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I have a concept for a story (see below) and a rough idea of what some of the characters will do to create the central plot point in it (again, see below), the issue is, I'm not sure what point in time, in real life history, it would be plausible for them to do those things. (Technically I'm not world building here but rather world choosing.)

Tl;dr;

A young couple (15-16 but able to look a bit older, or maybe up to early 20's if it makes the story work) choose to vanish on basically no notice. They have no prior planning for this and have to wing things until they figure stuff out. Eventually they establish new identities and are able to live a mostly normal life. They may need to avoid scrutiny but over time they build up enough real background to their assumed identities that they can do most everything that would draw attention to them if they didn't do it. (There may be things, e.g. working in sensitive jobs) they can't do, but by simply never trying, they is an issue that can go unnoticed.

Everything about what these characters do, beyond what I've already settled on and described above, is outside the scope of the question I'm asking. In fact, it's almost immaterial to the story because the story is a whydonit and will be from the perspective of the people who start out knowing only that the couple vanished and nothing that happened after that. That they do it is the only major plot relevant bit and I just need it to be not blatantly implausible.

Question:

Assuming this happens in the US (or some other currently first world nation), what is the approximate last point in time where it would be feasible for smart and motivated people to pull the above off with no prior planning or research? What happens at that point that makes it unreasonable?


There is a real world story of a WW-2 German POW in the US who didn't want to get repatriated to east Germany and so (after the war in Europe was over) escaped and succeeded at living a mostly normal life in the US for decades. That would suggest that c. 1944 would be not to recently.

On the other end, by the information age, it would seem that just showing up and saying you are "Johnathan Dow" would very quickly fall apart without significant skill and resources put into fabricating records in a lot of different places. That would suggest c 2000 would likely be to recently.

On the 3rd hand, even today there are a large number of people who have illegally immigrated to the US and have no identity they can use for most things. So depending on how much they need to do (I'm thinking my cases requires to much here), you may still be able to create a "good enough" assumed identity.

Edit: turns out at least some effort is being made to proactively seek out assumed identities without waiting for other indicators.

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    $\begingroup$ @Community most humans should be able to understand the question, it's rather directly stated. $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 9, 2023 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ @BCS You know Community (bot) is an automated system, right ^^? There's no point in answering it, and we'll see for ourselves if it is indeed clear or not (so far for me it is). $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2023 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ As you implied in your question itself, it depends on what they want to do: there is a difference in the degree of scrutiny you will call upon yourself when farming potatoes in some remote backwater or when you apply for a job in a 3 letters government agency. That kind of information is missing. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 9, 2023 at 5:57
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't need a SS#, a bank account, or a DL, then welcome to America. Who's doing the background check? Me, when I'm garbing a day laborer from the parking lot of HD... or the FBI? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Aug 9, 2023 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact I guess I've an unstated assumption; that if the story starts far enough back that creating a normal/unremarkable assumed identity is reasonable, that even a 16 year old, if they want to not be found, could pleasurably evade the kind of search that would pop up from them vanishing. 1000 miles, some effort to change your looks and laying low could be effective before the internet and millions of cameras was the norm? $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 0:00

8 Answers 8

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This is very much dependent on the country in question. Some rely on birth certificates and (optionally, inconsistently) on driver's licenses and utility bills with a name on it. Others have a system attempting to track citizens from cradle to grave, unregistering them in the old place of residence as they register in a new one. Most countries which attempt a registry also have significant groups of unregistered inhabitants, both citizens and non-citizens. Countries which do not attempt a registry have similar groups of inhabitants, except that unregistered becomes the wrong word for them.

You specify the lack of prior planning and research. That means the challenge becomes twofold:

  • Get 'off the radar' initially. Try to hang out with homeless citizens or undocumented migrants. Earn money with off-the-books work. Make plans and contacts for a more permanent solution.
  • Establish the fake identity rather than no identity. If this is supposed to hold for decades, it has to be rather solid. This may be easier in the US than in Europe, and much will depend on the ethnic background of the fugitives. This is presumably what you call 'hard.'

For European-style citizen tracking, the point is not so much the development of technology and bureaucracy but getting the right moment. After WWII, much was possible. Again, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. These times had mass movements of people, and claiming to have lost all papers would bring scrutiny but not outright disbelief. During the Cold War, pretending to have fled frome one side to the other.


Follow-up, and this is a bit going out on a limb since I have absolutely no experience of going underground ...

They could try to invent an identity from scratch, or they could steal the identity of someone who did or does exist.

  • An identity "from scratch" will be revealed if somebody compares the claims with files held elsewhere, like the municipal vital records or the tax assessments. The trick, then, would be to prevent anybody from looking things up.
  • An identity stolen from a living person would pass those simple checks, but it will be found out once somebody (again, like the tax office) correlates things. Why does this person work in two places, hundreds of miles apart?
  • An identity stolen from a dead person has no such inconsistencies, but it will be found if someone compares living taxpayers and the tombstones, or if someone tries e.g. a DNA match with a supposed relative. It does a state no good if one office holds a paper file of a birth certificate, another office holds a paper file of a death record, and yet another office holds the (digital?) file of ongoing income taxes. When one checks for tax frauds, the suspicion is usually not that the taxpayer is wrong.

The question for the third bullet point would be when the various countries started to reconcile those records routinely. As one data point, there was the Nazi use of IBM computers in the 1930s and 1940s to categorize citizens and to organize the holocaust, but there a state decided to expend significant effort.

You could have a situation where a fake identity did hold up for a decade or so, only to be found once one more office got their records computerized.

So, untested idea: Hide out among homeless drug addicts. Try to learn the full name, birthplace, and relatives or lack of relatives of some who did run away only after turning 18. When one of them overdoses, make the body disappear (how? there are crime author how-to references). Once they have two likely data sets, move into a faraway town and pretend to be drug addicts who really, truly want to become clean. Attend local support groups. After a couple of months, ask for help in getting fresh papers, and in finding a job.

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    $\begingroup$ For white Europeans there is currently a major opening to reinvent themselves as Ukrainian refugees. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2023 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ I'm mostly thinking in the US, but if that can't be made to work and somewhere else could... $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ Do outlaws still bolt to Mexico, or is that only for film/tv? @BCS $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2023 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Marianne013 I'm a European, and I doubt very much if I could reinvent myself as a Ukrainian refugee. Even if I could play the part convincingly in almost all resepects, and claim to have lost all my papers, the scrutiny would most likely be replaced with disbelief when it was realised that I don't speak Ukrainian. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2023 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ BTW: the "how to create an identity bit", while interesting, isn't really the part the interests me. It's not ever part of the story. $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 11, 2023 at 3:10
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The answer depends on too many factors

So, middle of nowhere, working Cash-only jobs, camping in the woods and purchasing what you need with Cash - Still very much possible.

However, the closer you get in proximity (both literally and philosophically) to 'Civilization' - the harder it becomes.

The biggest one is the IRS/IRD/Tax Office - If there's one thing that Governments don't like - it's untaxed income. This is the first bit of Paper in your Paper trail. If you look up the practice of 'Ghosting' (the identity theft one, not the social media one) - it mentions that up until the 1990s in the US, when Births and Deaths were maintained in separate registries and before digitization, were not able to be easily cross-referenced. Add in that a Social Security number wasn't issued until the first paid job - Most sources say that this was still very doable until the late 1900s.

The next item you'll need is a valid Birth Certificate.

However, like most things - once you have the first link in the chain - that is, the first official piece of documentation, everything usually flows from there.

Consider a child opening their first bank account - they will normally need their IRD/Social Security number and their Birth certificate. Maybe proof of parents address.

Once you have a Birth Cert and a SSN, you can get a Drivers licence/Government/state photo ID, this will allow you to do most things - Rent a house, get Credit etc.

In short - I think the most realistic answer with what I think your intent is - would be around the 1980s/1990s with enough smarts. Earlier would be easier, later is still possible - but harder.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 the book of Day of the Jackal goes into a bit of detail about how to go into a graveyard and find a good candidate to assume the identity of. Good date range selected - before cross-referencing and back when driver licences did not have photos it was easier. Note that if they don't pretend to be 18+ years then they need an adult accomplice for a lot of things, who may be a security risk. $\endgroup$ Aug 9, 2023 at 6:14
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 using the ID of a dead child worked up until the 90s or even early 2000s in the UK - it was one of many dodgy tactics used by a police unit infiltrating protest groups $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Aug 9, 2023 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ Just from my general knowledge and observations, I'd say the 1990s sounds like a good pick. FWIW 20 years ago I knew two people—not hermits in the woods, adults in major cities with jobs and homes—who'd never had any id, they were just "off the grid" and got by on the margins. Both my friends were older, both dead now. It's still a major issue today, though, hence the battles over requiring ID to vote, which could prevent a number of genuine citizens from voting. I also knew someone in the '90s who claimed to have been born on a commune and reestablished ID based on, I think, an affadavit. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Qtips
    Aug 9, 2023 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ @BCS - So Births and Deaths are public records - so to search them wouldn't require a Warrant. I suspect it's one of those effort-to-reward scenarios. That being, the number of people who are doing this is likely very small and the number of people who are doing it and causing a problem is likely even smaller. So it's not worth the effort. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2023 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ @MooingDuck "Why did you steal that candy bar?" "To get arrested" "Why!?" "So I can get a DOC record." "What!?!" "Look, I need something I can show the DOT to prove who I am!" --- Doesn't work for my story, but now I want to read the book. $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 11, 2023 at 3:08
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Go rural, take cash jobs and live under the radar. Lots of people doing it right now. No one including the authorities cares. It's only once you live in a town or city that people need to know more about you than how hard you work and if you're a danger to those around you or not.

Or join a commune or minority community. The key part is that someone else does all the bill paying, renting and buying of anything requiring ID.

As a forestry worker in New Zealand, I openly travelled all over the country without needing ID. I got pulled over by rural police a few times, but they just wanted to know why there was a new face around, and where I was staying, they had no interest in making any trouble for me and paperwork for themselves, just keeping tabs on their community. I wasn't doing anything illegal.

But mostly I'd be living on a farm or forestry camp for a couple of seasons where no one cared or even asked questions about my history. I worked for months at a time with people who I only knew by whatever first name they gave me. A couple of them moved around like me and I worked intermittently with them for years when we met up in the same forest for a season. I thought of them as friends yet wouldn't have a clue what their surnames are or anything really outside forestry life.

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Probably around the time that the fax machine/the internet came about.

It would suddenly be a lot easier to verify documentation, and a lot harder to fake it, if they could just call the country of origin, send over a copy of it, and have them check.

On the other end, by the information age, it would seem that just showing up and saying you are "Johnathan Dow" would very quickly fall apart without significant skill and resources put into fabricating records in a lot of different places. That would suggest c 2000 would likely be to recently

Only if you randomly show up at a place. There are still places that assist people in getting an identity if they lose their documents due to fire, or were born to parents who did not register their birth, as an example

Logically, it is still possible to fake an identity through that.

Fake IDs are still fairly common(2,3,4), and for the most part, you can use that as the basis of a new identity. With the exception of regulated businesses, most aren't going to check (except by keeping one on record), and the only issue is making sure that your fake ID card holds up to scrutiny.

Things like banks would be a no-go, due to identity verification requirements so they would have to find another avenue of dealing with money, such as cash.

One big issue that they might run into is that of anti-fraud/anti-laundering regulation, which inadvertently prevents them from using a false identification, by needing things like government records to prove that they are who they are. A passport would be outright unobtainable under a false identity, despite being a major (and common) identification document.

If they went through illegal means, there are also stolen identities that tend to crop up on the black market(6,7,8,9), from data breaches and things, which might make it an easier task.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that your point on fake IDs is very US-centric, while the OP specified the US or another first world nation. So the answer would benefit from pointing out that parts are not universal. Also, is Dow supposed to be not-quite-Doe or is it a typo? $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Aug 9, 2023 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @o.m. I've added a few sources for the UK and Australia as well, so that will hopefully help. They're not -quite- as common as in the US, but they do seem to be a fairly prevalent issue. The "dow" part I just copied from the original post. $\endgroup$
    – techno156
    Aug 9, 2023 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if ID forgery is a combination of weak national ID card systems and a high legal drinking age. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Aug 9, 2023 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. Dow/Doe ... typo, but I'll leave it because I was also going for the not-quite-John-Dow :-Þ $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ "The fax machine" and "the internet" are very different time periods. The practical fax machine appeared in the 1930s, while the practical internet appeared in the late 1980s. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 10, 2023 at 1:24
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Assuming the United States, I would say that the cutoff is the proliferation of Information-Age technologies to a critical mass in public records and government communications, which hit its stride in the early 80s and was largely complete by the mid-90s.

In the 70s, communication and data access networks were still relatively primitive; the computer did exist, but most communication of information still happened by postal mail or, if you had to know something right now, dictated over telephone. Literal "stock tickers" were basically specialized TeleType machines, and much like the more general-purpose ones used for newswires they were expensive and not very portable. Fax machines running over the telephone network were just starting to proliferate as a viable technology, and the ARPANET predecessor to the modern Internet connected a very few DoD installations and their affiliated research teams at select universities, mostly as a proof of concept.

The upshot is that anyone wanting to check your backstory had to spend hours on the phone/radio with people who had way more important things to do than spend hours to locate and vouch for the existence of the office record matching your documentation. So, if your ID looked real, it was real, unless you acted suspiciously or belligerently enough to make it worth a guard's or police officer's considerable time and effort to verify the information in detail. On that note, this is what actual, valid driver's licenses looked like in most states as of the late 80s:

enter image description here enter image description here

Given tools available from any mail-order office supplier, you could forge identifying documents that would pass even the most rigorous visual inspection. If you had the ability to develop film photos in passport size and color, print or stencil a box form and type the information into it, then combine these elements in a hard-laminated card, you were pretty much made. While these skills and equipment weren't universal, they were easy enough to acquire. It wasn't really until the late 90s that serious attention began to be paid to anti-counterfeiting features of currency and IDs, combatting the introduction of cheap inkjet printers and desktop productivity software that made printing off your own driver's license truly trivial.

Now, all that said, we're still talking about the Cold War era here. The newsreels of the 60s and early 70s, depicting a very laissez-faire society of peace, love and rock and roll, where people just... get along, are the stereotype. Among the young, that may have been true, but the "peace movement" was the counterculture movement of the time, for good reason. McCarthy may have died a few years after his witch trials resulted in his censure by the Senate, but the U.S. Government, at all levels and both officially and unofficially, were still very interested in finding Russian spies, like maybe the ones trying to worm their way quietly onto the factory floor at Lockheed, Rockwell, GenElec or some other defense contractor as a newly-minted union-backed laborer. You also have to remember the First Amendment didn't have the case law protections it does now; Alberts v. California (landmark case upholding that profanity and obscenity are protected under the First Amendment) was decided in 1957, and it was not well-received by your more conservative types in Middle America.

So, a young man and his new bride striking out on their own in a new city, with names and identities that happen to be a complete fabrication, isn't all that suspicious up through about the 1970s, until it became trivial to call in a driver's license to dispatch to validate it (which roughly followed the spread of 911 and the creation of integrated call centers with easy access to all public records). Unless, the young man has an interest in getting a union job at a military-industrial contractor's new factory there, or starts shooting his mouth off about how Medicaid doesn't go far enough and we really should have something like the National Health (the idea was shouted down as a Communist plot in the Truman Administration, while we were watching the UK, our closest ally in NATO, setting theirs up about this same time). Such actions or ideas will put a spotlight on your couple's backstory, and if even one thing they say about themselves or their history can be proven false, the whole thing unravels.

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  • $\begingroup$ So likely not hard in the 70's, possible in the 80's but in both cases only if you are smart about it and don't give anyone too much reason to check? $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ @BCS - About right. By the 90s, and especially after 9/11, impractical; way too many people looking for you to be someone other than who you claim, even when you really are who you claim. $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 1:07
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I can only describe what it would take in the US.

Back in the 80's and 90's, if you wanted to make a black-bag identity, all you had to do was wander around a graveyard and look for a tombstone for someone who was born 100 years before you. Go to the local courthouse, tell them that he was your grandfather, and ask for a copy of his birth certificate. They weren't as security-conscious back then, so 75% of the time they'd just give it to you, and the other 25%, you just went to another county and tried again.

You then change the "1867" birth date to "1967", and used your new birth certificate to get a driver's license. From there, you could have an SSN issued, get credit cards, and build a history.

This changed in the late 1990's when everything began to get connected via computer. You could still do it in some rural areas where they didn't have enough need for computer automation.

All of that went away after 9/11/2001. After that, everyone started getting really cagey about cross-referencing identities. The federal government locked down everyone's identities and the NSA was given free reign to profile everybody. Now it takes time, effort, and preparation (or government contacts) to build an effective identity.

If you don't need to build an identity, then you can still get by as a homeless day-laborer. There are people in almost every state who, if you look grubby enough, will feed you and work to get you "back on your feet." If you're young enough, you can claim to be the son of someone who didn't bother documenting your existence, and then got wiped out in choose-your-own natural disaster.

The way to go in most cities would be to get super-filthy, abrade yourself, catch a nice, solid cold, then pass out in public on a bad weather day. The police will call an ambulance, and the hospital will create an identity for you so they know who to charge.

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    $\begingroup$ So hard end date c. 2000. Good point on 9/11. $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ @BCS, Tacked on an exploit for how to get a new identity in modern days. Enjoy! $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2023 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ Nice... That would create a real official identity, but be a bit conspicuous. Not something someone who wants to avoid being found would welcome if they could avoid it. -- (Side note; there is an interesting distinction between an identity and who you are. "These actions were all done by the same person" may be enough of an identity for many uses (earning money and paying taxes on it?) even with a openly recognized "but we don't know who they are" on the end.) $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 10, 2023 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ @BCS, I think that figuring out who someone "is" is unavoidable. The part you want to avoid is where they figure out who someone "was". The richer your new identity, the less someone will think to look for the identity hidden behind it. Moving to another city creates a choke point in connectivity that you would want to capitalize on. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2023 at 15:03
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Up to 1914, or 1937 with limitations, this was legal.

It got progressively harder during this time, and absolutely impossible without criminality after.

Prior to the 20th century, personal documentation, all around the world, was not the norm. Passports did exist, but weren't required. People could simply travel to another country like they do to another city. Your name and identity was whatever you decided to call yourself.

This right was not absolute. The authorities of a receiving state had the discretion to allow or restrict travelers. Some nations had stricter rules than others. Not all countries were open. The key thing is, while paperwork was very useful, it wasn't strictly necessary to have it in a specific form.

Standardized international passports were created in 1920. Internal national IDs followed passports.

Everything changed with World War I. Before WWI, travel was mostly restricted by your means of transportation. Paperwork wasn't necessary, everything worked without it. Nationality and citizenship were a thing, but not a big deal. You could be stateless and no one would care - almost all of the world's goods, services, destinations stayed open to you.

The worldwide practice of state-managed identities emerged during WWI due to the fear of infiltration by foreign spies. Still, for 20 more years, it remained possible, but difficult to obtain a new identity.

WWII, which really started with the Spanish Civil War, completely ended the freedom of undocumented life. National IDs became mandatory and life opportunities without one very limited.

This refers to legal identities. Creating a new illegal identity is possible even today, and will remain possible for the foreseeable future - all that changes is the price. Literally "everyone who is anyone" can get one in case of emergency, and I know people that already have. Not even criminals. It might be difficult, but that's the contractor's problem.

Why international travel matters: there is limited information exchange between nations, so crossing borders is an important step in establishing a valid new identity. It's not necessary, but it can eliminate the issue of a lacking paper trail.

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  • $\begingroup$ Useful information. -- However; that has a focus on international identity. If you have no desire to cross a national border, that's not very relevant. Also, while I didn't say so explicitly, I was starting with the assumption that creating a new identity was (at least technically) illegal and that that didn't bother the parties doing so. $\endgroup$
    – BCS
    Aug 11, 2023 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ @BCS I see. Well, creating a new identity that won't stand up to government inspection is fairly trivial even today. And one that will stand up if you've got money. Prior to 1914 and to limited extent 1920-1938, one could actually get a new identity that's completely valid. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Aug 11, 2023 at 8:01
  • $\begingroup$ @BCS Crossing borders helps you upgrade your forged identity into a more-or-less legitimate one, relying on paperwork issued by another state. Of course governments are well-aware of this, so put a lot of controls and time delays into the process. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Aug 11, 2023 at 8:14
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From personal experience, in the UK it got difficult following the events of, and reaction to 9/11

(I had inadvertently set up such an identity and now live in a shadowy world where I can't prove I am who I was, or who I became)

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