False Identities

Many years ago, probably ten or more, the Financial Times weekend comic, How to spend it published an article on how to establish false identities. That intrigued me at the time and I was always tempted to have a go. I guess it's too late now as the government databases are established and talking to one another, and it is all rather serious in this age of international terrorism. Nevertheless, the subject playes a key part in a story I am trying to write at the moment and so I dug out the article from the Interesting Stuff folder in the filing cabinet and here it is.

Ah, setting up the illustrations, I see that the page includes a date - 8th January 2000 - just over ten years.

A word of warning, doing this sort of thing is illegal, as explained here.

Here are some other links

I'm not the man I was

Bad debts, big bills, pot of bother? What if you could just ... vanish? Like me

from the Financial Times How To Spend It

Illustrations by Matt Mahurin

The vultures are circling: I am in arrears in the voluntary arrangement with my creditors. My wife, careless of my despair, talks of retirement to the country, taking up gardening and going for long walks. My income is fitful and, to make it worse, I am drinking too much and cannot pay my credit-card hills. Staff at my bank have deputed a faceless, female Liverpudlian teenager with a whining voice to phone me daily, and the Revenue has taken to visiting at the weekend. Night after sleepless night, I survey the ruins of my career in depressing detail. I see no future, because there is none, other than disgrace or disappearance.

I mention disappearance because, in the course of my work, I have made the acquaintance of a man involved in the business of drugs, violence and vice. In fact, above all, he is a money launderer, a converter of dirty cash into respectable investments. He exists half in the gutter and half in the gilded halls of the rich and famous, where he is known as a man who can bring you whatever your heart desires, though at a price. He travels with a pistol in his car and sleeps with an ear cocked for the dawn knock at the door. I shall call him Reginald.

Reginald's roots are in the gangland culture of the 1950s, where, as an East End youth, he started his career as a deliverer of wreaths for a local bookmaker. In post-war Stepney, the wreath was the forerunner of the reminder letter and was invariably followed by the knock on the door and the baseball bat across the fibula, a duty which Reginald undertook with detached brutality. When he was 21, he was recruited as an escape driver by the Richardson brothers.

Over the years, he did his bird, graduated as an armed robber, murdered a couple of uncooperative opponents and fled to the Continent. Today, he is all but retired, passing the time by importing parcels of unrefined snow through the port of Rotterdam and managing a string of expensive Hungarian prostitutes.

"I am vulnerable, John," he told me. "It's the nature of the work. I have to take precautions. For short-term difficulties, I have the use of a private aircraft, which can take me away to the Continent and eastern Europe. But for the more serious setbacks, I can change myself into another person."

I asked him what he meant. "I have bought myself another identity," he said. "I can walk out of here and immediately become someone else. I own another name, another address, another bank account, another trade. If I have to, I can vanish from the face of the earth. All I cannot change are my blood, my voice and my fingerprints."

Being two people is handy in Reginald's line of work because he can trade with his hidden self and wash away some of the nastiness from the suitcases full of cash which come his way. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and scribbled a list: "Do it alone - plan it carefully - take your time - paperwork - name - address - credit - passport - tax - work - car. Remember: there's no going back. Work it out son," he said. "Reinvent yourself; it could be the doorway to your dreams." He got up to leave. . "This could be the last time we meet."

I took his advice; and this is now what I have discovered. The art of disappearance is widely practised in Britain. There are more than 16,000 names on the list at the National Missing Persons Helpline. Most are teenagers on the run from home, but there is a sizeable clutch of 50-year-old men who have vanished without trace. Some are on the run from police or the Child Support Agency, some are having breakdowns, some have succumbed to despair over their marriage, some are desperately in debt, and some are dead. But all were suffering before they went Awol.

There are three basic ways to disappear. The most straightforward is the simple name change. Anyone can do this. Buy a change of name deed from a legal stationers, fill it in and get it stamped by a solicitor. The deed costs ^1.50 and the solicitor will charge you a fiver to stamp it. You're meant to register it with the High Court, but what the hell: it's up to you. You can use the deed to alter the name on your driving licence, but it will not make much of an impact on the credit rating agencies and is unlikely to deter the police.

The second alternative is what the Americans refer to as "pseudocide"; in other words, fake suicide in the manner of John Stonehouse. This technique is sometimes used in life insurance fraud or as a way of persuading the authorities to close their files on crimes the vanished person has committed. It is difficult and dangerous to get away with because it can result in press publicity and a committed police search.

The third. and the most difficult and effective method. is the total and permanent disappearance.

To vanish successfully, you must be prepared to give up everything: your friends, your family. your home, the local pub, the club. the car, the lover and the cat. It is a big decision and, for those who do it, the last resort. Everything must go. You are going to be a different person. Your planning must be meticulous. If you want to stay in the UK, you must choose a city or a village far away, where you can merge into the community and where there is little risk that you will bump into someone who knows you. You need time to plan your new future.

You must first give yourself a new name, and the most efficient way to do this is to borrow somebody else's - as I did. I trawled through the obituary columns, but rejected the idea of becoming a dead man when I realised that I could borrow the life of an old friend who emigrated to South Africa 30 years ago and is very unlikely ever to return to settle in Britain again. He, conveniently, has the same Christian name as me, so I filled out a change of name deed, altering my name to his, and had it stamped at a busy solicitor's office in the Elephant & Castle.

Next, I invested in an accommodation address. They are easy and inexpensive to acquire, and dozens are listed in Exchange & Mart and Private Eye. I needed somewhere to use as a halfway house between my old life and my new. The address I chose was in South Kensington, in a smart part of the Brompton Road. There were other London addresses. at 84 Marylebone High Street, 72 New Bond Street, 2 Lansdowne Row. These are just rooms with mailboxes in them, smart-sounding addresses from where you can conduct your business in peace.

With my new name and address, I was ready to apply for a photo driving licence. I didn't know if the man I was going to become had a current licence, and the regulations have been tightened. I had to enclose the deed and evidence of my accommodation address. The licence is a possible weak link because there will be a note on the DVLA computer of my name change. However, they only have my living address and I won't notify them when I move to my new home, which will be miles away from my old life.

As soon as the card arrived from the DVLA office in Swansea, the next job was to visit the Family Record Office in Clerkenwell, east London, and buy a copy of the birth certificate of the man whose existence I was going to steal. A copy costs X650, and no one asked me who I was. To the authorities, it is simply a record of an event and not proof of identity.

I felt quite pleased with myself, but Reginald, when I phoned him, said, "You've just begun. It gets harder. You have to get a passport, because you must he able to travel. Once you've got your new identity, apply for a replacement passport in your new name. Tell them you have lost the original. You can do this at Petty France. You will need photographs signed by a 'person of good standing' who has known you for two years.

"That's ease to fake, but you will also need a birth certificate and two proofs of identity. You can use the driving licence, but you'll need something else. It's time you acquired a bank account, because the passport office will take a cheque book as the other proof. So nova is the time to start thinking about credit. This is fairly easy," he reassured me over a drink.

"The bank will want to be happy that you are who you say, your are, and that you've given them a proper address. Write to the local BT customer service division and ask for a quote for a BT Home Highway line. You don't want one, but you want a letter sent to your accommodation address from one of the service companies to satisfy the bank. When BT replies, that is what you will have. This letter, plus your driving licence, will be enough to get you an account at a clearing bank.

"Credit-card companies want more. They get stung all the time, and they need to make sure that you're a good risk. They don't like empty files with no credit references on them, so do something about it. Start buying books from a book club and pay on time. Get some sort of form against your name."

Reginald poured himself a can of Red Bull and lit a fag. "Your next job is to get yourself on the voters' list. This is easy. Just turn up at the town hall nearest to your accommodation address and get your name on the register. Produce your birth certificate and your driving licence. Say you've been away and that you've recently returned home. The credit-card companies will want to know that you are a voter. Once all this has been done, you're established. You're not dealing with people, you're dealing with computers, and the computer records are a bible to the nameless suit in a bank head office."

It was obvious that Reginald was familiar with the process. "The other vital asset," he went on, "is your new Social Security number. Of course, the man whose character you have borrowed will have had one, but Social Security is slow, and it will lie several months before they can come up with something. Anyway, they might ask awkward questions. But if you go into your local office and say you have to start a new job tomorrow, they will give you an emergency code, which you can keep until someone discovers the real number. But don't hold your breath - these people are not exactly motivated. In fact, if you made one up, it could be years before they notice. Try ZX 05 08 60 C. As long as you're paying stamps, they'll be happy."

So now I can apply for a passport in my new name and I have a new identity. a bank account and all the documents I will need to get shout and live my new life. I'm on the way to getting credit. I have a temporary address and all the documents I need to sow the seeds of a new existence. It is time to decide where I am going to settle down.

London is the ideal place, but if you already work there or live in the Home Counties. you will never be safe. When you least expect it. someone from your old life is bound to see you as you nip out to buy a paper before breakfast, so choose vow' refuge carefully. Covertly visit the area you plan to settle in and find a flat to rent.

Reginald told me that he had created his second life several years ago and had kept it going as an insurance against Plod inadvertently discovering what he was up to.

"It's an expensive luxury, John," he said. "I am renting a bedsitter in Newcastle, which I only use as a mail drop, and paying a mortgage on a small mansion in Chingford, but being two people is part of me life and I have always needed to be able to slip into a new self straight away. -

What he had not brought into the equation was a job, because, when Reginald drops out, he will not be short of a bob or two. On the other hand, I will need to be able to earn my keep because I will have to go into my next life without any assets at all, and the cost of getting started will be substantial. Employment means taxes and P 45s, and the Inland Revenue with its new computer. This might seem like a problem, but it isn't. Simply call the Revenue, tell them you have returned from South Africa and you want to start work. They will give you a tax number which you give to an employer or use on your annual return. There's no avoiding it. because, in your new life you must obey the ivies-for the first few years, anyway.

I will not tell you where I have decided to live. It's a city which, until I chose it, I had never visited and knew of no one who lived there. But, when you decide to vanish, you are never really safe, even if you travel to the ends of the earth. There is always the risk that you will be recognised and, as I am not prepared to have cosmetic surgery, or a sex change, I will always be looking over my shoulder, rather like Reginald is doing today.

Of course, there are all sorts of other complications that I haven't vet considered. What sort of work should I do? How will I be able to resist going back to look at my old haunts? When shall I actually do it?

I find the idea of sloughing off my old skin and starting again from scratch exhilarating. And, if you're careful, it's surprisingly easy to start. The trick is in keeping it up, year after year.

the business FT weekend magazine 08.01.00

page created 16th February 2010