How To Use Prepaid Debit Cards for Anonymous, Cash-like Digital Transactions

by April 23, 2013 04/23/13
Debit Cards

Prepaid debit cards are sold as gift cards at many stores and offered by Visa, Mastercard and American Express. These cards are purchasable with cash, which enables them to be used for anonymous, cash-like digital payments.

Once purchased the cards can be used like normal debit or credit cards, but to be used online, they must be registered on a Website. Purchasing goods with these cards doesn’t make much sense, since any physical item will require a real shipping address, but it’s an attractive option for paying for services. One could use an anonymous debit card to purchase VPN and prepaid cell phone services, both of which will contribute to preserving the privacy of your electronic communications.

When purchasing a prepaid card for anonymous use, it’s important to avoid cards which are reloadable. The reloadable cards usually involve actual credit and, as such, require a social security number to be activated. Non-reloadable cards only require a name and address. This information is never verified. It is only used in Address Verification System checks, which is the system that merchants use to verify that a person using a card to make an online purchase, is in fact the card owner. As long as the name and address you enter while registering the card is the same that you provide the merchant, the AVS check will pass.

Options

Visa, Mastercard, and American Express prepaid cards can be purchased at most grocery and drug stores. These stores will usually have a rack somewhere with a wide selection of store-specific gift cards, for places such as Amazon and iTunes, as well as calling cards, prepaid cell-phone cards and reloadable debit cards. The non-reloadable prepaid cards that you’re looking for will be somewhere on the same rack. They’ll be labeled as gift cards and tend to only be available in fixed amounts.

The nation-wide chain of Simon Malls all offer gift cards that can be purchased in any dollar amount from $20 to $500. You can choose between American Express and Visa cards. These gift cards are no different from the prepaid Visa and American Express cards available at your local grocery store, save for the Simon logo.

Simon claims that American Express cards do not need to be registered for online use. I’ve had trouble with American Express cards, both registered and un-registered and tend to avoid them now. I’ve never had problems with Visa or Mastercard cards at any merchant.

I purchase both types of cards. I’ve always paid with cash and I have never been asked for any identification.

Fees

The Simon gift cards require a $2.95 activation fee at the time of purchase, which is regardless of the value that you place on the card.

The un-branded cards also require an activation fee at the time of purchase. This varies based on the fixed-amount of the card that you’re purchasing. It tends to be somewhere between $3.95 and $6.95. The fees are the same for Visa, Mastercard and American Express.

Some of the cards will expire after a period of years and some of them will have monthly fees deducted for inactivity after the first year. These terms will vary depending on the card that you choose, but they tend to be irrelevant. You are not purchasing the card as a long-term value store. You are purchasing the card to use it and it will likely be depleted within a couple months, at which point you can go buy another one.

Limitations

Prepaid debit cards do have their limitations.

  • They cannot be used to withdraw cash at ATMs.
  • They cannot be used for subscription services with recurring billing.
  • They can only be used with US merchants.

The first limitation doesn’t affect us, since we’re discussing using these cards online. The second limitation may impact your intended use, but despite the card’s claimed limitation, I have successfully used them to pay recurring charges. I imagine that this depends on how the merchant does their billing.

The cards can be used to fund a new PayPal account, which allows us to avoid the final limitation, if the foreign merchant accepts PayPal. You can also sign up for subscriptions with a PayPal account funded by an anonymous debit card to address the second limitation.

Tor

Before they can used online, the anonymous debit cards must be registered so that they are able to pass AVS checks. Registration of the card can be completed anonymously through Tor. Tor is an implementation of onion routing, which is a technique used to anonymize digital communications by bouncing the packets through multiple nodes in the network. Before leaving your computer each packet is encrypted multiple times, such that each node in the Tor network can remove only one layer — like peeling off the outer layer of an onion. This prevents any of the nodes on the network from knowing both the origin and destination of the packet. Every node on the network, with the exception of the final exit node, is also prevented from reading the contents of the packet. If the packet was encrypted before being handed to Tor (such as with common web communications using the TLS/SSL protocol), the exit node will also be unable to read its contents.

The easiest way to use Tor is by downloading the Tor Browser Bundle. This is a version of Mozilla Firefox that has been tweaked for privacy, and communicates solely though Tor. The Tor Browser is available for Linux, OS X and Windows. It is simply a binary that needs to be extracted and run. It doesn’t require installation or any configuration.

Activating an Anonymous Debit Card through Tor

Registration

Each prepaid card comes with activation instructions that include the URL of the registration page. After visiting this registration page in the Tor Browser, you’ll be asked to enter a name, address and phone number. Remember that this address will only be used for AVS checks. No other verification will be done. Whatever name and address you use, make a note of it so that you can enter the correct billing information when using the card.

Use

After the card has been registered it’s ready to use. Any online use of the card should also be done through the Tor network to preserve your anonymity. If you decide to use the card with a PayPal account, register a new PayPal account through Tor.

Most online purchases will require an email address. Since you’re already in the Tor Browser, head over to Tor Mail and sign up for a new address to use with the card. If you want a quick disposable email address, try Mailinator.


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Kat Applebaum
Kat Applebaum

other than InstantlyBank, anyone know the best place to buy such cards? Reviews?

JacksonTaylor
JacksonTaylor

If you're really trying to be anonymous, can't they track to the place where the card was purchased?

JacksonTaylor
JacksonTaylor

If you're really trying to be anonymous, can't they track to the place where the card was purchased?

Greyman
Greyman

@Sara oh of course. they can be bought at any grocery store or gas station same place you get like gift cards to restaurants or shops.  Im pretty sure those payday lender places like Money Mart sell them too

Sara
Sara

Just read the article. Does anyone know if these cards are available here in Canada? Thanks

InBox485
InBox485

Just an add on thought to using these online. If you order something to be shipped by fedex, there is an option called hold at location. Once the item ships you go on the fedex website, enter the tracking number and select the hold at location option. You then pick a convenient pick up location.

Doing this you still have to use your name since Fedex will check ID for delivery, but you can use a completely bogus address as long as said bogus address matches the bogus address you register the card with. This severely complicates the paper trail.

InBox485
InBox485

Just an add on thought to using these online. If you order something to be shipped by fedex, there is an option called hold at location. Once the item ships you go on the fedex website, enter the tracking number and select the hold at location option. You then pick a convenient pick up location. Doing this you still have to use your name since Fedex will check ID for delivery, but you can use a completely bogus address as long as said bogus address matches the bogus address you register the card with. This severely complicates the paper trail.

Waykno
Waykno

Hint for 'some'--if one is so inclined--pay for the card in cash; do not register it; purchase services or goods but do not have it shipped and it is just like cash. If, for example, Wal Mart turned over all info, and every card sold was traced to all buyers but yours, they still wouldn't know who you are (remember you paid with it in cash). If one is up to nefarious ways, wear a ball cap, etc. Obviously, no on line stuff as it would have to be shipped.

MWS
MWS

I got two AmEx gift cards for my birthday and actually had no issues using them on Amazon - didn't have to register or activate the card at all, they just worked.

I've been accumulating Visa and MC gift cards as credit card rewards but I'm sure even though they don't have my name on them that they're linked somewhere in a database back to me.

MWS
MWS

I got two AmEx gift cards for my birthday and actually had no issues using them on Amazon - didn't have to register or activate the card at all, they just worked. I've been accumulating Visa and MC gift cards as credit card rewards but I'm sure even though they don't have my name on them that they're linked somewhere in a database back to me.

Chrisk
Chrisk

What protection do you have for online purchases, ie goods not received?

JS
JS

If you use Vanilla Visa gift cards, the registration consists solely of entering a zip code. Best to use the one where you plan to ship. Also, prepaid gift cards can be used with foreign vendors if they use PayPal, but not directly. Choose the PayPal for non-members option for best results.

Waykno
Waykno

In my experience, some cards must be registered to use on line but I have used others that require no registration. The first commenter makes a good point and is one of the reasons I use them from time-to-time. Generally, cards I have purchased at Wal Mart, registered or not, are only good with U.S. merchants. I too, refrain from the A.E. card.

Will
Will

I'm alittle confused... So do we register the card with a "fake" billing address and just replicate that billing address when purchasing online, but use a "real" shipping address?

Jason
Jason

Nice article. The only thing which strikes me is that the store the cards are purchased at can probably be traced by the card's individual number. If subpoena'd, they'd need to turn over their video footage, if they had it. So even if you managed to hide your purchase of whatever, if the seller's records were ever searched, the numbers of all accounts could be tracked down - possibly to you. Maybe better to purchase from a low rent bodega while wearing a hoodie or something.

modScheherazade
modScheherazade

This is a great suggestion. I would add, however, that there is one reason to use a prepaid debit card if you are purchasing goods online-- and that is that your actual bank credit or debit cards are not used, so if there is fraud or an issue with security on the vendor's website, there's an additional layer of protection, especially if you use a card with only the amount you'll be paying for that particular purchase.

N Z T
N Z T

@JacksonTaylor>> If they're really adamant about finding who it is, granted they can track the card back to the store.  Thanks to the initial activation, they plausibly could pinpoint the POS register that you bought it, this being dependent on software / tracking of the store.  There will be a camera (always is) and have your face if they succeed.


But honestly, the manpower behind it requires too much money if you're dodging like $400 in VPS or whatever.  And with that, VPS guys won't pursue unless you open 30 accounts at the same time, same method of card payments, etc..  That example is dodging $12000, that's sizable, and they might look for you.


Being that I am in the hosting business (dedi's), and funnily enough, VPS came up in a meeting last week.  This was talked about, and the network engineer team and legal business end agreed on a $2500 and $10000 dodge limits.  Under $2500 is IP trace and bark at the service provider, mid-range is grab some personal info and simple suit, over $10000 is an involved legal suit.  Keep in mind that this company is under $10 million worth.  Not very big, and can't do everything.  But, there is some number that our favorite 3-letter agency would love to see someone on their radar.  Unfortunately, I don't have that number, but I'd take a hearty stab and say it is above $10000.


All in all, if you're really that paranoid for anonymity, get someone off the street to help you out.  You might want to bump another $10 for a $100 card or something.  It'll eliminate that weak point of you actually being in that store.

Greyman
Greyman

@Sara oh of course. they can be bought at any grocery store or gas station same place you get like gift cards to restaurants or shops.

 Im pretty sure those payday lender places like Money Mart sell them too

Peter Hogg
Peter Hogg

I've never heard of that service before. That could definitely be useful. Thanks!

Peter Hogg
Peter Hogg

I don't know, but I doubt that you have much if any. That's another respect in which these cards are like cash.

K
K

Will, if you would like to refer back to the second paragraph, you'll see that the author has noted:

"Purchasing goods with these cards doesn’t make much sense, since any physical item will require a real shipping address, but it’s an attractive option for paying for services. "

As he says, having an item shipped effectively negates the annonimity gained from using the card. But the safety factor and peace of mind mentioned by the first commenter would still be a reason for going that route.

A well written article with useful tips, thank you.

K
K

Will, if you would like to refer back to the second paragraph, you'll see that the author has noted: "Purchasing goods with these cards doesn’t make much sense, since any physical item will require a real shipping address, but it’s an attractive option for paying for services. " As he says, having an item shipped effectively negates the annonimity gained from using the card. But the safety factor and peace of mind mentioned by the first commenter would still be a reason for going that route. A well written article with useful tips, thank you.

Fake Name
Fake Name

"Purchasing goods with these cards doesn’t make much sense, since any physical item will require a real shipping address, but it’s an attractive option for paying for services."

Peter Hogg
Peter Hogg

Absolutely. I refer to the cards as "cash-like" because, like cash, they do not offer full anonymity. Like you said, you still have to worry about security cameras. I think they're good enough for most threat models.

Not Disclosed
Not Disclosed

Most retail stores keep their security footage for 30-90 days. So after purchasing and activating the card, let them "cook" until sufficient time has passed for the footage to be overwritten.

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