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Identity Fraud

The most simple hoax of all is making up who you are. When reporters interview people, they typically take a great leap of faith that those people are telling the truth about themselves. When you interview someone at a parade or on the phone, how do you know that the name they give - or any other personal information - is true?

You don't. The routine practice of journalism will rarely detect fabrications about identify or personal background. Such frabications undoubtedly occur more than most journalists realize.

ID fraud ranges from "instant pseudonyms" - a student being interviewed about college drinking identifies himself by the name of a fraternity brother - to intricate concoctions worthy of an international spy story - like a poet portraying himself to the media as an ex-CIA agent with inside information about the death of Princess Diana.

The instant pseudonyms are the most likely to succeed. The hoaxer is typically an average person who doesn't go around lying about his name. The hoax is born the moment a reporter asks, "Can I have your name?", and the person may never give a fake answer again. Why now? Because he thinks it's funny, because he wants to be helpful but feels uncomfortable having his name published or broadcast, or because he wants to avoid an inconvenience or a bit of trouble, like having his boss learn that he was at Opening Day when he called in sick.

If these don't seem like good motives for lying, remember that to the hoaxer, the lie seems filely harmless. Who cares about the real name of the woman who says she's enjoying the Memorial Day parade?

Thus random interviewing - such as man-on-the-street - is especially vulnerable to this type of hoax. The safeguards, such as asking to the see the driver's licenses of people you interview, probably seem to most reporters as having more drawbacks than they're worth.

When the stakes are higher, ID hoaxes can get quite intricate. People fabricate not just names, but entire personal histories in order to boost their careers (as in entertainment) or even to avoid danger. In some of these more intricate tales, people use their real names, but fabricate entire aspects of their lives (to pass themselves off as experts in matters of great public interest, for instance).

A third common form of ID fraud involves what people submit to news organizations, mostly newspapers: letters to the editor. Newspapers and magazines have guidelines about verifying that a letter was indeed written by the person whose name appears on it. But because most of the newsroom staff isn't even aware of any case where the publication has been victimized by fake letter-writers, it is not unusual for staff to get lax in following the guidelines. Even when newspapers do take the required steps, a guarantee of ID confirmation is almost impossible. The verification process often involves calling the letter-writer at home, using a number that the writer provided.

A final form of ID fraud is sending someone out to pretend to be you. For example, when I appeared on a talk show about hoaxes, and the amused host asked me near the end how people manage to fool journalists so easily, I pointed out that I was a guest on her show, but "you have no idea who I am. No one asked for identification." Hoaxer Joey Skaggs (see "professionals") took advantage of this lapse when he was invited to appear on a Geraldo Rivera show about hoaxers. He sent a friend to pretend to be him, then unveiled his hoax after the show aired.

Key Factors

No Cause for Suspicion: In most of the cases, it doesn't even enter a reporter's mind that the person she's interviewing would make up a name or background information. In simple fake-name hoaxes, there's no apparent reason for the hoax.

Confirmation Obstacles: Try going back to the newsroom and saying that you interviewed six people for the "first day of spring" story, but it'll take you until the second day of spring to confirm their names and other details, such as martial status, professions and home towns. Even with online resources, a lot of facts can't be verified without information (such as social security numbers or addresses) that people are typically reluctant to give to reporters, especially in spontaneous interviews.

In more intricate cases, key information is often difficult to confirm because it involves something secret, such as clandestine military operations, or requires tracking information in foreign countries or from many years ago. As reporters put together their stories, the mere bureaucratic difficulties of trying to confirm information that other organizations have already published or broadcast often compels journalist to consider it too troublesome or time-consuming for what seems like a low-risk matter.

Deadline Pressure: Related to the above. Reporters cannot do their jobs, especially on daily stories, if they have to verify every fact that everyone gives them.

The "We Believe What We Read in the Papers" Syndrome: Once someone appears in print or broadcast using a certain name or discussing their backgrounds, other reporters work from the assumption that the information is fundamentally accurate.

Credibility: In the more intricate hoaxes, the ID and personal history information comes to journalists not from the hoaxer, but from an institution that the journalist trusts - such as a television studio or a government agency - that has also been hoaxed.

The Hoaxer's Investment: In intricate concoctions, the hoaxers must repeatedly carry out the lie in public, as well as to employers, police and government officials. Lying to journalists is thus no big deal.

Red Flags

There aren't many for the instant pseudonyms, save the general warning that people you don't know can be lying about who they are and what they've done. In hoaxes that are more involved, and where journalists have more time to spend interviewing the subject and checking his background, there is more opportunity to pick up that something is amiss.

Profit: The hoaxer has something to gain: money, fame or even safety.

Unconfirmability: Be especially wary when some information from the subject's background is inherently "secret," such as his alleged involvement in a clandestine military unit or a witness protection program. Also be careful when ID and background information are hard to confirm because of bureaucratic obstacles, such as getting information from a foreign government agency.

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