AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A few years ago, a writer named Elizabeth Greenwood went on a trip to the Philippines where, on the afternoon of July the 7, she died.
ELIZABETH GREENWOOD: My death certificate indicates that I perished in a car crash that there was a side collision and that I was brought to the hospital dead on arrival.
CORNISH: That is Elizabeth Greenwood. And as you might have guessed from hearing that clip, she didn't actually die. But she did spend a lot of time researching how to make the world believe that she did. Faking your own death, or pseudocide, is the subject of her new book. It's called "Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud". People fake their deaths for different reasons - insurance fraud, escaping jail time. And Greenwood started thinking about it, hypothetically, when she was staring down six figures of student debt. Here's how she says it works.
GREENWOOD: So when you fake your own death, the first step is really planning that accident, whether it's going to be staging a suicide, like someone I spoke to for the book, Sam Israel, who was a hedge fund manager, and he had lost half a billion dollars of investor money. And he staged his suicide off the Bear Mountain Bridge. He staged a jump and actually caught himself in construction nets that were hanging beneath the bridge and managed to scramble to the other side of the embankment to freedom in an RV where he lived for several weeks.
The second is to have a place to go, a place to hide, enough cash on hand to sustain yourself without having to rely on credit cards or other methods that might indicate where you are.
And the third thing is really just being able to cut off all ties and communication with friends. Marcus Schrenker, who was a money manager from Indianapolis, he staged a plane crash, and he had actually emailed a friend detailing his plan. So he was only presumed dead for, I think, up to 48 hours. So keeping your lips sealed.
CORNISH: And we're talking about getting caught. It's not technically illegal (laughter) but you can...
GREENWOOD: That's right.
CORNISH: ...Commit crimes in the course of doing it. Who would be looking for you if you tried to fake your own death, other than your friends and family?
GREENWOOD: Well, again, it depends why you're faking your death. So if you, for example, have just absconded with millions of dollars of your investors' money and you have the Securities and Exchange Commission hot on your tail, they might be looking for you. If you're committing life insurance fraud over a certain dollar threshold and, you know, you can't produce a body straight away, then there are investigators who the insurance companies will send out to prove that you are not in fact dead. So it really depends on what your motives are and then what ancillary crimes you've attempted.
CORNISH: Over and over again, you talk with experts who investigate this kind of fraud for a living or just help people disappear. And interestingly enough, they almost all say the same thing, which is that it's not worth it. And one person even calls it cowardly, and yet, you didn't seem satisfied with that answer.
CORNISH: Why not?
GREENWOOD: So when I set out, I really did think of it as the solo crime, as a victimless crime and just wouldn't it be incredible in this day and age when it seems so impossible to fake your death and be born again? For me, it was really when I met family members who had been involved in a parent's or loved one's pseudocide where that message of the darkness of this plan really hit home to me.
CORNISH: In what way?
GREENWOOD: I spoke to a woman who had been under the impression for her entire life that her father had died when she was a toddler. She never really knew him. One of the only artifacts she had of his life was this photograph of a Corvette that he was known for. And a friend of hers was over for dinner and asked about it and she said, don't you ever think about your dad?
And something kind of sparked an interest in her that night, and she went and googled her father's name plus Corvette. And lo and behold, an interview on a website dedicated to Warhol stars, of which he had been a very minor one, appeared and she couldn't believe it. And just a few months later, she found his very real obituary that had come out that he had passed away in very recent history. So just that deceit, just having to revise your entire biography and everything you knew of yourself, that was very troubling to see.
CORNISH: One aspect of this - one page in the book that really threw me for a loop is your own death certificate. Explain to people what you did and what that was like.
GREENWOOD: So I had heard about the Philippines all through my research. I had heard that there are black market morgues where unidentified people are brought in and kept on ice and then death fraudsters will go to the morgues and buy them, these bodies, very cheaply, have them cremated immediately and then try to pass off the cremains as their own. So I was very excited to visit the Philippines.
While I was there, I was able to acquire my own death certificate and accident report detailing my fatal car crash. And the whole way leading up to that moment, I wasn't that nervous. And then when I actually opened up that manila envelope and held this very clinical government document in my hands that said I'd died on arrival at this hospital on this date, it was very, very chilling. And it really all kind of became very real. In a way, it had just been theoretical up until then.
CORNISH: In the end, how did you come to think of this whole idea of playing dead? Did you still think of it, I guess, as a joke?
GREENWOOD: I found out that the issue that had propelled me to seek out faking your own death and pseudocide, which was my own student loan debt, is really just small potatoes of motivation when it comes to really having to end your life. And that's what it takes. You really have to be able to cut all ties, never look back, to leave behind all the parts, good and bad, of who you are, and that is a very tall order. And I think for most people nearly impossible.
CORNISH: Elizabeth Greenwood - she is the author of "Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
GREENWOOD: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: And we're glad you're alive.
GREENWOOD: Me too. Thanks a lot.
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