Creating Multiple Identities: the Research Rabbit Hole
by N.M. Cedeño
Setting a story in the past requires the author to do research to make sure the details of the story are correct. For me, researching topics means risking falling down the research rabbit hole and discovering way more information than I need. This week’s research topic: how a character could create fake identities during the 1960s and 1970s.
My current work-in-progress, a short story, involves a character with a penchant for using fake identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wanted to know how hard it would be for my character to have multiple bank accounts and jobs under different identities during that time period. This necessitated research into social security numbers (SSNs) and how they were issued in the past.
Creating a fake identity prior to 1974 took very little effort because laws regarding obtaining SSNs and starting bank accounts were lax. For instance, for my character to open bank accounts under different names was fairly easy. Social security numbers were not required for starting financial accounts at banks or other institutions until 1983. However, even if the banks had required SSNs, my character could have easily provided multiple SSNs for multiple fake identities.
Before April 1974, anyone could request a social security number by completing an application without providing evidence of their age, identity, or citizenship status. Electronic tracking of social security numbers, using a punch card computer system didn’t start until 1979. This ease in obtaining SSNs led to all kinds of irregularities and problems in the system that lasted for decades. As late as 2007, the Social Security Administration identified 4.7 million people who had more than one SSN. Most of those people had requested numbers before 1974 when the requirements for providing evidence of identity and age went into effect.
Why did so many people have more than one social security number? Was identity fraud rampant?
No. Most of those people weren’t trying to commit any crime. After SSNs were introduced in 1936, not everyone understood how they worked. Some people thought they needed a new number every time they started a new job. If workers lost the card with their number on it, they simply applied for a new number. Other people applied for a social security number when the cards were first introduced. Then, when they started working a new job, they filled out paperwork provided by their employer to get another one as employers tried to make sure their employees had SSNs.
It wasn’t even unusual for more than one person to use the same SSN.
For example, in 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York sold wallets in stores with a sample social security card inside to show the buyer how the card would fit in the wallet. That sample social security card had a number on it which many buyers of the wallet then adopted as their own. By 1943, at least 5,755 were using the sample SSN that came with the wallet. As late as 1977, twelve people were still using that same number.
Prior to the late 1980s, most people didn’t have to get a social security number until they got a job and had to pay taxes. A pilot program to get children SSNs at birth started in 1987. Before 1986, most kids didn’t need SSNs since they could be listed as dependents on tax forms without one. From the time the SSN was introduced in 1936 until the late 1980s, most people only applied for social security numbers when they reached a point in life where they needed one. Therefore, it was common for adults to apply for cards.
All of this means that the character in my story could easily have created multiple fake identities before 1974 by filling out applications for multiple SSNs. He could hold jobs under different SSNs and keep many unconnected bank accounts. But now, all of this research will be filed away, because I can’t use it in my story. I only needed to know that my character could indeed obtain documentation for multiple fake identities without getting caught immediately.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.
Note: All pictures by Pixabay.