Faking Your Own Death: Elizabeth Greenwood on Death Fraud

August 29, 2016

Elizabeth Greenwood teaches at Columbia University and like many other young professionals she has an insurmountable amount of student loan debt. With the overwhelming feeling that she would never escape her debt she desperately longed for a new start. There was no going back on what she had done to accumulate her debt, but perhaps she could skip ahead. She began to investigate what it would take to fake one’s own death in the 21st century.

Greenwood was shocked to find a robust infrastructure of death fraud all at her fingertips. Eager to know more about the strange subculture, she decided to go through with faking her own death and writes about it in her new book, Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World of Death Fraud. She meets some interesting characters along the way and realizes that a new start might not be as easy and appealing as it sounds.

This is point of inquiry for August 29, 2016. 

Point of inquiry is a production of the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry. Dot org slash membership. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Elizabeth Greenwood, author of Playing Dead. What got you interested in the idea of faking your own death? 

The idea came to me from a very personal place. It actually happened over the course of a very informal dinner with a friend. I had recently started graduate school, after which I’d taken out a bunch of student loans. 

I already had a pretty healthy student loan debt I was carrying from my undergraduate education. And it kind of hit me midway through this semester. What I had done after the euphoria of being back in school had worn off. 

So having dinner with this friend, this is a friend that I had taught public school with prior to were turning. And, you know, I was just bemoaning my plight to him. I was like, man, what have I done? I think I’ve really screwed myself. I’m never gonna be able to pay back all this money. What am I going to do? I think I’m going to need to just find a country with their rickety government, no extradition policy, and just slip through the cracks. 

And he said very offhandedly and joking, oh, or you can fake your own death. And I said, oh, my gosh, this is such a great idea. Why did I never think of that sinking my own death? So I went home that night and just Googled, fake your own death and encountered a very robust economy and infrastructure and really culture of death, fraud and pseudo side, you know, populated by people who presented themselves consultants. 

You aid people and disappearing and just community really of death fraud, people who helped people disappear, people who, you know, are just very interested in death hoaxes generally. And I was hooked. 

It’s interesting how something you think is going to be a path to freedom, like education somehow sometimes becomes a form of captivity in itself. 

That’s right. That’s really how it felt. And I mean, I wouldn’t have never really framed it that way had I, you know, not had to take out those loans, probably. But, yeah, that was very surprising to me, too. 

I was struck by the same thing being true of people who faked their deaths, that it seems like it’s a ticket to freedom. And it turns out to be this onerous, lifelong Sisyphean labor to stay hidden. 

Yeah, that’s right. I think that comes as a surprise to a lot of people. You know, the people I interviewed for my book who did fake their deaths and, you know, of course, that’s to say they fake their deaths and then got caught or turned themselves in. So they did it for, you know, an amount of time. So they have some pretty scaleable insight into it. 

Most of the people I interviewed were avoiding some some very stiff penalties. They’d gotten themselves into a lot of trouble. So either they were fleeing various financial debts or like big debts, like more than student loan debts to the tune of like half a billion dollars should invest your money or facing down criminal charges. You know, their minds were really not kind of in the place of weighing long term cost benefit analysis. They were really more in a fight or flight response and just really wanted to get away from the immediate trouble they were in. 

How common is this kind of fakery? Well, it’s hard to say. 

I mean, that’s the paradox about fake death. The people who do it successfully and pull it off, we just never know about because they’re presumed dead. I do interview in the book several life insurance fraud investigators and these are very hope, high profile private investigators who subcontracts for life insurance companies. So when a claim comes into the office, usually it will take place overseas. There’s no body to speak of. And it’s over a certain dollar threshold, usually in the millions. 

They will employ AP eyes to go check it out and prove that the claimant is is not, in fact, dead. So these guys are typically investigating about a hundred or so a year of life insurance fraud cases specifically. So, I mean, the data on this is is really tough to prove. But I mean, I would say that at least with the way for insurance fraud cases, you know, I’d guesstimate maybe a thousand or so per year. 

The opening scene of the book, you’re in Manila getting ready to receive your own death certificate. Can you describe the process that brought you the. 

So in the course of my research of interviewing these types of P eyes and reading about people who’d faked their deaths, the Philippines came up again and again is a place where a lot of death fraud, usually for life insurance purposes, takes place. And I had heard stories about black market morgues where fraudsters will go and actually actually buy a corpse that’s been kept on ice for this purpose that they will buy immediately cremate and try to pass off as themselves. 

So very, very elaborate death fraud infrastructure there. So I knew I wanted to get to the Philippines. I saw a stroke of pure genius and luck had been invited there to go do some travel blogging. 

I was just so lucky. So I as you know, can I just tack on a few extra days to check out Manila specifically? So I stayed a little longer. 

And I got hooked up with two amazing local fixers in Manila by the names of Snooki and Bong. And they helped me procure my own death certificate and accompanying police report and witness statements. And they used contacts they have who works in a government agency who siphons off all kinds of official documents, not just a death certificate, is kind of an outlier in the business. He does. He mostly does driver’s licenses, diplomas, but his job is just to kind of get documents and hold onto them until somebody needs them. 

And how much did this whole feel surface package cost you? 

So typically this sort of thing would be around a few hundred dollars. I was lucky enough to get mine on the house because of you know, I told them, like, I’m a journalist, I’m doing this, blah, blah, blah. And they were just kind enough to hook me up. But it’s actually pretty inexpensive. 

It’s received Ron. Who’s one of the life insurance fraud investigators who does a lot of work in the Philippines. He cited that if you wanted to do a full death fraud soup tonight, nuts, you know, with with the fake body. 

Well, you know, a real body. But that you’re trying to pass off as your own documents. And oftentimes death fraudsters will hold funerals while they were employ locals to, you know, weep over the coffin. So, like, very theatrical. He said that would run through the whole thing, about five thousand dollars. So not a ton of money. 

When you think about it, no use of throwing a funeral for yourself is probably a bad idea in terms of getting caught. Why is that? 

Well, there’s several reasons. 

I mean, one of the things and this is a distinction I make in my book is that, you know, I set out on this quest trying to answer the question if it’s possible to seek your death in the 21st century just because it seems so impossible. And the question I asked many an expert was, you know, is it possible? Is it better to fake your death? And their question backs me was always will. Why what’s what’s your motivation and what it came down to? Usually the conventional wisdom I received is that disappearing is a better way to go. So the difference between disappearing and faking your death is that disappearing is just, you know, your classic case of dad goes out for cigarets one day and never comes back. Death fraud requires much more of a narrative. You are imposing onto what happened to you. So it’s kind of staging an accident, creating a whole set of circumstances to suggest, oh, Lindsay went for a swim one day and never came back. Oh, she must’ve drowned. She must be dead. So the fake funeral is kind of part and parcel with that bit of, you know, extra theatricality. And it just gives investigators another thing to look into. Richard Marquez, who is another elite P.I. I I interviewed for the book. He told me a very funny story about a fraud, a death fraud case. I think out of Nigeria that he was looking into, because what happens is when, you know, you staged your fake funeral, you’ll take a video of this to submit to the life insurance company to show. Oh, look. Look how many people came out to mourn me. It’s so sad, et cetera, et cetera. So he was looking very closely at this video and he noticed, you know what, at first appeared to be a bunch of mourners circling the casket, wailing, crying. It was actually the same group of about a dozen people who were just changing clothes. The fences are going back into the frame. So that’s one reason it is the people. Will be scrutinizing these kinds of documents very hard. So it’s just pretty difficult to pull off or average people. 

What kind of grade did the expert, Steve, give you when you brought your death certificate back from the Philippines? He did a pretty good job keeping it. 

He said, OK, this is about 90 percent of the way there. And the thing is, you know, what he said was that this is pretty good. 

And depending on where you filed it, if you are going to file this in some po dunk county where they’re not getting a lot of international death certificates and maybe their expertize and acumen and what these documents should look like isn’t as sophisticated as other places. He said, you know, it could probably pass. And that’s one of the things that really surprised me is that there’s really across the board no kind of unified system for authenticating these documents. It really just kind of depends who you get on what day and where would you say it’s easier to disappear today than it was in the pre digital era or harder? Well, there’s in some ways it’s easier and, you know, in the obvious ways, it’s a lot harder. So that’s a question that I posed to Frank A’Hearn, who is a quote unquote, privacy consultant. And he has worked in his career helping people to disappear both physically and digitally. 

He’s my favorite character in the book. 

Frank, great. He’s he looks like a Hells Angel and a Harley guy. And he’s just, you know, you pin him down. He’s a big teddy bear. He’s a great guy. So what Frank told me is that in a lot of ways it is easier just because of the kind of convenience that, you know, having every thing at our fingertips avails for us. So he gave me the scenario that if you wanted to do sex to say Billie’s in the nineteen eighties, this would be a months long project, you would have to get a flight schedule of what flights are going out. If you wanted to buy real estate, you would have to send away for, you know, a catalog of properties that were available. You have to get the long distance international line to do it. So just really a big pain in the butt. Now, if you wanted to go to Belize, you could have your plane ticket erby and be all of that set up, you know, in half an hour’s time. So in a lot of ways, do you know, just the Internet and everything that’s available to us? It’s a lot simpler in a lot of ways. It’s much more difficult because our every move is monitored. You know, we have CCTV everywhere. We have the NSA going through our email. So in those ways, it is more difficult. What I came to understand is that the reason why people get caught when they disappear typically is because they just cannot cut ties with their former lives. They can’t let go of friends, family, loved ones. And when you disappear, if someone’s looking for you, they’re going to be following, you know, the certain very unique pattern you’ve established for yourself. So for if you love more Thai boxing, for example, you can never do more Thai boxing again because the investigators going to be looking at, you know, your track. And did you sign up for a moiety job? All these things, people have a really, really hard time abandoning who they were. Now, there are just so many more ways for us to keep in touch with loved ones to, you know, repeat the patterns that we love. So the reason why it’s hard for people to disappear in the 21st century is really just the perennial problem. 

It’s a human nature problem of not being able to let go, because you always think when you think about creating a new life, you’re creating a new life for yourself as you are now, not becoming a different self and then going on to live differently. That’s exactly right. 

And a lot of people just have a very hard time doing that. And it’s kind of one of the saddest, most tragic aspects of this is that we think that, you know, even I think there’s the common fantasy. You know, if we were to move somewhere to California that we would switch to a different city, that we would be the superior version of ourselves elsewhere. 

And it’s really just the kind of external trappings of our lives here that are that are having us in. Well, really, in fact, people have a very hard time becoming someone else. We really are who we are, for better or worse. 

Frank came from a very unusual industry, like the substratum of private investigations. Can you describe how that set him on the course to become a disappearance consultant? 

Yes. So Frank was what is called a skip tracer and skip tracers are unlicensed P. eyes. So they do all the same kind of work, mostly of finding people who do not want to be found. So that included subpoenaed witnesses who did not want to testify. Deadbeat dads, you owed tons of child support. People were avoiding criminal prosecution, all these things. The difference between a skip tracer and a P.I. is that skip tracers don’t have to because they’re unlicensed, don’t have to abide the same pesky rules that a private investigator would like. War is like different privacy laws. They just kind of do it flying by the seat of their pants. Frank was able to locate a lot of people, not by pounding the pavement the same way a private investigator would, but by calling up various companies under pretext. She called pretexting usually pretending to be someone who he was not to try to get information about. People’s patterns. So, for example, if you were trying to get phone records for, you know, a wife who thought her husband was cheating, he would call up the phone company and say, oh, hey, you know, this is so and so. And I really just wanted to make sure I’m getting the best deal on my long distance. Could you just read back my call history for this month and, you know, get the evidence that way. So Frank really specialized in finding people. That business collapsed after two thousand one after 9/11. He was going through a messy divorce and things just kind of came down for him. He took a few months off to regroup and he realized that, you know, he knew so much about finding people that he really has this particular knowledge and wisdom about what gets people caught. So he inverted his business model and then went into helping people disappear. 

Frank says that men and women disappear for different reasons. Those tend to be. 

That’s right. So most of Frank’s male clients who sought his services were asking him for help because they had either come into money and he would describe them then. Is that, you know, seeking the palm tree lifestyle? So, you know, you’re kind of central casting middle age guy who wanted to just go be an expat somewhere in Central America. You know, maybe do some fishy things with the IRS and just kind of slip through the cracks or. These are men who have lost a lot of money and we’re trying to get out of Dodge for those reasons. So the motivations for his male clients were typically financial. Usually for women, they were in abusive relationships. A lot of women contacted him because they were fearing for their lives and needed to flee from a violent husband or partner. And for those clients, Frank never charged them anything. He just helped them pro bono. 

Frank insists that he doesn’t help criminals. Do you believe him? 

I do. 

I do believe him. I think that, you know, we all have probably thresholds for what, you know, we consider to be criminal or moral. But, you know, Frank is managed to do this work for decades now, and he’s not trying to get himself in trouble. So he doesn’t want to embroil himself in in anything too fishy. So I do believe him that he does not help criminals. His motto was that you’re either a cop, a criminal or crazy until proven otherwise. So you have to pass a lot of frank sniff test in order for him to work with you. 

Do you think it can ever be ethical to fix your own death? 

Well, it’s a great question, and that’s a question actually posed to a woman I interviewed for the book named Lisa Boo’s In. And Lisa at the time was in her late thirties. She’s a gorgeous woman who lives in Southern California. She, as a young girl, had been told that her father died when she was very young. She had no memory of him. Her mother also died of a drug overdose when she was young, and she was. Lisa was raised by her grandparents. She later came to find out that her dad did not die when she was young. And the heat actually faces death. And she learned this when she stumbled upon his very real obituary that had been posted online just a few months before she found it. So this was, as you can imagine, just a horrible crushing blow to, you know, your entire perception of self, to your conception of who you are and what your biography is. That’s a fundamental piece of information that was just totally false. So I asked Lisa that same question as well. Do you think this could ever be moral? I think up until meeting Lisa and several other people who had a loved one that that fake their death and were affected by it, not just because they didn’t know a lot of people some times would know that their father husband was faking his death, would collude with them to collect life insurance, and then ended up paying a price criminally, usually serving time in jail. I’d kind of thought of this as a victimless crime. You know that this is really just you, your own life. You’re not actually hurting anyone. But meeting Lisa really change that. So I asked you that question. Is there ever a good reason? And, you know, she searched her brain for minutes and she said, you know, the only thing I could think of is if you live next to a nuclear power plant and you staged your death to bring attention to, you know, the ills that are happening. But other than that, no, it is in a lot of ways, very spineless, very cowardly and very hurtful. I wanted in my research to find, you know. Noble hero who had faked his or her own deaths because they’d been framed for a crime they didn’t commit. Or something, you know, straight out of Hollywood. I haven’t found anyone like that yet. And fortunately, I’m still hopeful someone like that could be out there. But in my own research, I mostly found, you know, your kind of garden variety, low budget con men. 

Do you think it’s because successful soft disappearance requires a certain kind of ruthlessness and indifference to the feelings of others that you don’t find many noble, big suicides? 

Oh, it absolutely does. I mean, as I mentioned, the reason why people get caught is because they have a very hard time severing ties with the people they loved. So in order to really walk away, you have to just be very, very cold, very calculating and just be able to leave that part of your life behind. You know, I know very few people who could do that. I haven’t really met one yet. 

Could you get a new new life? That would be worth everything. Every human relationship you’d ever had. Your old life. 

Yeah. I mean, it’s a really good question. I think, again, it’s probably not so much what you’re gaining in the next life, but probably what you’re leaving behind in the previous life. So whether that’s preserving or having your reputation demolished, I mean, whatever that is, it would have to, you know, the balance sheet would have to come out to your second life. 

You know, just being a solitary person, that would have to be superior. 

I mean, prison seems to me like the only good reason that the only thing that’s horrible enough that it might be worth it if you were looking at a life in prison kind of thing. 

I think that’s right. And that’s one reason why Sam Israel faked his death. Sam was a hedge fund manager here in New York. And in June of 2008, he staged his death by feigning a suicide off the Bear Mountain Bridge about an hour north of the city. He parks his truck on the bridge and wrote in and pull in on the windshield. Suicide is painless. And he actually jumped from the bridge. He caught himself in construction nets that were hanging below. And then he hand over hand, wriggled his way out of the nets into the embankment on the other side and made off in a getaway RV for a few weeks, hiding out at camp sites around New England and New York. 

He was looking at a 20 year prison sentence at that point. He had lost half a billion with a B dollars of investor money that he had been sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, which to that point was one of the highest sentences for a white collar criminal birdie. 

Bernie Madoff’s crimes surfaced just a few months later. But until then, Sam had run the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history. 

So he was really trying to get out of Dodge when he got caught. Well, he turned himself in a few weeks later. He’d seen himself on America’s Most Wanted while he was hiding out. He got two years tacked on to his sentence for obstruction of justice, for fleeing the sentence when he was out on the lam. 

Did he feel exhilarated? 

You know, I think part of what he described to me was that in that very initial kind of moments of realizing he’d gotten away with it, he did feel exhilarated. 

I think after that, it really just unraveled into paranoia. You know, as it would when you’re seeing yourself on America’s Most Wanted. And then, you know, kind of trying to figure out the next moves. So I think if there was exhilaration, it was very brief. 

Who is Soul? Shawn Sibley. 

Shawn is one of the names that Michael Jackson was admitted to UCLA Hospital under when he was brought in for cardiac arrest when he died or didn’t die, depending on who you talk to. 

Is that normal? I mean, it seems like every time you read celebrity media about Los Angeles, you’ve got celebrities checking into hotels and hospitals and all kinds of things under assumed names. Is that something that they just do? 

If you’re a big enough celebrity, you know, I’m really not sure. I mean, I would imagine probably. 

But I think what you’re alluding to is this group of Michael Jackson’s super fans I write about in the book who call themselves the believers, and they accumulate facts and evidence and clues to suggest that Michael Jackson faked his death and that he’s actually. Alive in that alias that he checked into the hospital under, is one of those clues that they use to back up their assertion that Michael Jackson did not perish and is, in fact, out there and coming back any day now. 

There’s a long historical record of people doing this with their favorite pop stars. Did it start with Elvis or does it go back even further? 

That’s a great question. I’m really not sure. Elvis is the first one that I think really achieved critical mass. 

And that was due to a series of books by a writer named Gail Brewer Giorgio, who kind of set the prototype for the modern celebrity death hoax of, you know, these kind of totemic sort of clues about, you know, using numerology to suggest that death is a thing. Looking at the body in the coffin and suggesting that it’s actually a wax dummy and these things so that Elvis death hoax çelik like wildly popular. 

Has there ever been a confirmed celebrity death hoax? 

Well, I mean, there’s there’s cases like Ken Can Kesey faked his death and then was hiding out in Mexico for a few years and came back. I’m not sure to the extent people believed he was dead. That’s usually the problem when people fake their deaths is that they’re usually trying to get away from something. So the death will look kind of suspicious no matter what. 

Given the timing of circumstances, what is it psychologically about this belief or community that they want to believe that Michael Jackson would do such a thing? 

Well, I think the easy definition is that, you know, they can’t let go in, that they’re so obsessed and that this is them just really suffering from a very profound and pathetic delusion. That’s not what I found, though. What I found when I interviewed many believers of many stripes, because even within the believer community, there’s there’s factions. So pretty complex. But what I found is that, you know, these aren’t kind of like crazy maniacs you might expect them to be. No, they’re all like holding down jobs and are kind and functioning members of society. What I think, you know, similar to kind of any conspiracy theory is that just being able to kind of see the world as a scavenger hunt and really go at it with this idea that everything we know is in fact not true, that there’s this alternate reality. And then piecing together those clues, I think that it just gives them a lot of fun and a lot of meaning to their lives. And it’s a way to kind of like contain maybe, dino, these desires for magical thinking that we all have. This is just the place that they funnel it. And to me, what seems like you a way that’s not really hurting anybody. 

So it’s a kind of re enchantment of the world, the idea. I think so, yeah. That’s a great way to put it. This writing about your own death make you think about mortality differently. 

That’s interesting. That’s a good question. It does. I think it more so for me. It was really handling my own death certificate and seeing, you know, in these in these very cold and clinical boxes that the data is my dad dying or the time of death and the fatal car accident where I arrived dead on arrival in Manila to the hospital, you know, just just holding that document. 

I just realized that I was not interested in having that be my ends yet. So it really did make me think differently about my own, you know, not so much death, but my own life. And really what is is worth it. And, you know, student loan debt is just a real drop in the proverbial thinking death bucket. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.