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How easy is it to get a new identity in this country?

January 5, 2010 - Andrea Johnson
How easy would it be to disappear in this country in this day and age when cameras are everywhere and we all leave electronic fingerprints everywhere we go?

I found myself wondering that when I read this weekend about Lisa Miller, the woman in Virginia who went on the run with her daughter instead of giving custody to her former lesbian partner. Just how would she go about going underground?

Say she uses her credit cards. Cops would be able to track the time, date and place she used them. If she withdrew money from an ATM, her face would appear on the surveillance footage. If she got gas at a gas station on the interstate, her face would show up on camera at the gas pump. If she and her daughter checked into a motel, they'd require her to give a credit card and a license plate number. Maybe the motel clerk has been watching the news and saw pictures of her and the girl.

Hopefully it's harder these days than it was 10 years ago to look up some dead child's gravestone in the cemetery, obtain a birth certificate for the child and get a driver's license. That was the old method of changing an identity.

But there are still sites on the Internet promising to sell would-be fugitives a surefire way to get legitimate ID and establish a brand new, totally clean record.

The testimonials on one such site are pretty chilling and suggest maybe it's easier than I think. Keith from White Plains, N.Y. thanks the site because he had a DWI conviction and couldn't drive to work anymore. Using this system, he claims, he now has a new, government-issued driver's license under a new name and can keep driving to work. Thanks to, there's at least one drunk still on the road. And here's a testimonial from "Mary Somewhere in the USA" that could just as easily come from Miller: "Thanks for your quick response to my last e-mail a couple of weeks ago. I had ordered the service because of my ex who constantly found me over and over after three different moves! Using the initial packet and and the answers from your last e-mail I am now confident that he will NEVER be able to harass me or my son again!" I suppose we can give Mary the benefit of the doubt and assume that she's an abused woman with sole custody of her son and the ex has no parental rights. On the other hand, maybe she's on the lam from a father who won custody of the child in court and she is a nut who ought to just have supervised visitation.

This particular site seems to be used mainly by people up to no good: people with a spotty work history, people with credit reports that look more like a wanted poster, people who don't want to tell employers they have a criminal record. I would imagine it's a popular site with convicted sex offenders who are on the state's sex offender registry and, most worrisome of all, terrorist cells.

I don't think people would have much trouble finding anything they wanted to know about me with the most cursory of background checks. Even if I went on the run for some reason, all they'd have to do is report me to book stores and libraries around the nation and they'd nab me as I came out of some library door with an armful of books. As anyone who watches crime procedurals knows, people in the witness protection program have to change all their old habits or they get caught. I'd never be able to give up reading.

Even with the assistance of that surely illicit Web site, I'd guess that Mary and Keith both have some similar quirk that will trip them up if the cops really want to find them. So does Lisa Miller, probably.

What I worry about is the terrorists who are using similar illegal methods to get ID that will let them walk on to planes with bombs even if their names are listed on the government's "no fly" list. We live in scary times.


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