From the afterlife to the American frontier, the concept of a new beginning has always been a romanticized proposition. After all, the chance to leave it all behind can seem incredibly tempting.
Some people take that impulse a bit further and fake their own deaths. There aren’t great statistics on death fraud, but it’s an old problem, often inspired by financial problems or legal troubles.
In her new book “Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud,” Elizabeth Greenwood examines the motives, methods, and people involved in the surprisingly lucrative death fraud industry. Greenwood’s interest in the untold journey of death fraudsters stemmed from thinking of ways to confront her $100,000 in student loan debt.
Ideas reached Greenwood by phone at her in Brooklyn. Below is an edited excerpt.
IDEAS: How do people fake their own deaths?
GREENWOOD: The tactics have been the same throughout history, with varying degrees of sophistication and technological aid. Even back in the 1700s and 1800s, there were many stories of people trying to procure corpses that were not their own and pass them off as themselves. Later on, people would place their own obituaries in newspapers. No matter what era, it involves forging documents like very good death certificates, doctors’ reports, and police reports.
IDEAS: Has technology changed pseudocide?
GREENWOOD: Technology is a very double-edged sword and it depends on who is better at utilizing it — the person who is trying to fake their death or the people who are seeking the death fraudster. People have purchased their own death certificates on sites like Silk Road and Confidential Access, but they’re also often hindered by technology because there’s a desire to be connected, to check in on yourself and know what’s going on. There is a story in the book about Patrick McDermott, Olivia Newton-John’s ex-boyfriend, who staged a fishing boat accident in Mexico a few years ago, and he actually led investigators directly to where he was hiding out because he had been constantly logging on to the site that people had put up to locate him. That centralized cluster of IP addresses is where investigators went to.
IDEAS: It seems like an effective death fraudster needs a great deal of restraint.
GREENWOOD: The person who gets caught is usually someone who is not flying under the radar. So humility, restraint, and conscientiousness are essential. The real challenge is being able to cut all ties. A lot of people see faking their deaths as a temporary fix to a problem that is plaguing them, but the problem is that it can never be a temporary fix — you need to go all in. So you have to restrain yourself from trying to reintegrate, like by exchanging emails with someone or sending a postcard. Your old life has to be done. They found Whitey Bulger by locating Catherine Gregg. He couldn’t leave that part of his life behind.
IDEAS: What type of people fake their deaths?
GREENWOOD: There is this low-budget type of con man who will fake his death. Also, some are life insurance scammers or people who get themselves into debt. You can also have bigger reasons, like Sam Israel, who staged his suicide in 2008 because he was facing a pretty lengthy prison sentence.
IDEAS: Do you differentiate between people who fake their own death and people who just disappear?
GREENWOOD: One is making an elaborate accident or hoax to make people think you have died. The other is just vaporizing one day. Faking your death always introduces a new variable or element that is more likely to get you caught. Disappearing is more elegant.
IDEAS: Death fakers seem to benefit from having a flair for the dramatic.
GREENWOOD: One of the greatest stories is John Darwin, from England. In 2002, with the help of his wife, he staged a kayaking accident. He did this because he had gotten himself in very deep real estate debt and other financial trouble. He was a corrections officer and had been a teacher. He wasn’t the kind of white collar criminal moving millions of dollars and attracting a lot of attention and scrutiny from law enforcement. As he put it, he was Mr. Boring. What’s amazing about John’s story is not only that he got away with it for eight years until he turned himself into a police station, but also that he kept living right by his home. He assumed an incredible costume, grew a long beard, walked with a stoop and a stick, and hid in plain sight. Simultaneously, he managed to get an authentic UK passport for a person born around the same time as him named John Jones. He then traveled all over the world and bought property in Panama. He really did it.
IDEAS: What was it like to immerse yourself in the death fraud industry?
GREENWOOD: I expected the people who trade in death fraud as their livelihood to be kind of dark, menacing, and spooky, but all the people I had the pleasure to interview and learn about were all just normal people. For example, Frank Ahearn is a privacy consultant. He started out as a skip tracer, an unlicensed PI. He used his knowledge of how people get caught to help people disappear. Frank’s whole thing is that he doesn’t do anything illegal. He is not setting you up for offshore banking or giving you a new identity. He just makes your trail as invisible as possible. His typical clients are older men who had come into a lot of money or lost a lot of money. The women he sees are usually in abusive relationships and trying to escape from violent husbands or boyfriends.
IDEAS: What does the future look like for death fraud?
GREENWOOD: I think that more sophisticated documents will emerge that limit the need to use forged papers. I also believe that people will continue to try life insurance fraud since it is a very attractive crime that lacks the complications associated with, say, robbing a bank. No matter how things change, the perennial problem will still be cutting off, letting go, and leaving your old self behind.