How can I erase my identity and start over?

Ex-mob girl Arlyne Brickman was an informant for the FBI on several members of the Mafia. She refused to participate in the Witness Protection Program.
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You've seen it in movies. The abused wife fakes her own death and starts over in a new town. A mob informant gets set up in the Witness Protection Program. Someone steals your identity, wreaks havoc on your life and forces you to become someone else. Changing your identity and starting over is a common motif in books and movies. But is it possible to do so in real life?

The quick answer is that no, you can't completely erase your identity in this day and age -- unless the government does it for you. Legally changing your name isn't too difficult. Legally changing your Social Security number (SSN) is possible as well, but only under certain circumstances. But even if you do change your name and SSN, the system will still have records that link the "new" you to the "old" you.


So who would want to erase their identity anyway? Probably a lot of people. Maybe you've acquired a large amount of debt and think an identity change will allow you to escape your creditors. Sadly, this isn't the case -- you'll be found out eventually. Perhaps you really are a victim of abuse or identity theft and it's the only option. These are two reasons the government recognizes as legitimate.

There are many services advertising on the Internet that claim to be able to change your identity completely and provide you with the supporting documentation. A little investigation reveals that these are mostly scams. They'll take your money and send you a bad fake ID or issue the same set of documentation to multiple customers. In the old days, paper tripping was an illegal, but real, way to change your identity. In a paper trip scam, one would find the gravestone of an infant that was born around the same time and assume his or her identity. You could even get an I.D. card after you provided a forged birth certificate. Modern computer record keeping has rendered this shady practice obsolete.

Your best bet if you want to erase your identity and start over is to change your name legally, move far away, take up a different profession and start a new life. You can even create a new persona -- from the way you dress to your accent and gait.

In this article, we'll look at the legal ways to change your name and Social Security number.


Changing Your Name and Social Security Number

One great reason to change your name is if you share your name with someone infamous -- say, Charles Manson.
Sahm Doherty/Getty Images

The first step to creating the new you is to change the name your parents gave you. Why stick with John Smith when you can be reborn as Abner Zanzibar? A name change is completely legal and very common. The procedure for changing your name varies by state, so you need to check with your county court or on the Internet to find out the exact steps you need to follow.

Here in Georgia where HowStuffWorks is based, you need to fill out a petition requesting the change. This form includes the reason that you want to change your name. The court will then run an ad in the official county organ once a week for the next month to see if anyone has an objection to the request. An organ is just a fancy name for newspaper or bulletin. If there are no objections after 30 days, the court will then rule on the name change. Then all you need to do is pay the low, low price of $39.95 and you're officially a new person. If someone objects, then the court hears the argument and makes the judgment. After you pay, you're issued an official document that you'll need to get your name changed everywhere else -- bank, driver's license, credit cards, insurance and Social Security Administration.


Changing your Social Security number (SSN) is also legal, but you must be able to prove that your old number is being misused by someone else or that you're a victim of domestic violence. So for the purposes of simply "starting over," you won't be able to change your SSN legally. If you're a domestic violence survivor or victim of identity theft, you must prove to the Social Security Administration (SSA) that these misdeeds have taken place. For identity theft, you must also prove that you've exhausted all other means for stopping the perpetrator. You can call the SSA toll-free to get more information at 1-800-772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office. [source: SocialSecurityOnline].

You should keep in mind that changing your SSN can also create a lot of problems. All your previous information will still be associated with your old number, including your credit history. Having no credit history will make it difficult to get a new line of credit. The IRS and Department of Motor Vehicles will still have your information stored under your old number as well. So if you change your name and your SSN, you'll be creating a big bureaucratic mess for yourself. Of course, if you're dropping out, moving far away and truly starting over, you may not care too much. Just don't expect to carry on with a great job and financial portfolio without having to deal with issues from your past life.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • "Can You Legally Create a New Identity for Yourself?", February 6, 2008.
  • "Georgia Name Change Law.", 2008.
  • "Should you get a new Social Security number?", 2008.
  • "Sleeping With the Enemy.", 2008.