In the summer of 1996, my mother’s business partner vanished during a sea kayaking trip off the coast of Mexico. Keith, as I’ll call him, told his group he wanted to watch the full moon out on the water, and when no one volunteered to join him, he paddled out by himself.
When they woke up the next morning, he hadn’t returned.
A few days later, they found his kayak and paddle bobbing against the rocks in a small, isolated cove miles away from where he’d disappeared. When no body washed up and weeks of grid searches turned up nothing but seaweed and someone else’s T-shirt, the Mexican government — and my mom — assumed he’d either drowned or been eaten by sharks.
I was six years old. Keith was the first person I knew who died, and it hit me hard. He’d been a close family friend, and I’d always liked him. I was inconsolable when my mom told me why we wouldn’t be going to his house for Fourth of July anymore.
Or at least I was until he showed up three weeks later at my front door, alive and wanting to talk. Not to my mom. To me.
We sat next to each other on the steps of my back porch. He was quiet for a long time, his right hand cupping the side of his face as though he had to touch himself to remind himself he was actually there. Then, with a sharp inhale, he turned to me and began to explain that there were times in a grown-up’s life when things got too hard to bear. Sometimes, he said, adults just want to run away.
He asked if I could forgive him for making a mistake. I honestly don’t remember what I said back. I was a person with far too many remaining baby teeth to mount a viable response. After that, we never saw him again.
It wasn’t until many years later that my mom told me exactly how Keith had chosen to run away. Making good on a plan he’d been working on for the better part of a year, he’d staged his own death in Mexico so his family could cash in on his life insurance policy. Once everyone was good and sure he was dead — a kayaking accident seemed convincing enough — he planned to escape to France to live out the rest of his days as a dead man walking. Though his wife, daughter and extended family pretended to be grief-stricken, they were in on it the whole time. They were going to take his million-dollar payout and sit pretty eating cheese and drinking wine by the Seine until the world forgot what happened to them.
It took a long time to understand that what Keith did is actually quite common. People fake their own deaths all the time, for all different reasons and with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it’s to escape financial ruin or legal problems like an impending court date, alimony payments or jail time. For others, it’s to hide from a stalker or abuser who won’t give up. Then there are the people who do it to escape from themselves — they don’t like who they are or who they’ve become, and they want a fresh start in a place where no one knows their name. They don’t do much planning. They don’t concern themselves with the ramifications. They just disappear and don’t look back. Experts call this “pseudocide.”
It’s unclear exactly how often this happens — it’s hard to poll people who are missing or dead and fake deaths often go unreported — but according to Elizabeth Greenwood, author of the best-selling book Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, people have been faking their own deaths for centuries. There’s a mention of pseudocide in the Talmud, and a 14th century nun famously faked her own death with a life-like dummy to avoid the drudgery of convent life. However, it wasn’t until life insurance became popular in the mid-1800s that the practice really started to take off. “There’s lots of cases in very rudimentary schemes in the late 19th century, [of people] faking their deaths and the deaths of friends and loved ones to receive life insurance,” Greenwood told Vox, explaining that most pseudocides are committed for that exact same reason today. “They aren’t always criminal masterminds.”
They sure aren’t — Keith was apprehended at an airport in Canada after an incredibly novice attempt to board an international flight with forged documents — but thankfully for the skip tracers and investigators who are hired by insurance companies and private entities to find death fakers like him, that makes them relatively easy to track down. “People do a remarkably limited amount of planning when it comes to faking their own deaths,” says Steven Rambam, a blunt-talking, New York P.I. who’s helped locate tens of thousands of missing and dubiously dead people over the course of his 40-year career. “Faking your own death is a full-time job, and I can guarantee you that if you slip up with even the slightest sign of life, we will find you.”
There are an endless number of ways investigators do this, but Rambam says most of his snoops begin the same way: By going to the last place the person was seen alive and picking up the trail from there. “We start with the last known address, the last known location they were and the last known associates they were with,” he explains. “This is one of the few times where fiction and real life are the same.”
When the last place a person was seen alive was a body of water and their remains don’t turn up within a few weeks of their disappearance, Rambam says pseudocide immediately becomes a consideration (that’s also when insurance companies and other clients start blowing up his phone). If he looks into it further and finds out that the person who vanished in that water was in serious debt or that they were “some kind of reluctant witness or litigant who has the resources to disappear in a puff of smoke,” he says it’s “just the most obvious thing. We see it all the time.”
In 2002, a British man named John Darwin “disappeared” in a canoeing accident only to be discovered five years later with his wife in Panama. Apparently, she’d cashed his life insurance policy to pay off their mortgage, and they were planning to use the funds to erect a — wait for it — canoe hostel. A few years later, Olivia Newton-John’s fuckboi boyfriend Patrick McDermott tried the same scheme when he vanished during a fishing trip, but he turned up 11 years later in a remote Mexican village where he was living with his girlfriend. Reportedly, he “just wanted to be left alone.”
Using what they glean from someone’s “last place alive,” investigators then start to piece together a picture of what their “final” weeks, days and hours might have looked like. If anything out-of-the-ordinary crops up, they follow the lead to see if it could explain their death or disappearance. For example: Did they go to the pharmacy and pick up extra medicine? Did they happen to visit their mother, who they haven’t seen in two years? Did they take a massive amount of money out of their bank? Details like these can give investigators a sense of whether or not someone’s death may have been fabricated. If that’s the sense, the hunt is on.
Only, instead of hunting the person, investigators tend to hunt their surroundings, diving deep into their friends, family, coworkers, devices, cars and assets as well as their phone, travel, medical, financial and legal records. “When you’re looking for someone, you don’t look for them, per se,” says Frank Ahearn, a skip tracer (i.e., unlicensed investigator) who has worked to find missing people when a private investigator can’t do so legally. “You look for the people and the information around them.”
Wearing dark sunglasses and a long, gray ponytail for our video call from Paris where he lives, Ahearn looks more like a biker than an international privacy expert, but that he is. He wrote what is perhaps the best-known book on how to disappear (called, affably, How to Disappear), and the fact that he’s helped hundreds of people vanish without a trace has given him somewhat of a unique perspective on finding them, something he hasn’t always done, er, by the book.
Ahearn tells me he’s spent a large part of his career working as a “really good liar,” manipulating people and situations into giving him information about the people he was tracking down. If a P.I. couldn’t tap someone’s phone or access their phone records without a subpoena or warrant, he’d get them lickety split. If he needed to look at a bank account to see what a person had been spending their money on in the days before they vanished, he’d talk his way in. “All a skip tracer needs is charm and a telephone,” he told the Believer in 2012, explaining that he could access any record by pretending to be someone else and providing false pretenses. In investigator-speak, this is called “pretexting,” a form of social engineering in which someone lies to obtain privileged information. Skip tracers and P.I.s do it all the time.
Let’s say a client wanted the phone records of a dead person who might not have actually been dead. Ahearn would call up their phone company pretending to be an employee from a different department, and tell them his system was down and he needed to bring up an account for date of activation. More often than not, Ahearn would sound confident, and he’d have just the right amount of information that whoever on the end of the end would give him the name, account number or passcode he needed to get in.
Once he got what he needed, he’d peruse a person’s phone records looking for abnormalities like collect calls coming from pay phones, especially ones from foreign countries or places the recipient of the call didn’t have strong ties to. “If I’m looking for someone and their spouse keeps getting a collect call from Geneva every Tuesday, I wanna know who’s on the end of that phone,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest mistakes I see people make: They try to contact their loved ones, or they let them in on their plan. They go to see mom; they stay in touch with their child; they ping their girlfriend or boyfriend to let them know they need more money. Not a good idea if you’re supposed to be dead.”
Investigators can also cull clues from the banking records of the missing person, their loved ones and their beneficiaries to see if there’s any suspicious activity there. “When an insurance company pays out your beneficiaries and I see that one of them has wire transferred $400,000 to Fiji, that raises some flags,” says Ahearn. “I’m always amazed at how infrequently people use cash for this shit.”
Equally amazing is what they spend their money on after they’ve supposedly died. In one case, Ahearn was monitoring the bank account of someone when he noticed a recurring charge from Match.com. Curious to see whether the deceased was still trying to get it in from the afterlife, he signed up, built an attractive female profile, and started searching for men that fit the man’s age and background. After searching through hundreds of profiles, he found the guy. Clearly emblazoned on his profile was the following description: “Businessman relocating to Cyprus.”
Relocating, eh? Ahearn messaged the man, who, seduced by the buxom facsimile in his DMs, answered right away. “Usually dead guys don’t respond to Match.com messages,” he laughs. “A lot of this job is just looking for the stupid things people do.”
Also popular on the list of stupid things that living dead people do: staying in their city, getting arrested or pulled over, forgetting to turn their cell phone off at the right time, connecting to the wrong wireless network with a personal computer, Googling themselves incessantly from that same computer and giving themselves new names and identities that are far too similar to their old ones to be discreet. (Rambam says he’s caught multiple people by running database searches for a person’s name and pulling ones that sound a little too similar — one woman he found had just swapped her first and last name around and changed her birth year.)
Foreign death certificates are another common tip-off. In certain countries like the Philippines, fraudulent documents are cheap and easy to acquire, and custom-made “death kits” containing a birth certificate, death certificate and identity documents can be bought on the black market (or as Greenwood found, just by asking around). Sometimes, there’s even a corpse included.
Rambam tells me he’s worked on many cases where people have bought bodies from a crooked morgue or even had someone killed to make their pseudocide more convincing. In one, the body of a supposedly dead woman was checked and signed off on after an autopsy by both a coroner and a police officer, but when he looked into things further, it turned out that the body they’d placed in the coffin for the funeral — which was attended by 200 mourners — didn’t match her features or bodily proportions at all. In another, Rambam’s target had a homeless man shot in the face five times to obscure his features. Then, he had his wallet placed in the man’s pocket to make it seem it was him who’d been shot, and even paid off a coroner to fingerprint him and say the prints belonged to the man he’d killed.
Even that, though, isn’t foolproof. A body can easily be identified by fingerprints or dental records, and the only way to obscure the identity of a body is to cremate it. That works in some fake death cases — at least the ones that aren’t investigated — but won’t in insurance fraud. “You have to have an actual body to collect on insurance,” says Ahearn. “And it has to be the body of the insured. Ashes are not a body.”
Finally, there’s the phenomenal slip-up of social media. “I can’t tell you how many times someone opens a new social media account, then posts pictures of themselves that someone recognizes or that come up in facial recognition scans,” Rambam says (that’s actually how Darwin was caught). “I’m not sure people realize that we’re waiting for them to make that mistake. We are watching all your channels, all your devices and all the people closest to you.”
We never hear from people who do this job well, but to succeed at pseudocide, you really do have to be prepared to give up everything you know and love — for good. You can’t talk to anyone you know (they’re being watched), you have to give up your pets (harder than family, sometimes) and you have to figure out how to support yourself off the books, getting paid under the table or in cash. Your college degree means nothing. Your specialized skill becomes useless. All of your hobbies and interests are bunk, because those things are precisely what investigators like Ahearn and Rambam will be analyzing obsessively for signs of you. Rambam once spent weeks going to mind-numbingly boring coin shows around New York City to locate a coin collector who had supposedly died, and that’s exactly where he caught him.
And while he’s lurking at coin shows? The rest of his team is lurking everything else. Any investigator worth their salt has a network of local, on-the-ground specialists that help them stay on top of leads, who speak the language if they’re in a foreign country and who know the ins and outs of every neighborhood they’re investigating. “You have to know the environment where you’re working,” says Rambam. “In every case, I use local resources. I tell people that I’m training, an international investigator has to have a big enough ego to think that they can go anywhere in the world and solve a very sophisticated fraud. But at the same time, they have to have a small enough ego to know that they’re not James Bond and they can’t do it alone.”
With a team like that, Rambam says he has a near 100 percent effectiveness rate at finding people, usually within a few weeks of their death (although sometimes, unfortunately, it turns out that the people he’s looking for actually are dead). Even so, he says he’s never been stumped.
“Some investigations have been pretty tedious,” he says. “Some have been time-consuming, but only because the person went to the trouble of going from one country to another multiple times. I’ve basically had to follow the trail of breadcrumbs, but it wasn’t cleverness that helped them hide. It was just that they were internationally mobile weasels to begin with. If you have resources, you can disappear for a certain amount of time. But no one can disappear forever.”