Being Anonymous, by Spotlight

I walked out onto the driveway to greet my wife as she backed the car in, arriving home from a long day at work. Right away, I noticed a magnet on the back of the car, proclaiming us to be members of our church, complete with our town name. “What’s up with that?” I said, looking at the magnet, as she got out of the car. She laughed and said the pastor of our church had put it on there when he saw her in the parking lot. I think she had laughed because she knew what I was going to say next , “That won’t make it until bedtime!” (It didn’t.) When I got into preparedness, I came across the “grey man” theory at some point. Reading it, I realized that I fit the profile, for the most part. I think of it more in the sense of being anonymous, but it’s close enough. The grey man theory is the idea of remaining unnoticed in general and not standing out, not being the one on television who’s being interviewed in regard to some controversial position, not being the guy everyone noticed because of his loud mouth or loud clothing, and that sort of thing.

I have actually been fairly anonymous all of my life, although I didn’t realize it until more recently. You know how some people are very noticeable? Do you know how everyone takes notice when they walk in a room, people talk about them when they’re not in the room, and everyone generally remembers what they said? I am the opposite. It never really dawned on me for most of my life. I’ve always been an introvert, always being more comfortable alone than in a group. In school I always had one or two close friends and never really a big group of them, despite being on numerous sports teams.

When I grew up, I became a police officer in the small town I grew up in. After a few years, I was promoted to detective and spent the rest of my career in that role, which I really enjoyed.

Since I was a cop in the town I grew up in, which as I mentioned was a small town at that, I was particularly careful about telling people where I lived and even more so after I got married and had a family to protect. People think that only big city cops have to worry about retaliation from criminals, when in fact I suspect that it is much more prevalent against small town cops. We’re a lot easier to find, since most big city cops I ran into didn’t live in the cities they patrolled. Those of us in the small towns tend to have repeat contact with the same criminals, and it’s easier to run into a small town cop on a force of 50 or less on purpose, than to find some cop in a city of thousands. On the occasion people asked me where I lived, depending on who they were (i.e. criminal or non-criminal), I either flat-out lied (to the criminals) and named a city where we had looked for houses so I could be somewhat knowledgeable of the area or was vague enough (to the non-criminals) so that it sounded like I had answered but really hadn’t told them much. In addition to being careful what I told people, I had an unlisted phone number and a PO box to get my mail, which was necessary since we first lived in an apartment with no direct mail service. The PO box just became another layer of security after we moved.

As I got into prepping and became familiar with the grey man concept, I realized that I had been born a “grey man” to some degree. For some reason, I am really good with names and faces, but no one seems to remember mine, even people I have met on more than one occasion. Perhaps it’s because of my introverted nature that I am not “rememberable” to people, but I have always found it somewhat humorous to go up to someone I met once or twice, call them by name, and watch as I see them looking confused as to who I am or why they know me while we talk. (I’ve often told my family that men are lucky. We can call each other “buddy”, “pal”, “boss”, and the always flattering “chief”, and no one is the wiser as to the fact that we have no idea who this guy is that we’re talking to!)

So, let’s get back to the car magnet my wife received. Why on earth anyone would drive around with a sign saying where they worship (and probably live) on the back of their car? It’s like those family magnets people put on their car, showing how many kids they have and what gender they are, then add a sticker from the local elementary school as well. So, you have just notified the world that you have X number of young children, what school they go to, and what town you live in. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Don’t get me wrong; I do know why people do it. They’re showing pride in their church, school, or even their family. I just think it’s poor OPSEC, at a minimum, and in some ways, dangerous.

Before I list my tips to being anonymous, here’s one word on the Internet. It was a game changer for privacy as we all know. Anyone who wants to can probably find me pretty easily, since a lot of public records are online for free or for a small fee. However, as one of my former co-workers said when we were discussing why we bothered taking privacy precautions as police officers, “Just because they can find it if they look hard enough, doesn’t mean we should give it to them for nothing.”

Being Anonymous:

  1. Unlist your phone number. If you’re already listed, I don’t know how much this will do to remove what’s already out there. At a minimum, tell the phone company you don’t want your address listed. (Yes, you can do that!) My unlisted number costs me less than $5 per month. As a bonus, I almost never get telemarketing calls. If I’m asked in a store for my phone number, I tell them it’s unlisted or give them my cell number, which is not connected to my home.
  2. Use a PO Box or UPS store mailbox. Yes, it’s a hassle to have to go somewhere other than the end of your driveway for mail. We actually do get some mail at our house, but we use the UPS store mailbox that I set up for a side business for most of our bills, checks, DMV paperwork, et cetera. It’s particularly helpful on the DMV paperwork. In the event my car gets stolen, the thieves won’t have my home address. In my state, the DMV is okay with a PO Box or UPS store address on the actual license or registration, as long as you provide them with your real street address for their records. Anytime I’m asked for my address, it’s the UPS Store one I give.
  3. Skip the flashy clothes or ones with controversial statements. One of the things I liked about being a cop was wearing a uniform. There was no picking out clothes everyday. Then I made detective and had to pick out clothes (and a tie!) everyday. Now that I’m retired, I wear mostly earth tones, nothing that screams tactical (i.e. “shoot me first” in a robbery), and either work boots or hikers. Before I was a cop, I was obsessed with police hats, sweatshirts, et cetera. Not long after I got on the job, I realized that not everyone actually likes the police, so that came to an end quickly. I have participated in events like praying the rosary outside Planned Parenthood without having to wear the t-shirt that goes along with it. I don’t wear shirts that advocate gun rights, but I could still go to a gun rights rally. I don’t think being anonymous keeps you from exercising your rights; it just doesn’t need to be on the shirt you wear.
  4. Keep stickers and magnets off the car. Similar to above, I don’t put stickers or magnets on my car that state my political beliefs either. Similar to the family type magnets or what school my kid goes to, no one needs to guess that I’m probably carrying a gun because I have five NRA stickers on my bumper. While we’re at it, maybe take off that license plate frame the dealer loves to put on every car they sell. First of all, why am I giving them free advertising? Secondly, no one needs to know where you got your car, since most of us buy them near where we live.
  5. Don’t drive a flashy, distinctive car. Speaking of cars, driving a flashy or distinctive car is definitely anti-anonymity. After I retired from law enforcement, I was a private investigator for a few years. At that time, we just happened to own a navy minivan that was about eight years old and a grey Ford sedan that was about the same age. Talk about perfect cars for PI work! I spent many hours in the back of the minivan, seats folded flat, sitting on a lawn chair, watching worker’s compensation scammers ply their trade. When I wasn’t on surveillance, the Ford was great for riding around in to conduct interviews or accident investigations. If I drove a lifted Ford F-150 with 35” mudders on it, I probably would not be too successful at sneaking around. Which car are people going to remember driving down their street?
  6. Avoid publicity as much as possible. As stated above, it’s much harder in the Internet age to do so than it was when I was growing up. My name still appears online in regards to some old cases I worked on and in things related to my old department. There’s nothing I can do about that. However, when I was invited to appear as an audience member on a national TV show in regards to the gun control debate, I politely declined.
  7. Recognize that some times you will be exposed. No matter how hard you try to be anonymous, it’s very difficult and sometimes you’ll be identified through no fault of your own. My wife joined a local organization and became its president after a few years. Unbeknownst to her until a year or so after her term was up, the national organization that oversees the locals had put all of the officer’s names, addresses, and phone numbers online! This was prior to our PI business being up and running, and it was during the time where we had moved away from the area where our PO Box was and we were only getting mail at our house. I think she was more upset than I was, mostly because her job sometimes requires her to deal with some angry people, so she wasn’t too keen on our address being so public. Again, we can’t control everything.
  8. Don’t be completely forthcoming when talking to people you don’t know. As an introvert, I don’t have too much problem with this, since I don’t spend much time engaged in conversation with strangers. But, even if you are an extroverted type of person, try to avoid giving your life story to everyone you meet. Most people are just being polite when they ask where you live or what you do and don’t have any evil motives. Even then, it doesn’t mean you have to give out your address. Even now, to people I meet who may ask, I generalize where I live by describing its close relation to the next town over, but that description is pretty broad in reality. I can always tell someone more about myself later if necessary, but I can’t “untell” them anything once it’s out of my mouth.
  9. Don’t attract attention to yourself by being the big mouth at the event or the one who is complaining loudly about some perceived bad treatment you received. This doesn’t mean not to complain if it’s warranted; just don’t make a big scene when it’s not necessary (and it’s usually not). In this day and age, you can bet your tirade will be on YouTube or someone’s Facebook page as soon as you’re done ranting.
  10. Don’t post anything online using your real name. I often see people posting on various websites with what appear to be real names and in some cases definitely are. I used to read one investigation related website that required real names! Note I said “read” as I would never have posted there or anywhere else with my real name. Some people claim it makes it harder for people to hide behind their pen names, which is probably true, but it’s also dumb. Luckily, SurvivalBlog allows and encourages us to use pseudonyms when posting.
  11. Get a shredder. We have had a shredder for many years, since way before they became really popular. Currently we have a small Fellowes brand shredder that cross cuts, which is way better than the old strip style shredding. Now they make ones that micro shred, which is even smaller than cross cutting.
  12. Don’t use social media. If you’ve read SurvivalBlog for any amount of time, you are probably aware of social media and its downfalls. Facebook is notoriously bad at maintaining its users’ privacy. Don’t do it!
  13. Turn off GPS tracking. I always keep my GPS software turned off on my phone and digital camera. One of my cop buddies used to tease me by telling me that I thought I was so important that someone would track me. I didn’t think that, but with the NSA listening to regular American’s phone calls, who knows who’s watching us anymore? Again, don’t give it away.
  14. Select an Internet birth date. I have what I call an “Internet birthday”, which is not my real birthday. If something on the Internet requires my birthdate, it’s my Internet birthday that I put down. Make it something you’ll remember easily but that’s close enough to your own that you don’t make yourself too much younger or older. Also, be careful where you use it. I once used it for a particular company where I didn’t think it really mattered and then months later when trying to verify who I was the rep asked me for my birthday. I forgot I had used my Internet birthday. Oops! Luckily I was able to identify myself in other ways, but be more careful than I was. Plus, I get to admonish my family every year when no one wishes me a Happy Internet Birthday on that day!
  15. Finally, don’t be paranoid. This probably sounds ironic, coming from someone who just described all of the things he does to remain anonymous, but as stated earlier, you can’t control everything. I used to do crime prevention surveys for residents of the town where I was a police officer. One of the things I used to tell our residents was, “if for some reason, someone wants to get into your house (as opposed to any house), they will, regardless of what you do.”

I hope this has been helpful to you in your quest to keep you and your family safe. I truly believe anonymity is an important part of being prepared.