead of time and scouted around until I found a local place that did this as a side business instead of a MailBoxes etc. It's been a LOT cheaper ($30/yr), and they didn't care that my address wasn't local, but they don't have the range of services that a MBEtc has.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:59 PM on June 22, 2007

My family still has no idea where I live - they think I live at my Mail Boxes Etc PO box address, which is conveniently a "street" address.

Of course anyone who looks up the address will immediately realize that it is not a residence.
posted by grouse at 7:01 PM on June 22, 2007

Of course anyone who looks up the address will immediately realize that it is not a residence.

Why? Couldn't he live in an apartment over a storefront? Happens all over this great country.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:33 PM on June 22, 2007

Private mailboxes have another advantage over p.o. boxes, you can get UPS and Fedex there. They can't deliver to p.o. boxes.
posted by Melsky at 7:59 PM on June 22, 2007

As for the phone thing, go with a prepaid cell if you dont use the phone too often.
posted by itheearl at 9:02 PM on June 22, 2007

Don't forget you'll be listed in the phone book by default. It's pretty easy to be unlisted, or to list without putting in your address (eg. "J Merriam, Concord... 999-9999").

The poster said they weren't getting a landline, but I thought I'd throw this out anyway: You can have the phone company put another (fake) name on the directory listing. I picked Samantha Jones. She got quite a few calls, but she was a very popular lady and never at home.
posted by Monday at 9:47 PM on June 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes, I had the landline in a fictitious name for more than 10 years, no worries. Natalie Green got lots of junk mail, I got very little.
posted by goo at 1:28 AM on June 23, 2007

You could change your last name. Of course, where I live (Indiana) you have to post a notice in the newspaper about it - but I don't think it states which newspaper - I'd pick some obscure one at the other side of the state.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:57 AM on June 23, 2007

JohnnyGunn: Let's take the example of a UPS Store in Austin. First, after looking on Google Maps, it seems extremely unlikely that this kind of development would have storefront apartments. Once suspicions are raised, googling for the address and PMB makes it pretty clear this is a place that has private mailboxes, not apartments. I know I've done this before when trying to check out a business. Maybe the people anon is hiding from are no

And I picked that store specifically, because most of the others in Austin are already a suite within a building, and 123 Main St Ste 34 Apt 99 would be pretty hard to explain (not to mention violates postal regulations).
posted by grouse at 4:13 AM on June 23, 2007

GrandCentral will let you obscure your real phone number, screen/block calls, as well as many other handy things.

This would work well if you're still in phone contact with your parents, but don't want them to have a phone number tied directly to you.

You can get grandcentral numbers for almost every state.
posted by nazca at 7:58 AM on June 23, 2007

Of course anyone who looks up the address will immediately realize that it is not a residence.

After you get your PO box, when asked for your address instead of saying "box #" list the number like it's an apartment # at the street address of the PO (although I've heard mail addressed like that would no longer be delivered). A security expert recommended doing this with the DMV ('zat what y'all call the DPS in Texas, lockle?) so preditory criminals wouldn't discover your address, when they steal your driver's license.

And for the change of address, you can specify it as either permanent or temporary -- if temp, they just discard or return any of your mail, after a certain interval (90 days?) instead of the year or two otherwise. That can be advantageous.
posted by Rash at 2:44 PM on June 23, 2007

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