Have you ever thought about who can find out where you live, what your phone number is, and other details of your daily existence? For many people, it’s not terribly important who knows these things, as long as nobody gets too creepy about encroaching inappropriately. What that looks like is a little fuzzy to those folks, but they’d know it if they saw it. For some of us, it’s a bit more concrete. We may already have folks who we want to keep as far out of our lives as possible, for a variety of reasons. There might be a violent or difficult ex-partner, family member, or stalker in our pasts, or someone we fear might become one. We may have jobs or some level of celebrity that puts us at risk from people who encounter us through our work. Or we may simply want to protect our privacy from strangers so that we can feel more secure from an invasion into our personal spaces. It used to be quite a bit easier to disappear from those we didn’t interact with regularly or closely, but the digital world has made a lot more information a lot more accessible. Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to make it harder for someone to track you down:
Get a post office or private mailbox. You will not be able to use the address for everything, but the more you can direct mail to a place you do not live, the less opportunity there is for your physical location to be confirmed. It may be inconvenient for you to get your mail, but you can minimize trips to your mailbox by switching to email delivery for as much as possible. You can also use the USPS Informed Delivery service so that you know when mail is delivered, or pay for a scanning service associated with a private mailbox so that you can have selected paper mail sent to you electronically.
Do not use the USPS mail forwarding service. The service will allow senders using certain envelope markings to receive your new address. Private mail forwarding or virtual mailbox services are safer, and can be used to make it appear that you live somewhere far away from your actual location. They will be more expensive, but also more flexible as you can change where your mail is forwarded to, and keep the service for as long as you like. If you must have USPS mail forwarded, consider having it forwarded to a post office box, private mailbox, or private forwarding service for an extra layer of privacy.
Limit who knows your residential address. Instead of inviting your friends over, meet them in other safe places. Don’t accept rides to or from your home, and consider using a nearby location for rideshare pickups or drop-offs. Even the most well-meaning people may accidentally let your address slip, especially if they are friendly with the person you don’t want to find you. Depending on your mutual relationships, they may be pressured to tell that person, and if they don’t know, they won’t be forced to lie or avoid answering. Some places will make it difficult or impossible for you to not provide your street address to them, so be clear that it is important that they do not share it with others.
Scrub yourself from online listings. Putting iterations of your name, location, email address, and phone number through search engines can be disturbingly enlightening. While most of the information listed on various “people finder” sites is public, it’s now much easier to find. Fortunately, almost all of the sites have an opt out or removal process. As your listings are removed, search engines will also update to remove that information. While you’re at it, make sure your social media is locked down and does not show location or other information that can help locate you, such check-ins to various places. You may also need to request removal from professional and hobby sites where you may appear.
Think twice before you make any legal filings or police reports that may include identifying information. This can become especially difficult if you are considering restraining orders, name changes, assault charges, or other important ways of involving the authorities in protecting you and your identity. In most cases, there may be a way to ensure that your contact information is not released in response to a records request. If there is not, you will need to weigh the benefit of filing versus the potential that your personal information could become publicly available. You are the only one who can determine which is the right answer under your specific circumstances.
Related to legal filings, you may want to avoid purchasing property or being an officer or owner of a legal entity. Those records are also public and often can be searched online, sometimes by just your name and without knowing where the property is located or what the entity is named. If you would like to own real estate anyway, consider using a trust or similar entity to own it; you’ll need to consult with an attorney on the mechanics of hiding your direct connection. Legal entities can use registered agent services to act as the public-facing contact. Don’t forget social and traditional media mentions too, as they may also need to be avoided or scrubbed.
Finally, for information that is already out there, see if you can change the truth of it. It can be a hassle, not to mention expensive, to get a new phone number or move to a new home, let alone change your name formally or informally. It can also be worth it, so that even if your information is found, it’s out of date. You might also create new social media accounts and carefully control who has access to the personal data and posts that you put up, or go back and delete or lock down old posts. That way, it will be more challenging to trace you over time or for you to inadvertently leave access open to someone you didn’t intend.
It is essentially impossible to completely disappear in the modern age. However, you can increase the effort necessary to find you and your contact information. Having your address and phone number appear via simple web search is one thing. Making someone jump through the hoops of individually finding and searching different public databases, paying money to get information, or having to show up in person or write a letter to inquire about records is something else entirely. Adding barriers is still worthwhile because it will discourage the mildly interested person, and slow down the motivated one, giving you a chance to know that they’re getting closer or to be able to stay one step ahead.