How to start your life over from scratch?
December 7, 2007 12:35 PM   Subscribe

If you had to walk away from your life in a split second, how would you start over?

Writing a short story about a character who has to leave everything behind in his life with no prior warning. Literally set up as walking down a street and sees "x event" (something from his past) and realizes that everything associated with his current identity is compromised. Consider he has no wish other than to get away undetected and set up a new identity from scratch with only the clothes on his back and the twenty odd dollars in his pocket.

I'm struggling with how my character can accomplish this. It seems like obtaining official forms of ID is a lot harder these days than just splicing a photo booth picture of yourself over someone else's drivers license a la The Fugitive or stealing the SSN of someone who is deceased like in Enough. Not looking for a step-by-step guide to identity fraud, more just a way to reasonably explain how my character is going to manage recreating himself. Beyond identification, what steps must he take to re-integrate into society as a new person?

For the sake of argument (and those who might want to play with the narrative) assume this person is male, between 27 and 37, college educated, middle class suburban/ urban upbringing and would be trying to fit back into that cross section of society. Classic protagonist moral outlook (morally opposed to hurting others unless provoked), but willing to resort to petty crime (robbery, fraud, etc.) on a short term basis for the purposes of survival. Contacting Police/Feds/Witness Relocation Program is out of the question.
posted by Smarson to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I think you pretty much don't start over, in the sense of creating a new life equal to your old one.

You become homeless. You work odd jobs for immediate cash payments, or you beg. You sleep under a bridge, and you make do. Basically, you become what used to be known as a "hobo".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:43 PM on December 7, 2007

Depends on how closely you want to mirror reality. I would say that, even with minimal suspension of disbelief, a reader could accept one of your already-mentioned forms of obtaining a general identification. That could get you around the boringness of the necessity to hold documents proving who you are and free you up to more deeply explore him building his new persona.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 12:46 PM on December 7, 2007

Is your character in trouble with the government or other people? Perhaps the character can collect enough money to leave the country for a while and go to, say, Cambodia or Thailand, only to return a few years later and try to pick up his life with his same name but in a different state. That's what I'd do if people were after me. As for the government, I am not sure.
posted by milarepa at 12:47 PM on December 7, 2007

For ID, you buy a homeless person's ID/SSN with booze, drugs or money. But you only use that ID for governmental things, and a different idenity for everyday life.
posted by bigmusic at 12:49 PM on December 7, 2007

Consider he has no wish other than to get away undetected and set up a new identity from scratch with only the clothes on his back and the twenty odd dollars in his pocket.

If you get lucky you work in a restaurant or daylabor under the table for cash. Normal people are not capable of faking identities with any form of reliability. An untrianed person will be caught in the act or caught sooner than later for fraud. And then off to jail. The idea that an average person of average means can walz into the hall of records of some local town and be 'Joe Smith the baby who died at 9 months' is a television fiction. This is much more true today where our various identification systems are networked with each other.

Is this person does not have specialized training or connections to a criminal class that is a level or two higher than street crime, I doubt he will pull it off.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:49 PM on December 7, 2007

The character could pose as an illegal immigrant. There are many people who ways to get a job and rent a place to live without having any valid forms of ID.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:50 PM on December 7, 2007

What do you mean 'compromised?' The type of threat he is trying to evade matters in this case. What is his deal? Does he need to fake his own death? Are his friends going to come looking for him? What about his family? Classmates? We need at least some background to determine what his options are.
posted by OldReliable at 12:52 PM on December 7, 2007

Not to crimp your plotting style, but were I in that position, I'd still max out the cash withdrawals on the cards in my bank accounts and withdraw all the cash in my accounts - even from a branch in another state on my way out of town. Since I'm abandoning my life, not only is it free money, but I'd have a lot more options with, say, a grand than with 20 bucks.

Getting someone else's birth certificate, faking a utility bill in that name and getting a driver's license is still easy, for what it's worth. Not all states require a SS# to get a driving license. At that point you have "official" ID, and the world is your oyster. You can even use your new DL to get real utility bills - again without a SS#.

Employment would be an issue, so I suggest your boy discover freelancing.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:52 PM on December 7, 2007

Steven C. - Totally thought about the "off the grid" lifestyle angle, but I'm aiming for him trying to get back to a point of somewhat normalcy. The struggle is key because I plan on him having to face the possibility of have to start over again and deciding to push back instead.

sjuhawk31 - True. I don't intend that part to be boring though. It needs to be believable because it's crucial to the plot.
posted by Smarson at 12:52 PM on December 7, 2007

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found may be what you are looking for. Its a fun read.
posted by Maastrictian at 12:54 PM on December 7, 2007

If he has the background you describe, he could wander into the lobby of certain cheap business hotels (Extended StayAmerica, etc.) and get some breakfast and coffee, ostensibly while waiting for a meeting with a colleague who "doesn't show up".

He could wash clothes in the laundry facilities of many hotels / motels fairly cheaply.

Would he need to avoid being seen on camera? Much more tricky?

As a permanent resident, I find it still amazing how little it is necessary to produce ID. If I have accidentally left my ID at home, people make exceptions ALL THE TIME. If you seem trustworthy.

Maybe your character's distinguishing feature is that he discovers he is the type who understands misdirection of the sort demonstrated by some English bloke on TV recently, where he paid for jewelry with plain paper, by holding the shopkeeper's gaze and talking positively while handing over the "cash". He got caught occasionally, but simply apologized and walked off... no one called the cops.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 12:59 PM on December 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

sharkfu FTW: I was hoping to make an FPP around that some day.

People who have worked before and understand *how* to work have it easier. If you know how to work, you go to a place that hires out day-laborers, and ingratiate yourself to management at one of your jobs. It involves interpersonal-relationship skills. You then build from there.

Without those kinds of skills, things get massively harder as you are not only working against your situation, but yourself and your habits as well.

Interestingly, I remember reading that the majority of people who try to disappear often end up living lives that closely follow the patterns of the lives they left behind. Movies Sat. night in the old life? Same in the new? Hunting/bowling/gardening club in the old life? Same in the new? Likewise with work.

There's a substantial enough underground economy that you ould live for a while without being legit, especially if you have real skills: I have a friend who hired a contractor to do some major work, half-way through the job the contractor flaked and my friend found out the name he'd been calling the guy was entirely fictious.

I think you might have more lee-way than you think.

But walking away from your life? You make one last stop at the ATM, get out the max, and then catch a ride on the pooch to SomeWheresElseVille.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:02 PM on December 7, 2007

milarep - The idea is that he's in trouble with an entity (I haven't completely decided yet) that is essentially as powerful and ruthless as the CIA/NSA/[insert spook organization here] that is actively tracking all possible traces of him. In other words, using a credit or bank card on his way out of town means it will send up a red flag that will probably get him killed and he knows this. Same deal with trying to get out of the country conventionally, any usage of ID will red flag him.

bigmusic - Yes! Exactly the type of thing I was looking for. Thanks!

damn dirty ape - Precisely! It's this type of scrutiny that needs to be applied to this narrative. This isn't the Bourne Identity where the guy is a trained super spook and had a safe deposit box full of cash and passports waiting for him.

sharkfu & Maastrictian - Awesome. Thanks for the resource links.
posted by Smarson at 1:03 PM on December 7, 2007

Partly this depends on what you mean by middle-class. There are jobs (like a schoolteacher, maybe) that come with at least minimal back-ground checks, the phoning of references, etc. Freelance editors, probably not so much. So his field of work will really matter.

For papers -- it can all be bought, but if your character doesn't have some sort of access to the grey/black market that provides these services to undocumented immigrants, he's shit out of luck. And even if he does, new papers aren't cheap, and they don't always hold up to scrutiny, either. (There was just a case in the paper the other day about a police officer who was caught using his cousin's SSN and identity -- I think he was caught because someone made a phone call and turned him in.)

Your readers will probably be used to the cliched scenes in books and movies where the character walks into the biker bar or the tiendita and instantly gets hooked up with ID, guns, and other illegal services, so you can rehash that approach without raising any eyebrows. But my observation is that for one, these things operate on trust and word of mouth, and an American middle-class guy walking in will stand out like a sore thumb; moreover, the last time I heard prices for good fake ID (the kind that will stand up to more than the bare minimum of scrutiny), the prices were really high. His $20 won't buy a lot of Social Security cards.

A lot of the 1960s radicals who went underground were sustained by wide networks of supporters -- people willing to let someone sleep in the spare room for a couple of days, willing to give money, make some phone calls to the next stop on the route, loan a car and not report it stolen for a few days. Without that network, dropping out without ending up homeless and hungry is a lot harder.

He might have a much easier time relocating somewhere in Latin America (because he can take buses and his existing ID won't be tested, unlike flying in the age of Terror), if he can figure out a way to get into the foreigner cash economy -- you know, how in every tourist town there are foreigners working as bar tenders, hotel front desk workers, scuba guides, etc.
posted by Forktine at 1:09 PM on December 7, 2007

blue_wardrobe - Perfect. The usage of everyday conveniences and exploitation of people's generosity since he seems trustworthy is definitely part of where I'm going with this.

From Bklyn - I think your right that at least initially, he is going to need to subsist via petty crime or as an undocumented day laborer. You totally hit on another point that I am trying to figure out in the story concerning not just changing who is on paper, but who is to himself...likes, dislikes, etc. The movie habits is right on the money.
posted by Smarson at 1:10 PM on December 7, 2007

Forktine - Oooo, underground radical networks from the 60's, this I will have to explore. As far the Latin America angle, I've been pondering this (him leaving the country in general). It seems like the expected move for anyone trying to disappear and so I almost want to try and have that not happen just to be different. I guess the goal is not that he is trying to flee geographically so much as vanish entirely.
posted by Smarson at 1:19 PM on December 7, 2007

Literally set up as walking down a street and sees "x event" (something from his past) and realizes that everything associated with his current identity is compromised.

If this is indeed a valid risk, why hasn't this person taken the time to set up a series of false identities that he can use at a moment's notice, using all of the above advice to do so?

In other words, using a credit or bank card on his way out of town means it will send up a red flag that will probably get him killed and he knows this. Same deal with trying to get out of the country conventionally, any usage of ID will red flag him.

One of the things I always notice about some fiction is the idea that using a bank card would instantly cause problems. The reality is, even if you had perfect knowledge of my recorded, non-cash financial transactions, you would still have a hard time finding me, period. For example, let's say all my transactions occur in New York City. That's still a big place. The manpower to cover that area alone would be significant. And I can just leave any time I want and since you can't predict my next move, so long as I'm reasonably smart about things, I'm always a step ahead of you.

I could keep this up for a long time, provided you don't drastically scale up the nature of the response (e.g. every cop has my picture). This would give me plenty of time to set up something long term.

Same deal with trying to get out of the country conventionally, any usage of ID will red flag him.

Apparently, you've never been to the Mexican border, which allows anyone to simply walk into the country from the American side without so much as seeing a border guard. In Tijuana, there's literally a one-way revolving door you walk through to get into the country. See this page -- the third picture down. And beyond that door is a huge taxi cab lot with dozens of guys pushing and shoving each other, fighting for the right to take you anywhere, no questions asked.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:19 PM on December 7, 2007

Adding some more insight here ... think about these guys. We know everything about them except where they are, with vast resources actively looking for them. The vast majority of these guys are not super-intelligent criminal masterminds. They simply got up and walked away.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:23 PM on December 7, 2007

Cool Papa Bell - You've hit on something else I'm kicking around: How do things change if he knows that he might have to "walk away" at a moments notice? Secret bank accounts? Boxes of supplies buried in remote locations across the U.S? What if he only had 24 hrs. notice?

As for the fiction surrounding being instantly flagged by the use of a credit card or the second you try and approach a foreign border, I think you're absolutely right. However I think of it as managing audience expectations on both ends; no one believes that you can just create a fake ID anymore, but most people believe that using an ATM can instantly pinpoint your location complete with helicopters circling in under 10 seconds.
posted by Smarson at 1:29 PM on December 7, 2007

I would probably try to do something I've always wanted to do, but have never been able to because of the constraints of real life: hitchhike across America, backpack across Europe and Asia, or hike the Appalachian Trail, for example. Backpacking across Europe will create a little bit of a trace, in the form of tickets and visas and passport stamps. But cross-country travel would not. And it would give a person some time to make new connections and learn more about the world before fully building the new identity.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:32 PM on December 7, 2007

While I second Maastrictian's recommendation of "How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found" as a great read, it relies on damn dirty ape's "go to a small town and get the birth certificate of someone who died as a child" device. (And then get a SS card by coming up with some sort of story for why you haven't needed one yet. I would think any story like that would raise suspicions.)

I would think stealing someone's birth certificate/SS card would be a better option. Especially if it were someone who wasn't working - a "house husband" or housewife with a non-gender-specific name. Isn't this how illegals who work regular W-2 jobs usually do this? It would take me a long time to discover that someone had made off with my SS card - I think only an IRS audit would reveal that to me.
posted by bonecrusher at 1:47 PM on December 7, 2007

Oooo, underground radical networks from the 60's, this I will have to explore

Here is a review of four fictionalized accounts that I linked to the other day.
posted by Forktine at 1:53 PM on December 7, 2007

The vast majority of these guys are not super-intelligent criminal masterminds. They simply got up and walked away.

That's not entirely true. When police do catch up to runaways they're usually harbored by a relative or close friend. They have the same network of friends and opportunity you see in some movies and novels, just not as vast. I've only read a few tales of people honestly going at it alone and most of the time it involved moving to a wilderness area or abroad. Like I wrote above I'm very skeptical of just picking up and living a modern life in a modern city with no papers or savings.

I imagine a lot of these fictional scenarios have more than a tad of artistic license applied to them. If the author has already decided that the guy will be successful and has no special resources, then some kind of hackey fixed is required to make it all work. In the real world a guy like this is caught pretty quickly.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:57 PM on December 7, 2007

Or more likey has some kind of breakdown and turns himself in.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:57 PM on December 7, 2007

How long does he have to reconstitute a life? If he's got a few years, I would send him (he could take the plane -- give him $300 bucks cash, have him buy a Rapid Rewards ticket off of someone, give the wrong name and volunteer for extra searches to fly without ID) to a medium sized town with a lot of transients. A college town would be good. A place where people will begin to recognize his face quickly, but not so small that a newcomer is the event of the year. Have him settle in one neighborhood, frequenting the local grocery store, rent someone's garage apartment (fewer ID/application requirements), coffee shop, etc. Choose a name and place of origin that are common enough not to be easily traceable. (Eg, if someone searched for him on Zabasearch they would find enough hits they couldn't be sure which was him and which wasn't). Within a few years, he should have enough friends who think they know him that someone would be willing to sign an affidavit testifying to his identity. He trumps up a story about losing everything (perhaps he takes a trip out of town and is robbed, comes home and can't get his birth certificate because he was born in a distant state.)
Apply for a passport (proving identity under these provisions:"If none of these are available, you will need:

Some signature documents, not acceptable alone as ID
(ex: a combination of documents, such as your Social Security card, credit card, bank card, library card, etc.) AND

A person who can vouch for you. He/she must:
Have known you for at least 2 years,
Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident,
Have valid ID, and
Fill out a Form DS-71 in the presence of a passport agent.")
Preferably at the post office he's been frequenting for the past couple years, so the passport agent recognizes him and doesn't scrutinize too heavily. His library card (relatively low ID requirements) and the SS card bought off the homeless person + the affidavit of the person he dupes = passport, which then opens the door to all other forms of ID.
posted by katemonster at 2:06 PM on December 7, 2007 [3 favorites]

bonecrusher - Good thoughts on a what type of person you'd want to zero in on if you needed to acquire there SSN.

Forktine - Thanks.

damn dirty ape - Totally right about just picking up and relocating and starting a new life. Definitely some time frame issues I need to think about involving him off the grid for a while so as to be able to re-emerge with resources (money, contacts, etc.) in order to re-integrate.

katemonster - I'm thinking years as opposed to weeks or months. I think a large part of the story is going to be how he survives (sacrifices he has to make personally, morally, etc.) and then the triumph of finally getting back to a place of "normalcy" (will explore what that means to him vs. what it means to society). The struggle will also be key when he is faced with the possibility of having to disappear again and his decision therein.
posted by Smarson at 2:36 PM on December 7, 2007

A couple of more thoughts:

-- Assuming we are in the US, I think flying is a big no-no for someone wanting to stay off the radar screen. You can buy a cheap beater car for $500 in any town in the US, and there is no need to show ID at any point in the transaction (at least in any state I've lived in -- some places do funny things with the license plates, which might get more complicated) as long as you are buying from a private party and have no intention of getting insurance or registering the car. Except in very unusual situations, there simply aren't traffic checkpoints or other attempts to figure out who is driving what car, whereas airports are full of ID checks, cameras, and other security apparatus.

-- I think "buy a SS card from a homeless person" is the kind of fiction convention that sounds a lot easier than it is. A lot of homeless people rely totally on their ID for getting their benefits, accessing the VA system, and other services -- just because someone is homeless does not mean that they do not need ID. In fact, I'd wager that many homeless people probably need to show ID (for services, because of police checks, etc) a lot more often than I do. (I mean, I'm honestly not even sure where my SS card is -- I don't carry it around, and haven't shown it to anyone since I got a passport, I think.)

-- And that leads me to my last point: in the US, there really are very few times one needs to show ID. Getting a job, flying, opening a bank account, and some interactions with the police are the big ones; I've also had to show ID when entering some buildings, staying at nice hotels, and making some purchases, but those would be easily avoidable if you didn't have ID. The job issue can be solved by working for cash, or by any of the ways illegal immigrants are managing (mostly by "borrowing" an unsuspecting persons SSN). Flying you just avoid, and the reality is that middle-class white guys don't tend to have a lot of interactions with the police that result in them being run through the computer -- this is where your guy can benefit from racial profiling, sadly enough. So if the goal is to have a "new identity," just as good as the old one, that is tough without a lot of money and help. But if the goal is to stay out of sight of The Man, well there are people all around you doing just that -- huge sectors of our economy rely on that continuing to be the case.
posted by Forktine at 2:55 PM on December 7, 2007

If that is the case, I think katemonster has it. He creates an identity through trust with everyone there, throws himself and his new identity into this small community, and suddenly its all at risk.
posted by OldReliable at 2:58 PM on December 7, 2007

Boxes of supplies buried in remote locations across the U.S?

Or just plain-jane safety deposit boxes that require no identification at all -- just a key and/or a bank signature card. Or public storage facilities that can be paid for in cash in long-term blocks.

They simply got up and walked away.

That's not entirely true.

What I meant was what you hit on, in spirit -- they just moved to a different location, usually with some kind of family / gang help.

One other story to consider is that of Alex Kelly, whose parents helped him hide in Europe to avoid a rape charge. It sounded like a great "innocent guy on the lam" story in the Rolling Stone article ... right up until the moment that it turned out, yeah, he really did rape the girl after all.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:58 PM on December 7, 2007

The main character of Paul Auster's Oracle Night is an author writing a short story about exactly this, a man who decides to leave his life from one moment to another (after a near death experience in his case). The author in the novel bases his story on a character called Flitcraft from The Maltese Falcon.

There isn't a whole lot about the hows and wherefores of leaving like that, but you might get some ideas, and I've not read The Maltese Falcon so there might be something there too...
posted by jontyjago at 3:10 PM on December 7, 2007

Seems to me an educated fellow would start some kind of cash-based service business. Cord wood? House cleaning? Yard work? These things would give him some cash whille not requiring any ID at all. He could leverage these funds (maybe he's good with money) to work his way up the economic ladder.

Hey, remember the guy who wanted to use eBay to trade up from a giant plastic paper clip to a house? Could be something like that but not necessarily eBay trading.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:21 PM on December 7, 2007

* If he were interested in throwing people off the trail, I'd imagine 'accidentally' dropping a credit card in the right place would lead to lots of activity to confuse the pursuers. He could even pick up some spending money by selling his own identity (ID, credit cards) to an appropriate person (although, I'm not sure your typical middle class guy would easily find the right person).

* A site like could provide places to stay off the beaten path (versus hotels) while avoiding homelessness.

* If he looks young enough (student/grad student age), he could probably avail himself of the resources at a nearby university (library, free food at big talks, computer access).
posted by i love cheese at 3:28 PM on December 7, 2007

As one who made the decision to just back up a duffle back, and started walking "south" (hey, it was March and Washington state), only stopping to toss my id and keys in the trash can, I can say one's options are limited.

Granted, I had a lot more cash than $20.

Especially if this character hasn't done prior research on ways of setting up a new identity it will be rough. Even if he finds a library with loompanics books, it also won't be easy. And if the agency has the scope of the CIA, getting arrested would also be life and death, so if he's not already used to risking his life doing things, he's not going to try walking into the DMV with an SSN he got from google.

Options: continue walking/hitchhiking/begging. Lookup an old friend who's willing to let you crash at their place for a bit. Quickly find a crappy job that's willing to pay cash under the table, and then when the aforementioned friend gets sick of your freeloading ways, convince them to let you rent, or else find a new friend willing to let you live for cash without getting you on the lease. If you're paid in cash, and you use your cash for rent with utilities you don't need an official ID.

If he wants to buy fake ID's, or real ID's, he'll need cash, and more than $20. The fewer people that he knows, the more cash he'll need. He possibly could pick a homeless person who looks like him and mug/kill him for the ID, and then at least he could get a "real" job.

If one lives off of ramen noodles, a container of vitamins and refills water from public sources, he wouldn't need too much money; $100 easily got me from Seattle to LA. I believe that it's less than $200 from LA to New York via Greyhound, and at least pre 9/11 Greyhound doesn't check ID.

He won't blend in with the other homeless people. He'll see them differently from him, and they'll easily sense that. Also, your character will sleep horribly. The first time he wakes up to realizing that someone was trying to sneak up on him he'll choose more secure sleeping positions. While other homeless people weren't violet towards me, apparently if they could just walk off with my possessions they'd have been happy to. City centers are not places to sleep. Outskirts are good; overpasses, ditches, overgrowth near makeout points ... just besure he has a flashlight - having poison ivy while homeless *sucks*. That really can't be emphasized enough. However, it's a great plot point if you want to make your character miserable.

One should note that the police will question one if they're hitchhiking (each state as different rules for hitchhiking). However, if you're not evasive with police (light up your sun glasses/take down your hood as soon as they pull over), even if you don't have ID, they'll let you go if the name you give doesn't have any warrants out. Don't try and say that you have ID in that state; it should show up for their search. Just say you've been wandering since you were kicked out of home as a teenager. Rehearse the details that you will give the police (name, birthdate, birthcity, where you were last living. I just gave a bit of a laugh and an "I *really* don't remember" when asked for SSN. Heck, one cop even brought me 5 miles down the road after he was done questioning me and talked for a bit about wandering homelessness. At that point while it was only 5 days in I was apparently convincing.

But remember, the crash pads, and jobs that one can get for cash only suck. If this character has the option of recovering his old identity, he likely will, and it could be the very fact that he can't easily establish a new ID that sets him to try and fight to clear up the mess he's in.
posted by nobeagle at 4:37 PM on December 7, 2007 [4 favorites]

I read this q before and had no answer, but I recommend The Contortionist's Handbook but Craig Clevenger. Quick read, pretty awesome, might spark something as of yet unsparked.
posted by knowles at 6:03 PM on December 7, 2007

Middle class guy... Move to another town. Find a girl in a bar and schmaltz her. Sob story, move in, be an emotional, financial and every other -al leech. For example, get her to sign for a mobile phone, to allow for mail, second cards on a bank account (not joint - needs ID, but a second card for someone else normally doesn't), etc... Basically, find a sucker and manipulate them to put themselves and their identity on the line for the things you need.
posted by benzo8 at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2007

step-by-step guide to identity fraud

Sounds like the "Anarchist Cookbook" (google) could have some interesting pointers...
(most of that is believable fiction as well)
posted by yoHighness at 6:47 PM on December 8, 2007

There are a heap of guys trying to avoid child support who can help here. Search for "asset protectioon" which appears too be the dead-beat euphemism of choice.
posted by bystander at 9:09 PM on December 11, 2007

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