Are you stuck in a bad marriage, or is a stalker on your trail? Do bill collectors call more often than your friends? Are you dogged by things you did in your misspent youth? Or are you just fed up with being tracked, monitored, and “databased” by intrusive corporations and the government? If so, consider becoming someone else. You certainly won’t be alone—experts say up to 8 million americans are using some form of altered identity.
You can start your life over as a new person, and there are plenty of consultants, books, and businesses who will make sure you do it right. Take John Q. Newman, for instance, who writes about techniques for changing identities and runs a consulting firm for those who want personal assistance in disappearing.
“Most clients I try to talk out of living under a new identity because of the difficulty that’s involved,” Newman says. “It’s clear they haven’t thought about all of the real problems that they’ll face.”
Besides potential legal hassles, there’s the pain of leaving your life and identity behind. But if you’re willing to make the sacrifices—or if you don’t have a choice—the mechanics of becoming someone else are easier to manage than you probably think. First, decide who you want to be. “That means you’ve gotta pick a name, a birth date, stuff like that,” says Newman, author of The I.D. Forger, “and then you have to commit that to memory.” Be able to sign your new name without hesitation, and know your invented life story forward and backward.
Now you’re ready to get the official papers that establish the brand-new you. The key is to obtain a new birth certificate, which is called a “foundation document,” because it enables you to build a cache of IDs. “Over a period of a few months,” Newman says, “before you know it, you can have a whole wallet full of new identification in the name that you become.”
There are at least three ways to snag a birth certificate. One classic method is to cop one belonging to someone who was born around the same time as you but died young, preferably before the age of 10, Newman says. To find a person like that, he suggests reading obituaries in old newspapers at libraries. The ideal candidate would be a kid who was born in one state and died in another, which lessens the chances of the records being cross-indexed. “Then you write for his birth certificate and get it,” he says.
Be warned that this method has some serious downsides, according to Newman. “If you can find that child, how do you know that six months later somebody else looking to do the same thing won’t find the same kid?” he says.
The best strategy may be to create your own birth certificate, which isn’t hard in the age of Photoshop and color printers. Even though there are shady types who will make new IDs for you, it’s best to do the forging yourself. “Creating your own eliminates a witness that can someday be interviewed or paid off to rat you out,” says Sheldon X. Charrett, author of The Modern Identity Changer: How to Create a New Identity for Privacy and Personal Freedom, in an e-mail interview.
Once you’ve wrangled a birth certificate, you’ll be able to get a Social Security card as well. Armed with these two documents, you can begin collecting more identification: a driver’s license, passport, library card, health club card, and so on. You can open a bank account in your new name.
Now you’re ready to flesh out your identity by creating a history. Newman says fashioning a work record is easy, since all that’s required are secretarial agencies to function as mailing addresses for previous jobs. When potential employers get in touch with these so-called companies, you simply give yourself a glowing recommendation.
Fake college transcripts require forging, but that’s no problem. Decide which university you graduated from—avoiding such high-profile schools as Harvard, Duke, and MIT—and place an ad in the student newspaper offering a job at 15 to 20 percent above the average salary. Naturally, all applicants must send their college transcripts.
After you get legitimate samples to work from, do some shopping at the numerous Web sites that sell the same kinds of paper used by colleges for transcripts. You can even buy software that allows you to print the school’s emblem and plot the course numbers, credit hours, etc. Refer to the university’s catalog or site to find out exactly which courses you took. Want to graduate summa cum laude? Just type it in. “I think that once the transcripts are done properly, they look as good or better than the stuff from the real schools,” says Newman.
By this point, you’re the proud owner of a new birth certificate, Social Security number, driver’s license, Sam’s Club card, an American Express card, and a degree from the University of Arizona. Good news, says Newman: “On a given day you can decide to walk into this new identity, and it’s fully functional.”
As you prepare for the big plunge, Charrett advises sticking to old routines to avoid giving any hint of what’s to come. “If you plant a garden every year, be sure to do so the year you leave, even if you never expect to see the fruit it bears,” he says. “When you decide to go, leave everything behind. This includes your favorite books and videos, money in your accounts, automobile, pet parrot, whatever.”
Not only do you have to leave possessions behind, you should cease all contact with family, friends, and lovers. Never return to your home state or any bordering state. Get into a new line of work, and give up any unusual hobbies, such as skydiving or growing bonsai trees. These things are just too easy to trace.
If people are looking for you, even your spending habits can give you away. “Maybe you wear size 11 ice skates and can’t get through the winter without your CCMs,” says Charrett. “As a good identity-changer, you must leave your ice skates behind. If you buy new size 11 CCMs next fall, you can be tracked down. . . . Do you donate $500 every year to a particular cause or charity? Not anymore you don’t.”
It’s also a good idea to change your physical appearance. Grow your hair or cut it. Lose or gain weight, and dress in a different, though conservative, style. Trade glasses for colored contacts. If your eyes are strong, wear nonprescription glasses. “Disguising yourself as the opposite sex is generally very effective,” Charrett says. “Even when conducting a thorough ‘all points’ search, authorities automatically exclude individuals of the opposite sex—even when they otherwise match the profile.”
Don’t worry too much about biometric identifiers, such as fingerprinting and even the more exotic methods like retina scans. These only matter if they’re already on file under your former identity. Otherwise, they can actually help you. “Let’s say you have a person who’s changed their identity, and they’ve never been arrested before,” explains Newman. “Under their new identity they get arrested or they get fingerprinted for a job. What happens is that the fingerprint hardens their new identity because their fingerprints now are going to be under their assumed name.”
If your old self already has biological markers on file, there are still ways around that. Even the more advanced biometric techniques can be fooled. Retina scanners read the pattern of blood vessels at the back of the eye, which are as unique to each person as fingerprints. Charrett suggests putting an allergen in your eyes about an hour before being tested, because swollen vessels could possibly foil the scanner.
All of these changes can mess with your head. Besides becoming paranoid that you’ll be discovered, you also have to worry about suffering a complete mental breakdown, according to Charrett. “When a person can no longer perform the work they’ve always done and can no longer associate with the people and places they’ve always known, one’s sense of self can erode rapidly,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen. A person will either find a new sense of self or go insane.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 18, 2000