Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: Why Do People Commit “Pseudocide”?



Mark Blangger Research Editor, ACFE

Pseudocide, “the act of faking one’s own death,” has existed and been committed for centuries. There are many scenarios that might come to mind about why and how someone would concoct and attempt to carry out this type of fraud. Some reasons that, to some people, are obvious and others that are beyond fathomable.

Often, people who attempt pseudocide lack a true comprehension of the potential consequences of their actions and, in most cases, knowledge of how best to plan for and successfully execute their escapades. Those who attempt this façade come from all walks of life, from ordinary, everyday citizens to notable authors to those in the corporate hierarchy.


Why Do They Do It?

Is it to change identity and leave behind an unhappy life? To escape conviction of a crime? To profess affection? Or is it to escape an undesirable personal situation? Yes, it is. All of these are reasons why people fake (or have faked) their deaths. Of course there are other reasons, some of which might cause one to question the rationale — even mental stability — of the perpetrators, or liken their stunts to juvenile pranks rather than fraud. But financial woes and avoiding incarceration take the top spots.


To Collect Life Insurance

John Darwin and his wife, Anne, wanted to use his life insurance to pay off their €130,000 mortgage (approximately USD 144,000). To do so, the couple staged a canoeing accident in which Darwin allegedly disappeared. Because his body was never found, the insurance company paid Anne only half of the policy amount. After his “demise,” Darwin lived in a one-room apartment next door to the couple’s home and later moved back in with Anne, only to be recognized by a tenant who asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” The tenant never approached authorities, but four years later, a photo of the Darwins taken in Panama surfaced on the Internet and later in the British daily newspaper, Daily Mail. Anne Darwin confessed that John was indeed the man in the photo, and the Darwins were sentenced to more than six years in prison for multiple counts of fraud and deception.


To Avoid Paying Student Loans

In her book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood exposes how she put serious thought into how to escape repayment of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans she accumulated, but pseudocide never entered her mind. Her plan was to evanesce without a trace to a white-sand beach somewhere in the Caribbean — that is until a friend raised the notion of faking her death. Fraught with the pressures of debt and life corralling her, the scheme became more appealing. After hours of research on the Internet, she went to the Philippines, where she obtained a black-market death certificate, indicating her cause of death as a “car accident.” Having held in her hand what appeared to be realistic, legitimate and startling proof of her demise, Greenwood realized that she “didn’t want to jump.” This experience, however, made her more intrigued with the idea of the deed rather than carrying it out, which led her to research the topic further and interview people who did follow through with their fraudulent plan and others who can help “make it happen” — for a price.


To Avoid Incarceration

The word incarceration does not have pleasant connotations for anyone, especially white-collar fraudsters like Samuel Israel III, a former hedge fund manager who ran a $450 million Ponzi scheme. Israel’s failure to show up for his 20-year incarceration prompted a manhunt during which police found his SUV on an upstate New York bridge with “suicide is painless” scribbled in the dust on the hood. Having no witnesses and finding no body in the river, authorities became skeptical. They learned that he told his girlfriend that morning that he was going (driving himself) to jail, which police thought was odd. “What, do they have valet parking? It’s 20 years. What’s he going to do, park it?” said State Police Investigator Bruce Cuccia. After a month of staying off police radar, and after seeing his picture on America’s Most Wanted, he turned himself in. As of 2016, Israel has 14 more years to go on his 22-year prison sentence — a judge added two years for bail jumping to his original punishment — and he’s in good company, serving his time in the same correctional facility as fellow Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.


To Find Out Whether They Are Liked

An eighteenth-century wealthy and self-proclaimed “Lord,” Timothy Dexter, had more than enough money to throw away, but his peers shunned him because of his illiteracy, lack of education and eccentricities, leaving him with a ruptured ego and feelings of disrespect. To find out whether his peers’ disdain was mirrored by the public, Dexter contrived an elaborate plan to commit pseudocide, which included organizing his ostentatious funeral. Approximately 3,000 attended, including his family, who was in on the hoax. He died — for real — six years later, never receiving the respect he coveted.


To Propose Marriage

And then there’s Alexey Bykov who went all out to fake his death — to propose to his girlfriend. A make-up artist, screenwriter and director helped him stage what appeared to be a horrifying car accident, complete with a bloodied Bykov lying in the road. When his girlfriend arrived on the scene, she was told by “paramedics” that he was dead, and she began sobbing. That was Bykov’s cue to miraculously rejoin the living, and with flowers and balloons, he asked for her hand in marriage. He said the reason behind his unorthodox profession of love was to make her “realize how empty her life would be without me.” Surprisingly, she accepted his proposal, but not before expressing her ire. “I was so cross I almost killed him again, but for real this time.”


How Do They Do It?

Many think faking a drowning death is the “safest” way to commit and get away with pseudocide because the victim’s body is sometimes never found by search teams, which is what John and Anne Darwin counted on when they staged John’s death. But Elizabeth Greenwood was naïve when it came to such fraudulent acts, which led her to the Internet and the sources for faking her termination.

The number of websites devoted to pseudocide and how to carry out the scheme is both abundant and startling. There are sites that offer downloadable death certificates, including the  Centers for Disease Control. There are sites that provide step-by-step instructions, from making the decision to  fake one’s own death and start a new life  to information on  how to vanish and begin anew.

These sites do not necessarily promote pseudocide, and many include the consequences that come with the act, such as reimbursement for expenses incurred by search parties in the event the perpetrator is found, helpful phone numbers for those escaping personal issues such as abuse or depression, as well as the laws surrounding any fraudulent activity resulting from the scheme.


Is Pseudocide Illegal?

As  FBI spokesperson Bill Carter told Life’s Little Mysteries, (a sister site of LiveScience), “I am unaware of any federal statute that would apply to an individual who fakes their own death.” It’s the consequences that turn it into an illegal event, such as a spouse or family member filing a false police or missing persons report or collecting on a life insurance policy. And taking on a new identity will, at some point, require a birth certificate, a Social Security number, as well as other forms of identification that one needs to rebuild a life.

James Quiggle, director of communication for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in Washington, D.C., stated, “You’re also avoiding a large variety of taxes, and defrauding lenders of your home and car. Then when you resurface with a new identity, you’re defrauding every government agency that processes your new identity — and old identity.”


Examples of What Not to Do

Clayton and Molly Daniels dug up a corpse, dressed it in men’s clothing and burned it in a staged car crash in order to collect Clayton’s life insurance. But, DNA testing revealed that the body in the car was a female.

Philip Sessarago committed pseudocide, changed his name to Tom Crew, wrote a bestseller but was exposed when he appeared in a television interview about his book.

And then there’s Anthony McErlean, who was allegedly killed by a truck in Honduras and later, pretending to be his wife, called his life insurance company to collect on his policy. He was arrested for fraud after police found his fingerprints on his fake death certificate.


The Final Word

Fraud investigator  Steve Rambam, who Elizabeth Greenwood interviewed for her book, says, “Everybody I’ve caught on life insurance fraud, I tell them, ‘If you had put this type of effort, money, and dedication into your life as a law-abiding citizen, you would have made just as much money.’ ”

Words to live by — literally.


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