How to cover your digital tracks and keep your holiday gifts a surprise

Don’t give away your plans.

Christmas presents
Don't ruin the surprise!Andrew Neel/Unsplash

During the holiday season, it's hard enough to decide which gifts to buy and organize their delivery. On top of that, you need to prevent your kids, spouse, and other family members from getting wise to your plans.

In the internet age, this operation is harder than ever before, because online shopping drops innumerable digital breadcrumbs. From a web browser that tracks your every move to a delivery company that sends regular updates straight to your phone, shopping services seem determined to leave clues that will ruin the element of surprise.

To avoid giving away your plans, you'll need cunning, craft—and a little digital trickery. Follow these five tips to minimize the risk of gift discovery before the holiday arrives.

1. Browse in private mode

As you move around the web, your browser collects information about your activity, which helps advertisers target you, but also makes your life more convenient—for example, if a browser remembers your location, then you'll never have to type it into a mapping or weather site. However, during the gift-buying season, this kind of tracking can spoil surprises, particularly if you share a computer with other people. One of the easiest and most effective solutions is to fire up your browser's private or incognito mode while you're shopping for gifts. Any browsing history or online actions you accumulate in this session will disappear as soon as you close the browser window.

To start a private browsing session, open File and then New incognito window or New private window, depending on your browser. There are also other methods: In Chrome, choose the menu button (three vertical dots) then New Incognito Window; in Firefox, hit the menu button (three horizontal lines) then New Private Window; in Edge, select the menu button (three horizontal dots) then New InPrivate window; and in Safari, you go with File then New Private Window. If you forget to launch a private session in advance, you can also cover your tracks afterwards by erasing your browsing history.

While private mode will convince your browser that you were never online, don't get too overconfident—you can still leave behind clues. For example, the retail website might have sent a confirmation email to an inbox you share with your partner. So browse away in this session, but remember to catch notification emails as they roll in.

2. Set up alternative delivery addresses

The delivery of an oddly-shaped package can give your gift game away in an instant. To prevent family members from spotting these presents, send them to alternative addresses. For instance, arrange for presents to be delivered to your office, an Amazon Locker, or the home of a friend who can keep them safe and hidden until the coast is clear and you're ready to smuggle them over to your own house.

If you're shopping on Amazon, setting up an alternative delivery address is easy. First, sign in to your account. Then, hover the mouse cursor over the Account & Lists button on the front page and choose Your Account, and then Your Addresses. Click Add Address to enter a new postal address, such as your office. When you place your order, before you confirm the purchase, you'll see a Change button on the checkout page, right next to the delivery address. Click this to pick any of the addresses associated with your account. You can even add a new address at this stage, if you didn't do so earlier.

Amazon also maintains independent locations where you can pick up your packages. When you place your order, look for the option to ship it to an Amazon Locker. Then visit that location when you're ready to pick it up.

Other retailers offer similar options for changing addresses and shipping gifts to alternative addresses. Just remember to double-check that you've selected the right one before ordering anything.

3. Check delivery confirmation settings

Normally, companies send order and delivery confirmations via text or email. While this practice is helpful, it creates another potential vulnerability where a family member might glimpse your shopping plans. To make sure no information that might give you away appears unexpectedly, check the settings for the shopping apps and sites you use.

For example, you don't want a delivery notification email to appear in an inbox you share with your spouse, or a mobile alert to show up while one of your kids is playing with your phone. To stop this from happening, either disable these alerts or reroute them to email addresses and numbers that you know no one else will check.

On Amazon, for instance, you need to hover over the Accounts & List heading, then pick Your Account. On the next screen, select Communication preferences to change your email address or Shipment updates via text to alter your cell phone number or disable alerts completely. For security reasons, you can't disable email alerts when you place an order, but you can at least make sure they go to a private account. Other retail websites and apps should have similar settings that you can tweak to avoid unexpected notifications.

4. Hide your screen activity

Even if you carefully erase your browsing history and arrange for items to arrive at alternative addresses, you can't entirely remove the possibility that someone will walk in on you while your computer screen is full of shopping secrets—say a webpage full of jewelry or Legos. Other than angling your laptop or tablet screen away from the doorway, you can employ a few extra tools to make your screen activity less obvious.

Take the Chrome add-on Decreased Productivity. It can turn every site into a drab, image-free wall of text. This may make it harder for you to shop online, but it will also make it harder for any interlopers to spy on your screen over your shoulder.

You can also download an extension, such as Hide Tabs for Chrome or Panic Button for Firefox, that will quickly minimize all your open tabs with one click. That way, you can pretend to be doing something other than Christmas shopping when somebody enters the room, and bring back the relevant tabs again when it's safe to do so. In the case of Hide Tabs, you can even password-protect the tabs you just dismissed, so they can't be easily restored by someone else.

Finally, some keyboard shortcut skills can work wonders. On Windows, press the Windows key and the down arrow key together to minimize the current window, and hit Windows+M to minimize all open windows. On macOS, you can minimize the current window with Cmd+H and take care of all open windows with Cmd+Option+H+M. Then all you need to worry about is keeping that guilty expression off your face...

5. Track your family members

Okay, this tip sounds pretty creepy, but hear us out: Monitoring others' locations should ring a few privacy alarm bells, but as long as you limit this tracking to your closest family members, it can be really useful at any time of year. When you can see your spouse, kids, or parents on a map, you don't have to call or text in order to make sure they got home safely, check what time they'll arrive for dinner, or arrange to meet up in a busy shopping mall. Of course, your teens may not be thrilled that you're tracking their every movement, but you and your family can decide where to draw the line by turning these tools on or off as needed.

Bringing this back to Christmas presents: If you know where certain people are, you can avoid having them surprise you while you're shopping for gifts, trying to wrap presents, or waiting for a delivery. In other words, a tracking app will let you double-check that the kids really are at soccer practice before you pull out the wrapping paper and tape.

Although you can find many tracking apps and services, we've written a full guide to sharing your location without compromising your security. If you just want a brief summary of recommended apps, then read on: We like the tracking tools built into Google Maps, Apple's Find My Friends feature, and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Google Maps (free for Android and iOS) lets you share your location with contacts, either for a limited time or until you switch the feature off again. To get started, tap the menu button (the three horizontal lines), then Location sharing, and then Add people.

Apple has a similar service called Find My Friends, though it only works on iPhones. The app comes preinstalled on iOS: Load it up, and you can tap the Add button to start sharing your location with other people. Once location sharing is approved, your contacts will show up inside the iOS app and in the iCloud web portal.

You can also share locations within conversation threads on certain instant messaging apps. In WhatsApp, tap the paperclip button (on Android) or the plus button (on iOS), and then select Location. On Facebook Messenger, tap the plus button then Location. Of course, this option might give away that you’re engaged in clandestine gift activity, but your family members won’t know exactly what that activity entails.