En español | You're selling an old couch over Craigslist, and the person you're meeting asks for your mobile number to coordinate the exchange.
Or perhaps you see an ad promoting a vacation contest and the company wants you to text a code to be eligible to win. And while dipping your toe in a new “single seniors” app, your first date says to call when you arrive at the coffee shop.
The problem: All three of these scenarios require you to reveal your phone number.
What if the online classifieds guy turns out to be sketchy? Did entering that contest initiate a deluge of spammed messages and robocalls? Has your blind date turned out to be a creep and now he has your number?
For these reasons, giving out an alternative number is smarter, just in case.
Often called a “burner” number — something that can protect your privacy and is easily disposable if you want a different one down the road — these are even more relevant during the coronavirus crisis. Curbside pickup at your home improvement store may require a number. Teachers working online during the pandemic might be asked to provide a number for concerned parents. People working from home likely want to give out a different phone than their personal mobile number or home phone.
You get the idea. These burner numbers that scammers can use to shield themselves from detection also can shield you from revealing your personal phone number, one you can take with you even if you move out of state, to anyone you don't really know. The best part: Burner numbers, which you can get without buying a burner phone, are free.
TextNow available in U.S., Canada
TextNow. Available for iPhone and Android devices, TextNow is an 11-year-old app that gives you a secondary number for incoming and outgoing calls and text messages. It works on Mac and Windows computers and tablets, too.
All calls and texts to and from the U.S. and Canada are free. International calls require credits, which can be earned or purchased (and are very affordable). The first step is to select a desired area code and number that's available.
If you install this app on your existing smartphone, you'll notice the new ringtone is different from your main number. And you can change the tune and vibration if you like.
Also free are services such as call forwarding, caller ID, conference calls and voicemail. When it comes to messaging, TextNow supports emojis, gifs, photos, stickers and videos.
A bonus: If you don't have a smartphone, you can take a hand-me-down device from a friend or relative, reset it to factory specifications using instructions on TextNow's website and install this app to have a free phone number that will work on Wi-Fi. If it was a Sprint phone, it's already compatible for free cellular service. If not, you can buy a new SIM card to swap in from the company, a one-time fee, for $9.99.
Alternatively, TextNow also offers inexpensive phones and cellular plans that leverage the Sprint network. It can be completely free to use for calls and texts if you're willing to see advertisements, or $9.99 a month for an AdFree+ call and text plan. In 2018, the average American spent $99 a month on a phone plan, up nearly $23 from five years before.
All plans have no contract and you may cancel your plan whenever you like without penalty or additional charges. Along with requiring a phone that's compatible with Sprint, be aware a plan that includes data — so you can browse the Internet — starts at an extra $10 a month.
Google Voice can ring across all your devices
Google Voice. Another way to score a free secondary line is through Google Voice. Launched in 2009, it also works on both smartphones and the web.
It allows you to place and receive calls and texts through a free U.S.-based telephone number, chosen from available numbers in selected area codes. You will need a Google account, such as a Gmail address, to get going.
This one number synchronizes across your devices, so you can always be reached with your new number. Calls and texts are free within the U.S. and Canada, while international calls may be less than what your mobile carrier charges.
Google says spam is automatically filtered, plus you can block numbers you don't want to hear from.
Like TextNow, Google Voice supports forwarding calls and voicemail. Don't like listening to voicemail? Google Voice provides voicemail transcription so you can read the text of the voicemail via the app or have it sent to your email. Plus, all calls, texts and voicemails are stored and backed up to make it easy for you to search your history.
'Burner’ phones inspire Burner app
Burner. As the name suggests, the nearly 8-year-old Burner app also lets you create a secondary, throwaway number on your smartphone.
Free to download and try for a week — additional time and numbers are available through in-app purchase from $1.99 or a subscription for $4.99 a month — the app first has you choose a phone number in available U.S. or Canadian area codes, such as 312 for Chicago or 650 for the San Francisco Bay area.
Calls and texts work like those to your main cellphone number, but they're routed through your fake phone number. The app also supports texting and picture messaging plus spam blocking.
Be aware phone calls through your new number use up your regular mobile phone minutes, and texts use your regular number's data.
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Call incognito via smart speaker
Finally, you can make anonymous calls through your favorite Amazon or Google smart speaker. With Google Assistant, the recipient will see only the words “private number” or “anonymous” show up on caller ID automatically; Amazon says Alexa’s default is to show the phone number you registered on its app as your caller ID, but you can change that in the Alexa app. (Anecdotally, my number shows up as “Private” when I call someone through my smart speaker without changing the setting.)
Using your voice, you can dial any 10-digit number in the U.S. and Canada. With Amazon devices, you also can call Mexico and the United Kingdom.
It uses the internet to make calls, known as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology, so no landline is needed. And it’s completely free.
You have a few ways to do it:
First, say the “wake word” — “Alexa” for Amazon devices, or “OK, Google” for Google Home speakers. Then say “call” or “dial” followed by the 10-digit number. If a person is among your smartphone’s contacts, you can say “Call John Smith,” “Call Mary Jones” or “Call Dad,” making sure that you use the name you’ve typed into contacts.
Or you can use a smart speaker to call a business, even if you don’t know the specific address, by saying something like “Call the Home Depot near First and Third streets,” and that will work, too. Be cautioned, though, that you may be unable to respond to voicemail prompts after you’ve reached the main number.
Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak.