Identity theft via repeated name changes

In the United States, it is legal to change your name as many times as you like, and you don't even have to have a reason, as long as you're not doing it with fraudulent intent. The ease with which name changes can be accomplished has been exploited by people who use it to carry out identity theft. Creditors coming after you? Change your name, attach it to a stolen Social Security number, and off you go.

The story about name changes reminds me of a friend of a friend who lives in Taiwan. As a teenager, she was somewhat unhappy and changed her name on the advice of a fortune teller. (I get the impression that fortune tellers are pretty popular in Taiwan, particularly among people who are dissatisfied with their lives.) After the name change she felt a little better, but after graduating with her doctorate from a United States university (where she took on an English name), things weren't working so well and she consulted another fortune teller, who told her, "Yeah, well that name you changed to as a teenager was a good name for a teenager, but now you're an adult, and that name doesn't work any more. You should change it to this other name now that you're an adult."

She followed the fortune teller's advice and changed her name a second time, but it wasn't until after the paperwork was complete that she realized she had misspelled her name on the form. What's more, in Taiwan, you're only allowed to change your name twice. (In Taiwan, women typically do not change their names when they marry.) Maybe they imposed this rule to avoid people changing their names every other week based on the recommendation of a new fortune teller. Whatever the reason for the rule, the result is that my friend's friend is now unfortunately stuck with a misspelled name.

Comments (26)
  1. John says:

    "It looks like you’re changing your name.  Would you like help?"

    [Yes] [No] [GTFO]

  2. potomac reader says:

    Louis Goldstein, for many years treasurer of the state of Maryland, was the son of a man not born a Goldstein, but who took the same as being simpler than managing a license transfer in the early 1900s.

    Misspelled or oddly spelled names are quite popular these days in America–I take it it was in Chinese that your friend’s name was misspelled?

  3. Steve Hiner says:

    Measure twice, cut once.

    When we filled out the info for our kid’s birth certificates my wife and I each reviewed every single field multiple times.  We even read and spelled every field value out loud to each other.  Some things are critical enough that you have to use the "belt and suspenders" method to make sure nothing goes wrong.

  4. Theo Winters says:

    The ease of changing your name depends on the State. In Washington it’s pretty dang easy, just takes a little time and paperwork. When I changed mine the total cost was less the $100 and took about three hours (two of which were waiting for the judge).

    I have a friend who changed her name, I think it was in Illinois, but I’m not sure. It cost a few hundred dollars, took months to processes and had a ton of paperwork which lead to more waiting.

    Of course that sounds like it’s easier then Taiwan, so your mileage may vary.

  5. Irony says:

    The easiest way to change your name in the U.S. is often to get married. Most states allow one or both parties to change their names without any additional paperwork beyond what is needed for the marriage.

  6. BCS says:

    OTOH a misspelled name would be handy when you need to grep for it.

  7. Ouch, that’s a bit like the ability to change your laptop DVD player decoding region only once or twice.

    (Except that you can’t patch the firmware on government policies.)

    I guess the more drastic alternative — buying a new DVD player, and preferably a region-free one — would be analogous to your friend’s friend moving to a country with less strict name-changing restrictions, like the USA.

    So what happens if she moves to the USA, changes her name there, then moves back to Taiwan with the new name?

  8. Robert S. Morris says:

    Since this was in Taiwan, can I assume the name was Chinese, or was it Romanized (or even an English name)?

  9. BC says:

    Changing one’s name is definitely an interface change, and interface changes require a Design Review.  It is not enough to simply implement the interface change and obtain a Code Review from the fortune-teller.  A Design Review may have discovered that the ability to modify the interface in the future was affected.  

    Given that the product in question was still in the development phase, deciding to name the product based on the current set of features was silly.  She should have stuck to the vision of the founders and let Marketing use whatever "code names" seem most appropriate at the time to generate interest in the product, until the final feature set is complete.  

  10. Ian says:

    A mother who raised £4,000 for Children In Need by altering her name to Pudsey Bear has been refused a passport in her new name because the change was considered "frivolous."

    The Identity & Passport Service, which addressed her as ‘Mrs Bear’, told her in a letter: "It is deemed to be a frivolous change of name, which would bring IPS into disrepute. It could also pose problems for you at border control in some countries.

    "IPS is not questioning the validity of the deed poll, however, it is not prepared to issue a passport in a frivolous name which could compromise our mission statement ‘safeguarding your identity’."

  11. Dean Harding says:

    That Pudsey Bear thing is dumb. First of all, she’s not going to have trouble at the border of other countries, because other countries have no idea who "Pudsey Bear" (the original character) is. Second of all, why does IPS care whether a name change is "temporary, for the purpose of publicity, for commercial reasons or for frivolous reasons"? As long as Deed Poll is happy to make the change, why should IPS care?

  12. Tim says:

    Was it a fortune teller, or a numerologist? :-)

  13. yeehaamcgee says:

    Having a curiously spelt name makes for interesting first-time phone conversations with people.

    My name is spelt Sion, which is a Celtic spelling of the name Sean, or Shaun.

    It always seems to baffle people, particularly banks and telemarketers, and I’ve been called all kinds of things from "Zion" to "Sin" and several other completely random – sometimes ludicrous – variations.

  14. Doug says:

    I’ve finally figured out what bothers me about Raymond.  Most bloggers have to work at what they will post, worrying about what to post today.  Raymond has a queue over a year ahead….

    Wait, this doesn’t bother me.  It makes me grin.  Keep it up.

  15. Jondr says:

    OT, but regarding weird names. I worked at a government office and we got mail from Ed McMahon that was addressed to:

    U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

    with the salutation and intro:

    Dear Mr. Fish,

    You may have won $10,000,000.

  16. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    But… you forgot to tell us if the second name change worked! Is she happy now?

  17. lurker says:

    She spelled her name wrong on the form? It’s too bad the fortune teller didn’t see that coming.

  18. @lurker – I knew you were going to say that.

  19. Andreas says:

    Expanding on what Rikard said about the Swedish law concerning name changes… As he said, you can’t change your last name to a name which someone else already has. Thus, you need to come up with a new, unique name. (These new are occasionally referred to as "cop names", due to their supposed popularity in the force…).

    The names are often made up of two words relating to nature, and occasionally have needlessly complicated, "old-timey" spellings (to the uninitiated, this makes the names looks like those of the nobility). When you consider what the names actually mean, you can’t help but feel pity for the bearers, who must be exceedingly vain.

    For instance: "Löwengrip" (leaf griffon), Segerstråle (victory beam), "Lofalk" (lynx falcon) and "Tigerström" (tiger stream). These are actual names of actual people.

  20. alexx says:

    I think it was a fengshui expert who told her to change her name.

  21. KatieL says:

    Of course, limiting the # of changes is fixing the bug the wrong way.

    People don’t steal IDs by filing name changes to match their victims. They steal the ID because name changing is easy because the documents which are the outputs of the process are not very secure.

    It’s trivial to forge (for example) a statutory declaration[1] which will pass examination at a bank.

    In the US there are multiple routes on a state by state basis. It’s therefore trivial to forge the paperwork from the other side of the country well enough to fool someone.

    You only need to succeed once; only one bank has to fall for it and you’ve got a bank card in the victim’s name, and you can bootstrap from there.

    But the criminals don’t actually file name changes. They’d be easy to find then.

    So that limitation affects them not at all…

    [1] One of the UK name change routes.

  22. Rikard says:

    Here’s the law in Sweden regarding name changes:

    There are three kinds of names: First name, middle name (an additional surname – for example if the parents have different surnames, one of the names can be given the child as a middle name) and last name (surname).

    A first name may be added, removed or changed *once*.

    A middle name may be removed.

    A last name may be changed to the name of your other parent, if they have different names. You may also change your name to that of your partner when you’re getting married.

    You may also change your last name to something new. This may only be done once. The new name must be completely new, i.e. you’re not allowed to take someone else’s name, a brand name, or the name of a fictional character, or a name that’s easily confused with someone else’s name… (There are additional rules for what constitutes a valid name.)

    Exceptions to these rules are only allowed in special circumstances.

  23. teqman says:

    Did the Times not think that by running this story they were essentially going to reveal as victims all the people whose given names were stolen by the defendants?  Hopefully they cleared that…

  24. DWalker says:

    Rikard and Andreas: "The new name must be completely new"!!

    That’s weird.  I wonder if you could use a GUID, or any random combination of letters.  Does the name have to consist of letters, or are numbers and symbols allowed?

    I remember that not so many years ago, hospitals in the U.S. would monitor the first name that you put on a birth certificate for a new baby.  If the nurse thought it wasn’t a valid name, or was spelled wrong, she (it was always a she) would tell you the name is invalid and make you pick a "normal" first name like Robert or William or Susan.

    Nowadays, people in the U.S. make up (first) names all the time.  I wonder if something like mnbmnsdkufasdioeur would be "accepted".

    In my opinion, it shouldn’t be up to the government.  

    I have a friend whose first name is "Larry".  The first time he wrote his name on a school paper in junior high (the middle grades of primary school here), his teacher yelled at him for writing his "nickname" and told him to put "Lawrence" on his paper.

    He replied that the name on his birth certificate was "Larry", and that "Lawrence" wasn’t his name.  The teacher had a lot of trouble understanding that…

  25. Falcon says:

    DWalker59: The student understood something that the teacher didn’t – hard to overlook the irony! I must say, though, having worked with teachers for years (I wasn’t a teacher myself), it doesn’t surprise me.

    Regarding symbols in names – check out

    I agree that the government shouldn’t get to decide which names are valid, however I wouldn’t want to have an unusual (or unusually spelt) name, considering that it would involve a lot of explaining/clarifying when giving out my name. I prefer things to be simple and easy (partly due to laziness).

  26. Cheong says:

    In Hong Kong, you’re given a chance to change your name free of charge when you apply for the adult ID card at age of 18. That’s the time when most people officially add their self chosen Engligh name their name.

    In Hong Kong, both Chinese name and Engligh name are "legal" name. While the Chinese name is given, the English name (Not the Romanized name), for most case, is chosen by the himself/herself. That’s why for some teenagers, it’s so special. :)

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