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Identity theft, airport security, and coincidences

Airport Screening

OK, my name is Richard Smith, and it's a common name. My wife's name, however, isn't especially common. The combination of the two is even rarer. A party traveling by air matching those two names is even rarer.

It finally happened. Wednesday. Same flight.

We were flying home after Easter. Originally we had separate reservations - I had work to finish Out East and my wife had an evening course to manage back home. The course was canceled at the last minute, so she rescheduled to put us both on the same flight.

The first problem cropped up when I tried to check my bags. I couldn't unless I wanted to pay. But I'd signed up for the stupid airline credit card to earn free baggage. This was too much for the curbside baggage guy to handle, so we had to talk to someone inside. 

A little poking around uncovered two Richard Smiths on the flight. One was traveling in a group that included my wife. But we had made separate reservations. The gate agent looked at her boarding pass and realized that it wasn't the one associated with the group. Very suspicious.

Maybe this was a twice-purchased ticket: if so, they'd refund the tickets to our credit card. Did we have the card used to make the purchase? It didn't match any of our cards. 

Are these people stealing our identity? They had different birth dates from ours, and a different credit card. Are they terrorists?

The agent finally used birth dates to line up the correct boarding passes. She also put a flag on the other tickets so they'd be double-checked before boarding the plane. We headed through security. 

As soon as we were seated, my wife Googled our names. Sure enough, there were colleagues at the University of New Hampshire who shared our names. They had co-authored conference presentations.

Fortunately, they made it through the gauntlet of airport security we'd inadvertantly thrown in their way, and were seated on the plane. Later, my wife spoke at length with her namesake and apologized. 

So what's the point?

This shows how thoroughly airport authentication relies on matching names. The victims of this confusion (the other travelers) did nothing wrong, but they almost missed their flight.

Is this sort of mixup an inevitable system cost? Possibly so. The alternative is to slow things down even more. 

It's interesting that we ourselves thought the odds of a name match to be much less likely than being the target of identity theft. But the odds of a "double identity theft" like that seems wildly unlikely.

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