IDENTITY CHANGE

There are many ways to find personal information about someone. Abusers can use the information to harass, harm and locate survivors or their children.

Changing identity may not be easy, or even possible

It is important for survivors to protect personal information because an abuser can use it to continue the abuse or to locate a victim who does not wish to be found. Often survivors think that they will completely change their identity - name, social security number, address, job - to avoid being found by their abusers. However, changing one's identity may not be an easy or permanent fix. Victims may not be able to change all of the details of their lives that an abuser could use to find and harass them.

Personal Information is Everywhere

Many official records are considered public information and are on file at courthouses, licensing bureaus, and state agencies. More and more agencies are making records available on-line. Online shopping, banking and bill-pay systems, discount cards and rebates collect information that may be revealed through computer tampering or hacking. Charitable contributions, social networking Internet sites, voting records and address change forms from the Post Office contribute to the information available. Information brokers take all the information about a person, combine it into a data profile and sell the profiles to other companies for marketing purposes. There are very few legal restrictions on using and sharing this data. Even if it is meant for use by companies trying to sell items, abusers might be able to get it.

Relocation and Information Protection

Leaving an abusive situation is a long, fearful process for many victims, and the threat of violence does not go away even after separation. Abusers use intimidation, fear and violence to keep power over victims and to control the family. Abusers know the intimate details of their victims' lives -  friends, families, favorite places to go, employers, doctors, and more. To prevent more abuse, victims often must keep their whereabouts secret after escaping.

A domestic violence advocate can help victims make a safety plan that works for their lives. Whether victims must flee in panic or strategically plan the time to leave, a safety plan identifies important items, papers and preparations a victim and children will need. Part of the safety plan may include moving or relocating to another city or even another state.

In some cases, when a victim with children relocates, the court's permission to leave Pennsylvania may be necessary.

Plan for Safe and Confidential Relocation

Employers, landlords, business contacts, coworkers, even family and friends, may give personal information about a victim without realizing that it could be dangerous. With the help of a counselor/advocate at the local domestic violence program, victims can learn how to teach family and friends to help keep them safe. For instance, family and friends should never give out any information, no matter how innocent it seems, to anyone asking for information about the victim. Victims can coach their family and friends to repeat the phrase, "All I can do is take your number." The victim can then decide whether or not to call, and call from a location with a blocked caller ID.

Pennsylvania has an Address Confidentiality Program that can give victims a confidential address to list on forms, applications and legal records. The program can also forward mail from the confidential address to the victim's new address. Victims may apply at the local domestic violence, sexual assault or victims' services office

Name Change

Pennsylvania law covers when and how a person can get a legal name change. The person must explain the reason for the name change to a judge in a legal hearing. The judge may not allow the name change during a divorce, custody, bankruptcy or criminal case, or if the person has a criminal record. Domestic violence is a good reason for a judge to allow the name change. That means victims have to be willing to admit that they're being abused in front of a judge, and some victims are not ready. For legal reasons, name-change requests have to be published in a local newspaper and in other places. However, because this could tip off an abuser, the law says that a domestic violence survivor may not have to publish. After a hearing, the judge will decide whether to allow the name change. Because court documents are usually open to the public, victims can ask the judge to seal the file so that an abuser cannot ask to see them. The victim can request that the file be sealed whether or not the name change was granted. Getting access to sealed files requires the judge's permission, and it's harder for an abuser to see them.

An advocate at the domestic violence program and/or an attorney can help survivors think about the good or bad consequences of the name change process.

Social Security Number Change

It is possible to get a new social security number. However, changing a social security number will not guarantee safety from an abuser. Many times, victims are tracked through family and friends. It is possible that an abuser using certain types of technology may be able to find out a new social security number. There are many myths and realities of identity change that domestic violence victims should know.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not delete the old social security number. The old and the new number are cross-referenced and the SSA limits the number of times it will allow people to change their numbers. SSA maintains confidentiality of records and does not give out information without the consent of the person. However, the SSA must provide information to other some federal and state government agencies. 

Survivors should talk with an advocate from the local domestic violence program about a safety plan, as well as an attorney, before starting the identity change process. 

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