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On paper, at least, Elizabeth Greenwood died while visiting the Philippines in 2013. Multiple witnesses reported seeing her rental car collide at high speed with another vehicle. Both drivers were seriously injured; doctors at a local hospital pronounced Greenwood dead on arrival.
The documents have all the right official seals, watermarks and signatures, but they're fake. There was no accident.
Obtaining her own death certificate was the culmination of years of research for Greenwood, who – in addition to being alive and well – is the author of the new book "Playing Dead: A Journey Though the World of Death Fraud." She doesn't recommend you try faking your own death.
Greenwood got her falsifying documents for free in the course of researching and writing her book. She says the mechanics of faking your own death range from just a few hundred dollars for a faux death certificate all the way up to $30,000 to hire a professional fixer to help erase your physical and digital trails. (That's in addition to the cash you'd need to launch your new life.)
CNBC talked to Greenwood about why money is a big motivation for faking your own death, as well as why it often trips up would-be fakers.
CNBC: I understand your interest in this all started because of your own financial situation.
Elizabeth Greenwood: I really got to think about faking your death as a concept when I went back to graduate school in 2010. I was having dinner with a friend and bemoaning my plight because I already had [$60,000 of] student loan debt I had accumulated as an undergraduate. I said, "What am I going to do? How am I ever going to pay back this money? I think I need to find a country with a rickety government and no extradition policy, and just kind of slip through the cracks." And my friend very candidly said, "Or you could fake your own death."
I wasn't ever doing a Google search for "fake your own death" to really do it. I was more interested in the question of, could you fake your own death in the 21st century, and if you were going to try, how would you do it? Just kind of poking around that, even superficially, opened up this very dynamic and robust culture of fake death, from consultants who help people to do it, to people who have done it themselves, to conspiracy theorists. I got totally sucked in.
A lot of the examples you write about are people who have worked in the financial industry.
There are so many great examples of white-collar criminals who fake their own deaths. There's a great case of Marcus Schrenker, who was a money manager in Indianapolis. He had bilked investors out of millions of dollars, and he was under investigation when he staged a plane crash in 2009. The jig was up a mere two days later because he'd emailed a friend detailing this plan.
With some of the higher profile cases where there was a bit more money at stake, I think one of my favorites was Sam Israel III, who was a hedge fund manager of Bayou Hedge Fund Group. In 2008, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for running what was until that point was one of the largest Ponzi schemes on record. Bernie Madoff's crimes came to light a few months later. At that point, Sam had lost nearly half a billion dollars of investor money. He decided to fake his death [by purportedly jumping off the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York, leaving the message "suicide is painless" on his vehicle]. He surrendered less than a month later.
Why is death fraud so attractive to people on Wall Street?
I think the egotism that drives a lot of Wall Street guys to do the high-risk, high-reward sort of investing and to really gamble is the same high self-esteem, shall we say, that propels someone to think you can really get away with faking your death and avoiding consequences and outsmarting law enforcement. It really does require a really strong sense of your own capability, to think you can fake your death and get away with it. These guys usually think they're the smartest guys in the room and that's why they can do it. Unfortunately for them, they usually get caught pretty soon.
What other money motivations might prompt people to fake their death?
"I'm worth more dead than alive." That's a line I heard several times. One reason people fake their death is because they owe a lot of money.
Some people see faking their death as an industrious way to profit through life insurance. Again, not advisable. The reason a lot of people get caught committing life insurance fraud is that they take out policies that far exceed their net worth. For example, if you're a schoolteacher and you have a life insurance policy that's in the millions and millions, that's very suspicious – especially if you've increased your coverage in the last two years. That will get investigated immediately.
Other than law enforcement and life insurers, who would have money motivation to come looking for you?
Of course, the people to whom you owe money are going to be looking for you. If it's a case where you have defrauded investors, they are going to be angry. A lot of the people I interviewed who faked their death owed some kind of debt to various banks in terms of loans and mortgages. Depending on that dollar threshold, the banks will be looking for you. If you have a lot of outstanding debt, people will be giving chase.
You write about the importance of planning your exit. Why is that crucial?
One of the reasons we do see the kind of Wall Street, white-collar criminal who gets caught very quickly, is because they really haven't planned their exit. They're very much in a fight-or-flight response, and they're just really trying to get out of Dodge. The planning period is usually very brief. So they make a lot of mistakes.
We should probably talk about how this isn't legal.
There's no law on the books called "faking your death." It's all the attendant, ancillary crimes that you'll probably need to commit to pull it off that will get you in trouble. Sam Israel, he got two years tacked on to his prison sentence for obstruction of justice. When you assume another identity, that's identity fraud. If you are trying to collect on a life insurance policy when you fake your death, that is fraud, too.
There's this very narrow band you could occupy where you don't take out a second identity or commit any kind of tax fraud. It's very, very difficult.
It sounds like having a lot of cash on hand would be important.
You'd need cash stockpiled, and to not spend it. One of the pieces of advice I got that was really interesting to me is that, the fewer assets and less money you have, the easier it is to disappear and stay gone. There's less of a trail to follow and [authorities] are less suspicious. If you're dissolving your portfolio and selling off properties all within a very narrow window of time and then all of a sudden you went swimming and never came back, well, that looks very suspicious.
Operating on cash, prepaid credit cards, these sorts of things are advisable.
What other considerations would someone need to gauge to see if they could pull this off?
The big one is having a very coherent and believable identity already constructed. You need to start creating that decades in advance in terms of opening credit card accounts, and having a credit history that would span the life of a normal person. It takes a tremendous amount of planning.
You have to think about what you're going to do for money in your next life. If you're a licensed professional, you can never be that again, really. How are you going to make money, and how are you going to do it off the books in a way that you can sustain yourself?
The biggest stumbling block for people is, are you able to cut all ties to your old life? Never see your kids again; never call you mother on her birthday? Because if someone is looking for you, they're going to be watching your mother on her birthday to see if you're calling her. That's where most people get caught up. It's not a 21st century problem, it's not a technology problem – it's a human nature problem.
What happened to your death certificate?
I never filed it. Now, I guess I never could!