Faking your own death is a timeworn tradition. Whether it's to collect on a life-insurance policy, escape a criminal conviction, or to simply disappear, people have been playing dead for centuries. It's hard to say exactly how many people have pulled it off successfully, because a successful pseudocide just looks like a real death.
There are, however, plenty of death fakers who don't pull it off. Their plots, the motivations behind them, and the ways they get caught are at the heart of the book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, which was released this week. I spoke to the book's author, Elizabeth Greenwood, to find out how some people fake their own deaths and why it's never a good exit strategy.
VICE: How many people do you estimate fake their own deaths?
Elizabeth Greenwood: It really is hard to say because if people fake their deaths successfully, then they're just considered dead. The real marker for it, and the people who tend to get caught, are people who try to commit life insurance fraud. There are several red flags that come up—like, if you've recently increased your coverage in the past year or two, or [if your coverage is] not commensurate with your net worth. Insurance adjusters just have a sixth sense about when something about a death is "off." If all these stars align, then they'll send out investigators to really suss out what happened.
The investigators I interviewed, they subcontract for a number of companies. They are personally investigating dozens of them a year. If I had to guess, I would put it at several hundred a year. But that is very anecdotal.
Is pseudocide illegal?
To advance the idea that you are dead really doesn't violate any sort of legal code, but all the ancillary steps involved with faking a death usually are illegal. One of the main reasons people will fake their death is because they are avoiding criminal charges. So if you are fleeing a jail sentence, that's obstruction of justice. If you're going to commit identity theft—or any kind of fraud—in your next life, then that's a crime. There is a line you can walk and still stay on the legal side of things, but it's very, very narrow.
Are there famous cases where someone managed to do this?
There's a really great case about this out of Germany. Her name is Petra Pazsitka. In the early 80s, she was a young computer-science student at a local university. She was 18 or 19 years old. One day, she just got on the bus and never came back. A few years later in the same area, there was a murder of another teenage girl, slightly younger—like 14 or 15. They found the guy who murdered that young woman, and for some reason, he copped to murdering Petra as well, so she was declared dead. Case closed. In the fall of 2015, there was a call to the police in a different German town to report a burglary. They showed up, and she gave the name Petra Schneider. They said, "You need to show us ID." At that point, she said, "Remember that murdered girl back in the early 80s? That's me."
It's odd how it worked out. Someone else faked her death for her, and they don't appear to have colluded. While she was disappeared for 30 years, she worked completely off the books, she never got another ID, got paid all cash. When this all came out, the German authorities just made her register herself as "alive." But there was no criminal activity that they could find.
So a successful death faker would likely not be living very glamorously.
It takes a lot of thought, and you just have to be able to live very modestly. The second you even try to get a library card in someone else's name you're committing fraud. Small amounts of cash, not too much moving around, or you'd have to be showing ID in different places. So it sounds kind of boring when you think about it, but I do think it is possible.
Do cases other than insurance fraud get investigated? If pseudocide is not illegal per se, is anyone verifying these deaths?
Unfortunately, law enforcement is usually stretched pretty thin. Even Sam Israel, when he was on the lam, it's not like there were feds searching high and low for him. He saw himself on America's Most Wanted when he was hiding out, which is crazy to think about.
Insurance companies, on the other hand, do have the resources to make sure they are not paying out [to someone who isn't actually dead]. Their burden of proof is not to show that you're alive; it's to show that you're not dead. They don't have to find you, but they have to prove that the documents you submitted were false, that this witness's testimony was bullshit, whatever.
In the book, you spoke to several individuals involved in either catching death fakers or in assisting them—all of whom said faking your death is generally a bad idea. Why is that?
They did have a very visceral repulsion to the whole idea. Especially the fraud investigators. They've just dealt with so many knuckleheads over the course of their career. Most of the fraud that they investigate—especially for insurance—is just really easy to spot.
But I think the main reason I was constantly being dissuaded from this idea was because it's just not a super effective way to disappear. It introduces a whole new level of complexity unless you take a lot of time to plan it and plan for the future—which, again, most people who are considering faking their death, are not in a mind frame to really be deliberate and think through the whole plan.
You faked your own death, for the book. How did you do it?
I wanted to see how far I could get, short of actually trying to commit fraud. I went to the Philippines because it kept coming up since the beginning of my reporting as the place where a lot of insurance-fraud attempts come from. It's a place with a very robust infrastructure for supporting these frauds in the form of black-market morgues. You can find a body to cremate and pass off as your own. They sell full on "death kits."
What's a "death kit"?
Basically anything you'd need to fake your death. Your death certificate, your statements from witnesses who saw your "accident," the fake autopsy report.
I found two incredible local guys there who helped me obtain my own death certificate from a mole they have working inside one of the government agencies. It was based on a false police report with fake witness names making fake witness statements detailing my [traffic] accident. That's how I did it. But I never filed a report with the US Embassy to make it official. Death fraud for life insurance purposes is really carried out with documents, more than anything.
It would have cost $500; probably cheaper [if I'd given them more advance notice]. It was much easier than I thought it would be.
What are the most common mistakes people make in getting caught?
Any kind of water accident. We think if you're gonna fake a death, there's the problem of the body. What do you do? "Oh, of course the body will just sink to the bottom of the ocean, and you're good." That's really just not the way it works. Most bodies are recovered within a few days to a week. I spoke to [VICE contributor] Seth Ferranti for another book I'm writing. He staged his death as a suicide. They actually dredged the river looking for his body. So we think that's a really genius Jason Bourne move, but it's actually amateur hour.
Also, being unable to cut ties. That's a perennial problem. I thought that technology would be the biggest stumbling block that you would face in faking your death, but it's actually really being able to truly abandon your old life and your old profile of your likes and dislikes and preferences. Really, just be born a totally new creature. Unfortunately, unless you're kind of a total sociopath, that's really impossible for most people.
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