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Almost everyone on the planet has a unique birth name which identifies him or her socially and legally. There are times, however, when a person may decide to invent an alternative identity, for either legal or illegal purposes. Such an alternative or false identification is known as a alias, from the Latin for "at another time" or "otherwise." The English word else is also derived from the same Latin root as alias. Career criminals often have at least one alias, which they use in an effort to avoid detection by law enforcement officers. These known aliases are often published on wanted posters and public bulletins along with the suspect's legal name.
Assuming an alias is not necessarily an illegal act in itself according to the laws of many countries. A person can use an alternative name under many circumstances, as long as the purpose is not specifically illegal or intended to defraud others. A number of people assume aliases while participating in online chat rooms or discussion forums, for instance. This practice allows participants a certain amount of anonymity, but there is rarely any intention to deceive other people or assume the identity of a real person. The use of an alias in a public setting is more likely to be a personal safety issue rather than a criminal act. A single woman may use an alias in order to thwart would-be stalkers or unwanted attention, for instance.
Using an alias in order to commit fraud or other criminal acts, however, is definitely illegal. A con artist may use several aliases in order to set up a fly-by-night business or open several different banking accounts. If one victim can identify the con artist by name, he or she can always assume an alternative identity and leave the area quickly. Many criminals have been brought to justice because they habitually use the same aliases, or they may use their legal names to obtain goods and services while hiding from authorities. Sometimes a routine check of an employee's social security number will reveal the illegal use of an alias.
Sometimes a public figure or celebrity will use an alias in order to protect his or her family from overzealous fans or members of the press. Making a reservation at a restaurant or registering at a local hotel under his or her real name might prove to be problematic, so a celebrity will often use an alias in order to avoid undue public attention. Some musicians and actors will assume aliases or stage names because their legal birth names would be unmarketable. Radio personalities also assume aliases or radio names both to protect their real identities and to create a more audience-friendly persona. An established writer could use an alias or pen name in order to publish a book outside of his or her normal genre.
The use of an alias in order to present an alternative persona or character is not specifically illegal in most cases. Using it to commit an illegal act, assume a real person's identity, or create confusion in the marketplace is most decidedly not recommended.
An alias is, indeed, common and it is unfortunate that it is so frequently associated with criminal conduct. Indeed, most people who assume an alias aren't up to criminal activity at all.
Ringo Starr, Johnny Ramone, Johnny Rotten and Jello Biafra -- all aliases made by people who became very prominent. They might have been controversial at times, but they weren't exactly criminals.