The technical term is pseudocide - a fancy word that means, essentially, “faking your own death."
Hundreds of thousands of Americans - some struggling with seemingly insurmountable debt burdens or are being hounded by the IRS after stiffing the tax man - have probably fantasized about faking their own deaths. But few understand just how easy it is to - um - execute such an ambitious, if legally precarious, plan.
That’s where purveyors of so-called “death kits” come in. Few westerners are aware of its existence, but there’s actually a thriving cottage industry based in the Philippines, where investors can purchase all the tools they need to fake their own deaths for the surprisingly low price of about 350 pounds (about $500).
Of course, the scheme has several macabre elements. The process involves buying an unclaimed corpse from one of the many morgues in the Philippines where the bodies of John and Jane Does are stored.
According to the Telegraph, many customers who choose this route are desperate Wall Street bankers seeking to escape debt, and men having affairs who want to leave their families.
The Philippines has long been cited in official statistics as the foreign location with the highest number of American tourist deaths. But many of these fatalities are actually fraudulent, the result of desperate westerners faking their own deaths.
Take Elizabeth Greenwood, who “died” as a tourist in the Philippines in 2013. Multiple spectators witnessed her crash her rental car into another vehicle on a busy road in Manila, and doctors at the local hospital pronounced Greenwood dead on arrival - or so her death certificate would have you believe...
Greenwood, who was inspired to fake her own death by her ballooning student debt, is now working as a journalist in New York City after deciding at the last minute that she didn’t want to go through with the scheme.
She first stumbled upon the idea during lunch with a friend who joked about it after she finished ranting about the colossal size of her student debt. But the joke got her thinking. So she started Googling.
“I began poking around online and discovered that death fraud truly is an industry with a whole host of experts and consultants to help you go through with it, and that there are far more people than you might imagine who had done it themselves, with varying degrees of success,” Greenwood explains.
She eventually stumbled on a Wall Street Journal article from the 1980s that referenced “a southeast Asian country” where morgues pick up the bodies of derelicts and freeze them to help customers commit death fraud for insurance purposes.
Greenwood then discovered two elite private investigators, Steven Rambam and Richard Marquez, who consult for life insurance companies seeking to stamp out death fraud.
“Again and again, they named the Philippines as a hotbed for the kind of theatrical death fraud that involves false corpses,” she adds. “They sniff out life insurance fraud all over the globe - it is attempted everywhere - but they told me some memorable stories about cases they’d worked on in the Philippines, so I wanted to check it out myself."
The cost of death fraud can vary widely. A fake death certificate from the Philippines generally costs anywhere in the region of £100 to £350. Some will pay upwards of £20,000 to hire a professional fixer who will help them scratch their trail as they move forward with a new identity.
During a week-long stay in the Philippines, Greenwood found a pair of locals there who obtained a fake death certificate for her from a mole working inside a government agency. All the witness accounts were fake, and there was never a fatal traffic accident as outlined on the papers.
She never crossed the line and actually filed the documents with the US embassy.
“My death certificate sits encased in a plastic sheath at the bottom of my filing cabinet,” Greenwood states.
The difficulty of feigning one’s death depends on the purpose of the fraud. If one is trying to cash in a life insurance policy, then the fraud will require a body and an accomplice, since, without a body, most insurers will wait seven years before paying out a claim. This is why the cottage industry of fake morgues has sprung up.
Some fraudsters might go to the lengths of staging a funeral for their dummy corpse and filming it to submit to the insurance company, she adds, but in most cases, this is an unnecessary flourish.
If insurance fraud isn’t your ultimate aim, then the process of faking your death will be exponentially easier.
“If you’re not committing life insurance fraud, you needn’t go to all the extra trouble,” Greenwood told the Telegraph. “Staging a more open-ended, elegant escape, like disappearing while on a hike, usually looks more believable to investigators."
While insurance companies typically hire private investigators to sniff out death fraud, few cases are ever prosecuted, particularly if they were committed on foreign soil. Often, the only punishment for death fraudsters is their insurance claim being denied.
Greenwood cites one example of a German woman who faked her death and whose fraud remained undiscovered for two decades.
When German authorities discovered she was alive in 2015, after being presumed dead since 1985, the only penalty she shouldered was the trouble of filling out the paperwork necessary to declare herself still alive.
Death fraud happens “constantly”, Greenwood said adding that she detected a spike in cases around the financial crisis.
But while faking one’s death on foreign soil is easier than many believe, the reasons people get caught are also simpler than many might assume.
Particularly if an accomplice is battling it out with an insurance company, fraudsters are typically caught when they try to reach out to loved ones or their parents.
As it turns out, even if they’re dead on paper, many people just can’t cut the ties to their old lives.