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August 11, 2016

Mistaken Identity: It CAN Happen!

background checks

Mistaken identity might sound amusing, but it isn’t always the case.

While genuine errors are less common than actual identity theft, they do happen and can be devastating for the people involved. Throughout history there have been examples of people who would have benefited from background checks, such as:

  • In the 1930’s, in Brookville, Indiana, a man named Ralph Alsman was arrested a total of 17 times. His crime? He looked like the infamous John Dillinger’s identical twin, right down to matching scars.
  • Joyce Ann Brown, a former prostitute, was sentenced to 25 years in prison, of which she served nine, for a murder during a jewelry store heist. The only trouble was, while she shared a name with the woman who hired the getaway car for the crime, she wasn’t actually the killer. In fact, even though she had an alibi for the day of the crime, she was still convicted, based only on her name!
  • In Canada, tax authorities mistakenly listed a woman as dead, and cut off her pension.

In South Africa, corruption in public services is so rife that there’s a website where locals can check to see if they are “married” to illegal immigrants, and in the US, over 4,200 veterans have been mistakenly listed as deceased.

Common Names, Similar Faces

Some of the most interesting cases of mistaken identity throughout the ages have been the result of similar names or uncanny resemblances, and while modern record keeping and background checks have helped to eliminate some of these cases, they do still happen. Some people really just do have “one of those faces” or a name that is so common it’s easy to confuse them with someone else.

It really can happen to anyone though, and if you take the time to Google or search Facebook for your own name, chances are you’ll come up with at least one other person who has the same name as you too!

What You Can Do

While mistaken identity isn’t always malicious, it can still be a big problem for employers and other organizations who run background checks. Here are a few ways you can avoid confusion and mistakes:

  • If you are running a background check on someone with a common name, find out if they have a middle name or initial. Sometimes, a little more information can make all the difference!
  • Always ask for copies of government issued photo ID. They often contain differentiating information that you can use to determine that you’re looking at the correct report.
  • Consider requesting a recent bill or account in the applicant’s name. If they are paying recent bills at the address they’ve given you, they probably aren’t incarcerated or living in another country, so this can help to rule out simple mistakes!
  • Be extra careful about spelling. Leaving the H out of John could lead you to a completely different Jon, with a completely different history.
  • In some cases, fingerprint identification or other more accurate methods can help clear up confusion about identity.

Mistaken identity may not be as common as it once was, but it’s far from being history altogether. Take a little extra time to capture information carefully, and contact candidates or prospects if you come up with something strange in their background checks. There’s always a slim chance that you’re looking at someone else’s background report altogether!


Prior to requesting your own check please confirm, prior to ordering, if our reports will be acceptable to the agency you are providing the report to.

Many countries will not provide official government responses. It is your responsibility to confirm if our reports are acceptable and AIS makes no warranties of their acceptance.

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