A Defensive Computing Checklist
by Michael Horowitz
PHONE NUMBER HIDING
You can increase your privacy by hiding your actual phone number and having an alternate number to give out when appropriate. Probably doctors should have your real phone number but if you check your coat at a museum, and they ask for a phone number, the museum can have the alternate.
Another reason for a second phone number is to use with Signal. If you are interested in secure messaging, many people recommend the Signal app, which uses a phone number as the userid. So, maybe create a second number just for Signal.
There is more than one approach to creating a second phone number.
- TextNow offers what I refer to as Wi-Fi only phone numbers that do both voice and texting. These are VOIP phone numbers that work on any Internet connected device (including 4G/LTE/5G data connections). No phone needed, its an app, so it can be installed on a tablet. Or multiple tablets. Or, an old cellphone that can only do Wi-Fi. The service is free with ads or $3/month without ads. When a call comes in, and no device with the app installed is on-line, they record an audio message, just like an answering machine in the old days, and email you that you missed a call. They also send a text transcript of any message left by the caller. I have used the paid service for a while. If nothing else, its a great defense against SIM Swaps as no cellphone companies are involved.
- In January 2020, TextNow started offering cellphone numbers on the Sprint network. If you have a phone that works on Sprint, they charge $10 for a SIM card. The service is free with ads or $10/month without ads.
- In October 2022, the Firefox email relay service was expanded to include a phone number relay service. This is not cell service, it is just a relay service designed to offer privacy, by hiding your real phone number. There is a dashboard website for configuring the service, no mobile apps are needed. The documentation is miserable, but I think the dashboard lets you block texts and phone calls that you don't want to receive. Mozilla offers some level of spam filtering too. It's not clear if that can be disabled or how it handles false positives.
Mozilla uses different terms for the phone number they provide: a Relay number, a phone number mask and a masked number. Amateurs. They do not explain what phone number shows up when you receive a call to the Mozilla phone number. You can not make a phone call from the Mozilla phone number. I don't think you can originate a text from it either. As for replying to a text that came in via the Mozilla phone number, its not clear to me what happens. Again, miserable documentation. When you sign up you are given a Mozilla phone number and it can not be changed. The service costs $4/month if you pay for a year at a time, or $5/month if you don't. This includes 50 minutes for voice calls and 75 text messages each month. If you exceed those limits, tough luck, Mozilla stops forwarding calls and texts. Not good. Maybe the dashboard shows where you stand in terms of talk time and texts? They don't say. The phone number is not a stand-alone service, it is an add-on to their email forwarding service. Mozilla phone numbers include unlimited email forwarding (which they call masking). The service is only available in the U.S. and Canada (as of Oct. 2022). More from Mozilla:
Mask your phone number with Relay Phone Masking and Protect your privacy and your phone number with Firefox Relay.
- Burner Accounts 101: How to Get Extra Numbers for a Smartphone by Eric Griffith for PC Magazine. Updated June 2020. Has a brief overview of Burner, Hushed, CoverMe, Line2, Flyp and Sideline.
- The MySudo mobile app combines a second phone number with three new email address into a profile/personality, which they refer to as a Sudo. You make phone calls, send/receive texts and send/receive emails from within the app. There is a limited free account, pricing starts at $1/month. iOS users also get three new disposable credit card numbers. Profiles can be deleted and new ones created.
- Ed Bott of ZDNet likes Line2. He explains (Dec. 2020) that it works on Android, iOS, Windows and macOS. It is a full-featured product offering voice, text messages, MMS messages, voicemail, etc. It can work over either a data connection (Wi-Fi, 4G) or a mobile network. The cheapest plan is $150/year.
- If you have an old cellphone, The tingmobile.com Flex plan can provide it cell service for cheap: $10/month for the phone number and $5/month for each gigabyte of data used. This includes unlimited talk and text. Ting does CDMA on Sprint or GSM on T-Mobile.
- Vyke offers up to four phone numbers with a single Vyke account. The service only works over the Internet (Wi-Fi, 4G) it is not a cell thing. It runs on Android and iOS and the app can be installed on tablets. You pay either by the week/month/year or by the minute for phone calls. They have phone numbers in the US, UK, France, Canada, Netherlands and Poland (as of Dec. 2020). You need a cellphone number to setup an account. I have not used it.
- I have heard good things about textverified.com. They give you short-term use of a non-VOIP phone number that can be used for SMS and Text Verification on their website. They get the text and display it on their site. The explanation of their services for new users is miserable however, I could make little sense of it.
- Google Voice is free but I would rather not have Google know more about me than they already do. Plus, it requires a cellphone number when you sign up, not the best way to hide said number.
- In episode 141 (Oct 2019) of his Security, Privacy and OSIN podcast, Michael Bazzell told of how he gets a phone number for a week for $2.50. He buys two pre-paid Mint Mobile SIM cards for $5 on Amazon. Each comes with a one week free, limited trial. He uses them to setup assorted social media accounts. Once setup, converting the accounts to 2FA means never needing the phone number again.
- On the June 26, 2020 episode of The Privacy, Security, & OSINT Show the show host, Michael Bazzell, went into detail on using a Mint Mobile pre-paid SIM card as part of a private cellphone number. He suggested buying the SIM cards at Best Buy and paying cash. Amazon also sells them.
- There are many other companies offering similar services.
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