Criminal: How Not To Fake Your Death

Feb 17, 2017

When people imagine having a superpower, invisibility is a popular choice. On this week's Criminal podcast, we'll hear stories about people who successfully disappeared by faking their own deaths.

Criminal host Phoebe Judge says it's a tough trick to pull off, but has been a popular pursuit. How-to guides were popular in the 1980s, but those are now outdated, Judge says, now that we all have digital footprints to follow.

For a more current take, Judge spoke with Elizabeth Greenwood. She wrote "Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud." The book tells stories of people who faked their deaths and what they did afterwards. Greenwood has done her research, having faked her own death in a car crash. She has held her own death certificate.

Greenwood says it can be tough to decide how best to disappear.

"When you fake your death one of the problems that you would encounter is that you would have to make it appear that you are dead, but you still have to take your body with you," said Greenwood. "So, you have this problem about what to do about the body."

She said staging a drowning has become such a popular way to disappear that it now throws up a red flag for authorities. Experts now say a disappearance while hiking is more effective because it offers a range of plausible disappearance options: maybe the hiker was abducted, or got lost, or fell from a great height, or was attached by an animal.

Greenwood told Judge that many people fake their own deaths to evade debts, rip off insurance companies, or escape unhappy homes. The ones who get caught are usually men. It's unclear whether women are as inclined to fake their demises. Some posit that women are more sentimental and are therefore less likely to abandon their relationships. Or, perhaps, Judge says, women are just better at staging a convincing disappearance.

No matter how one disappears, Judge says it's even more difficult to stay gone. She spoke with private investigator Steven Rambam, who has chased fakers for families and insurance companies. 

Rambam says a disappearance can take a lot of preparation, because it requires one to take over an identity that already exists, with a place to live and a livelihood that doesn't draw attention. He says it's a full-time job to inhabit a new life without looking back.

"You know, I can make a thousand mistakes if I'm hunting for you and still find you. If you make one mistake, you're finished. I'll spot it," Rambam said. "I'll catch you."

He said in order to successfully disappear, you have to completely give up what makes you you.

You can hear more about the people who almost got away with faking their own deaths, and Rambam's personalized advice for Judge about how she could make her own getaway on this week's Criminal podcast.

Criminal is recorded at WUNC.