There's a reason data about your buying habits is considered the holy grail of ad targeting: your purchases can leak a veritable treasure trove of data about you. Unfortunately, the current financial system is anti-privacy by design, enabling banks, other companies, and governments to easily trace transactions. Nevertheless, you have plenty of options when it comes to making payments privately.
For centuries, cash has functioned as the primary form of private payment. Cash has excellent privacy properties in most cases, is widely accepted in most countries, and is fungible, meaning it is non-unique and completely interchangable.
Cash payment laws vary by country. In the United States, special disclosure is required for cash payments over $10,000 to the IRS on Form 8300. The receiving business is required to ID verify the payee’s name, address, occupation, date of birth, and Social Security Number or other TIN (with some exceptions). Lower limits without ID such as $3,000 or less exist for exchanges and money transmission. Cash also contains serial numbers. These are almost never tracked by merchants, but they can be used by law enforcement in targeted investigations.
Despite this, it’s typically the best option.
Prepaid Cards & Gift Cards¶
It’s relatively simple to purchase gift cards and prepaid cards at most grocery stores and convenience stores with cash. Gift cards usually don’t have a fee, though prepaid cards often do, so pay close attention to these fees and expiry dates. Some stores may ask to see your ID at checkout to reduce fraud.
Gift cards usually have limits of up to $200 per card, but some offer limits of up to $2,000 per card. Prepaid cards (eg: from Visa or Mastercard) usually have limits of up to $1,000 per card.
Gift cards have the downside of being subject to merchant policies, which can have terrible terms and restrictions. For example, some merchants don’t accept payment in gift cards exclusively, or they may cancel the value of the card if they consider you to be a high-risk user. Once you have merchant credit, the merchant has a strong degree of control over this credit.
Prepaid cards don’t allow cash withdrawals from ATMs or “peer-to-peer” payments in Venmo and similar apps.
Cash remains the best option for in-person purchases for most people. Gift cards can be useful for the savings they bring. Prepaid cards can be useful for places that don’t accept cash. Gift cards and prepaid cards are easier to use online than cash, and they are easier to acquire with cryptocurrencies than cash.
If you have cryptocurrency, you can purchase gift cards with an online gift card marketplace. Some of these services offer ID verification options for higher limits, but they also allow accounts with just an email address. Basic limits start at $5,000-10,000 a day for basic accounts, and significantly higher limits for ID verified accounts (if offered).
When buying gift cards online, there is usually a slight discount. Prepaid cards are usually sold online at face value or with a fee. If you buy prepaid cards and gift cards with cryptocurrencies, you should strongly prefer to pay with Monero which provides strong privacy, more on this below. Paying for a gift card with a traceable payment method negates the benefits a gift card can provide when purchased with cash or Monero.
Another way to protect your information from merchants online is to use virtual, single-use cards which mask your actual banking or billing information. This is primarily useful for protecting you from merchant data breaches, less sophisticated tracking or purchase correlation by marketing agencies, and online data theft. They do not assist you in making a purchase completely anonymously, nor do they hide any information from the banking institution themselves. Regular financial institutions which offer virtual cards are subject to "Know Your Customer" (KYC) laws, meaning they may require your ID or other identifying information.
These tend to be good options for recurring/subscription payments online, while prepaid gift cards are preferred for one-time transactions.
Cryptocurrencies are a digital form of currency designed to work without central authorities such as a government or bank. While some cryptocurrency projects can allow you to make private transactions online, many use a public blockchain which does not provide any transaction privacy. Cryptocurrencies also tend to be very volatile assets, meaning their value can change rapidly and significantly at any time. As such, we generally don't recommend using cryptocurrency as a long-term store of value. If you decide to use cryptocurrency online, make sure you have a full understanding of its privacy aspects beforehand, and only invest amounts which would not be disastrous to lose.
The vast majority of cryptocurrencies operate on a public blockchain, meaning that every transaction is public knowledge. This includes even most well-known cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Transactions with these cryptocurrencies should not be considered private and will not protect your anonymity.
Additionally, many if not most cryptocurrencies are scams. Make transactions carefully with only projects you trust.
There are a number of cryptocurrency projects which purport to provide privacy by making transactions anonymous. We recommend using one which provides transaction anonymity by default to avoid operational errors.
Privacy coins have been subject to increasing scrutiny by government agencies. In 2020, the IRS published a $625,000 bounty for tools which can break Bitcoin Lightning Network and/or Monero's transaction privacy. They ultimately paid two companies (Chainalysis and Integra Fec) a combined $1.25 million for tools which purport to do so (it is unknown which cryptocurrency network these tools target). Due to the secrecy surrounding tools like these, none of these methods of tracing cryptocurrencies have been independently confirmed. However, it is quite likely that tools which assist targeted investigations into private coin transactions exist, and that privacy coins only succeed in thwarting mass surveillance.
Other Coins (Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc.)¶
The vast majority of cryptocurrency projects use a public blockchain, meaning that all transactions are both easily traceable and permanent. As such, we strongly discourage the use of most cryptocurrency for privacy-related reasons.
Anonymous transactions on a public blockchain are theoretically possible, and the Bitcoin wiki gives one example of a "completely anonymous" transaction. However, doing so requires a complicated setup involving Tor and "solo-mining" a block to generate completely independent cryptocurrency, a practice which has not been practical for nearly any enthusiast for many years.
Your best option is to avoid these cryptocurrencies entirely and stick with one which provides privacy by default. Attempting to use other cryptocurrency is outside the scope of this site and strongly discouraged.
With cryptocurrency there are two forms of wallets: custodial wallets and noncustodial wallets. Custodial wallets are operated by centralized companies/exchanges, where the private key for your wallet is held by that company, and you can access them anywhere typically with a regular username and password. Noncustodial wallets are wallets where you control and manage the private keys to access it. Assuming you keep your wallet's private keys secured and backed up, noncustodial wallets provide greater security and censorship-resistance over custodial wallets, because your cryptocurrency can't be stolen or frozen by a company with custody over your private keys. Key custody is especially important when it comes to privacy coins: Custodial wallets grant the operating company the ability to view your transactions, negating the privacy benefits of those cryptocurrencies.
Acquiring cryptocurrencies like Monero privately can be difficult. P2P marketplaces like LocalMonero, a platform which facilitates trades between people, are one option that can be used. If using an exchange which requires KYC is an acceptable risk for you as long as subsequent transactions can't be traced, a much easier option is to purchase Monero on an exchange like Kraken, or purchase Bitcoin/Litecoin from a KYC exchange which can then be swapped for Monero. Then, you can withdraw the purchased Monero to your own noncustodial wallet to use privately from that point forward.
If you go this route, make sure to purchase Monero at different times and in different amounts than where you will spend it. If you purchase $5000 of Monero at an exchange and make a $5000 purchase in Monero an hour later, those actions could potentially be correlated by an outside observer regardless of which path the Monero took. Staggering purchases and purchasing larger amounts of Monero in advance to later spend on multiple smaller transactions can avoid this pitfall.
When you're making a payment in-person with cash, make sure to keep your in-person privacy in mind. Security cameras are ubiquitous. Consider wearing non-distinct clothing and a face mask (such as a surgical mask or N95). Don’t sign up for rewards programs or provide any other information about yourself.
When purchasing online, ideally you should do so over Tor. However, many merchants don’t allow purchases with Tor. You can consider using a recommended VPN (paid for with cash, gift card, or Monero), or making the purchase from a coffee shop or library with free Wi-Fi. If you are ordering a physical item that needs to be delivered, you will need to provide a delivery address. You should consider using a PO box, private mailbox, or work address.