In S01E12 of Mad Men which was titled "Nixon vs. Kennedy", there is a flashback of the story of How Don Draper (Dick Whitman) exchanged identity with his fellow soldier after the explosion accident in the Korean war.

My question is, was it that easy to exchange identities in the US without anyone noticing? Didn't the government have documents of people? didn't soldiers have papers? Maybe it was still early for data centers and digital records but at least there should've been something.

What I like the most about this show is how so realistic it is and this part really annoyed me.

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    Without naming names, 3 of my friends and 2 of my relatives had IDs saying they were me back in the 80's. There were no stored photos at DMV like there are today, all you needed with a birth certificate and you could get a drivers license saying you were someone else. It may have been even more lax back in the late 60's. He probably would have needed some paperwork or known the guy's SSN, but my guess is that it wouldn't have been hard with that info. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 21:52
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    Your essentially asking how anything worked before computer networks and centralized databases.
    – cde
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 21:59

1 Answer 1


Yes, it was relatively simple to fake identities.

A famous, famous example of this is shown in Day of the Jackal, where Frederick Forsyth included a character who faked his identity using a very simplistic method that had been known about for decades and took until the noughties to actually rectify.

  • Basically, he showed that someone could trawl a village or location for graves. The person looking would search for someone who had died young, but if they'd been alive, would be roughly the same age as the person looking.

  • Next, the person would go to the local registry office and buy the birth certificate of the deceased (no identification was needed for this).

  • Finally, they would apply for a passport (the only piece of evidence needed to do this was a birth certificate).

Doing this, it was utterly simplistic to fake someone's identity.

Now, Forsyth's example related specifically to the UK. However, in the US, the law wasn't all that different.

It used to be the case that US citizens didn't get social security numbers until they got their first job.

Therefore, someone looking to assume a fake identity could again search for a deceased person who, if alive, would be roughly their age. They could again purchase their birth certificate. Finally, they could apply for a social security number and explain their reasons for doing so (let's say the person stealing the identity was 30 - they could explain they didn't have a job for ten years for any reason they liked).

Another factor to consider was that the punishment for faking identities used to be far less severe than it is now. For criminals with a string of offences on their record, the relatively minor crime of faking their identity was worth it - whereas nowadays, it would carry a much more severe sentence.

So in summary - it was very simple to fake identities until the digitalisation of the data (and even now, it's still far from foolproof).

  • Finally someone gave a detailed answer. About the part where the person would buy the birth certificate, would he buy it while impersonating the deceased? wouldn't be very easy to pick whatever name comes to mind? Also do is there a real famous example of such cases? Thanks. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 5:24
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    @onlyforthis: That's the point of the graveyard scoping. All he needs to know is the birth place, death place and approximate age of the person (which the grave would tell them). Then they could buy it back pretending they were the person. Since there was little tracking of who was claiming them, this was relatively easy to do. Once the birth certificate was in hand, it was child's play. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 8:02
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    And for real cases, BBC News discussed this a while back. Here's a Scottish example Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 8:05

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