Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

In her new book, Elizabeth Greenwood delves into the mysterious world of people who fake their own deaths.

Have you ever thought about starting over by committing pseudocide — faking your own death? Author Elizabeth Greenwood was tempted by this exit plan.

As a young public school teacher in the Bronx with a diploma in history, Greenwood was overwhelmed with $60,000 of student loan debt. A co-worker suggested over dinner that she fake her own death. Intrigued, she looked into the idea online and discovered a mysterious world.

So began Greenwood’s five-year investigation, during which she spoke with two convicted fraudsters and their loved ones, as well as two renowned investigators, among others, bombarding them with questions while gathering information to fake her own death.

One story she recounts is that of UK resident John Darwin (see also Fraud, September 2014). On March 21, 2002, in cahoots with his wife, Anne, Darwin faked his own drowning while kayaking. He hid out on a deserted beach for a couple of weeks, just a few kilometres from Seaton Carew, the town where he lived in northern England. He then changed his last name and appearance and moved into an apartment adjoining Anne’s former home. Darwin turned himself in to police in 2007 appearing to suffer from amnesia, but the authorities quickly unravelled the ruse. He had wanted to pay off his debts and give his wife a comfortable retirement, but in the end he was sentenced to six years in jail; one of his two sons cut all ties with him and the couple divorced.

Greenwood also talks to investigators, including a skip tracer. Frank Ahearn helps people disappear without a trace, which he believes is a better solution than pseudocide. According to Ahearn, men want to disappear because of financial problems or to be with their mistresses, while women are often escaping violent spouses. For his part, Steve Rambam, CEO of Pallorium, a global investigations agency headquartered in the US, has conducted more than 500 foreign insurance investigations relating to dubious claims.

He says that insurance companies will withhold life insurance proceeds when they learn of such scams; they have no interest in making headlines with these cases and giving potential fraudsters ideas.

It’s easier to fake your own death abroad — in the Philippines, for example, where corruption is endemic. Greenwood had the opportunity to go to the country and, with the help of an investigator and an employee of the National Bureau of Investigations in the Philippines, obtained a death certificate “confirming” that she had died in a car accident.

At the end of her investigation, Greenwood came to the realization that pseudocide is a lot less romantic than it seems, and that running away from your responsibilities isn’t worth it. The consequences are worse than dealing with reality. She chose her real life over her fake death certificate, which she kept when she returned to the US.