Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dead babies, rampant birth certificate copying, and DNA fabrication - who are you?

I am not a writer, but I do work in forensics, so I like to read The Writer's Forensics Blog. Normally this includes answers to specific writers' questions regarding the accuracy of plot points. But sometimes it discusses more general topics, such as dead babies.

Or, more specifically, identity theft.

D.P. Lyle, M.D. recounted this story from New Zealand:

Here’s a hint: if you plan to run for parliament, don’t steal someone’s ID. Apparently David Garrett didn’t get the message. Apparently he needed to clean up his past record and therefore decided he would become someone else. In 1984 he visited a cemetery and found the grave of a child who had been born around the same time as him. He took the child’s name, obtained a birth certificate, and from there was able to reinvent himself complete with passports and a seat in the New Zealand Parliament. Recently however, his chickens came home to roost and his deceit was uncovered.

Frankly, this worked for a while, and the only reason that it failed was because Garrett was a famous person.

Lyle notes that authors often use false identities in their stories, and that the idea of visiting a graveyard to appropriate a new identity is a pretty good way to do so:

A child that has been dead for several decades is usually not on any of the governmental roles. If the name and city can be uncovered by sniffing around graveyards, it is a small step to obtain a birth certificate. Often the child’s death and birth are not filed together and therefore no one is the wiser.

And that assumes that birth certificate distribution is somewhat controlled - which was not the case in Puerto Rico:

For decades, it was common practice for Puerto Ricans to order a dozen copies of their birth certificates and hand them out to just about anyone – the ballet instructor, the elementary school secretary, the prospective employer.

It seemed a benign practice, one borne of habit more than necessity. But in time, it resulted in rampant fraud.

School break-ins increased as thieves broke into schools to rifle through cabinets for birth certificates, which were sold on the black market for $5,000 to $10,000.

In one study, the American authorities examined 8,000 passport fraud cases and found that 40 percent of them involved Puerto Rican birth certificates (Puerto Ricans are, of course, United States citizens). There were tens of millions of unsecured birth certificates, which Mr. McClintock said made Puerto Ricans vulnerable to identity theft.

“You had many people waiting until they turned 65 to request full benefits,” he said. “They would go to the Social Security office and found that someone else had been getting partial benefits in their name since they were 62. That was creating major problems.”

Oh, you say, but we could take DNA samples of people at birth and everything would be wonderful. Well, I talked about that a year ago; it's theoretically possible to fake DNA at a crime scene, for example. And the database in which your birth DNA is stored could conceivably be compromised.

So, who are you? Who? I really want to know.
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