How Do You Fake Your Own Death?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 23 2013 1:06 PM

How Do You Fake Your Own Death?

First, buy a boat.

Tim Dog during a 1992 performance at Wetlands in New York City
Tim Dog during a 1992 performance at Wetlands in New York City

Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage/Getty Images

Bronx-born rapper Tim Dog has been accused of faking his own death in February. A Mississippi prosecutor alleges that Dog, born Timothy Blair, is trying to escape paying court-ordered debts of $19,000, and he won’t accept that the rapper is dead until he sees a death certificate. What’s the best way to fake your own death?

Tell no one, stay off the grid, and, above all, don’t try to collect the insurance money. Making a clean break is crucial to faking your own death—don’t tell your friends and family about your scheme, and get as far from them as possible. Two of the most famous fakers in recent years were foiled by family members. Debt-laden Englishman John Darwin, who disappeared for five years beginning in 2002, was found after a police investigation into the financial holdings of his wife, who was assisting Darwin. Australian businessman Harry Gordon was living comfortably in his new life until 2005, when he improbably crossed paths with his brother, who encouraged Gordon’s first wife to end the scam. (She, too, knew of her husband’s ruse.) Of course, most of our information about faking death comes from failures, so the best strategies may be unknown.

Drowning is probably the leading cause of fake death. Both Darwin and Gordon staged their deaths by rowing small boats out to sea and abandoning them. A Long Island man faked drowning last year. A judge will eventually declare a missing person legally dead after a fruitless search, which is not uncommon in boating and swimming accidents. In many states, the waiting period is seven years, but families can petition for an earlier declaration if the circumstances strongly suggest death. Small plane crashes are also a popular scheme for this reason.

Some people, especially those attempting to defraud a life insurance company, aren’t willing to wait several years to be declared dead. For these impatient types, a foreign death certificate seems to be the strategy of choice. Lionel Correa bribed Mexican officials to fabricate a death certificate and accident report stating that his wife had fallen from a rooftop in 2001. Briton Anthony McErlean claimed he was hit by a truck in Honduras in 2009, and Ahmad Akhtary used a counterfeit Afghan death certificate to help his British ex-wife collect on his life insurance policy. These schemes are risky. Insurance companies have a financial incentive to track down people who fake death, both to avoid paying claims and to deter copycats. They hire private detectives who regularly catch fraudsters.

It’s best to avoid credit cards, loans, driver’s licenses, and anything else that would require generating a false identity in your new life. While vanishing and starting over isn’t technically a crime, fraud definitely is. Buying a social security number is also fraught with risk: You don’t know who that number used to belong to. It’s still possible to live a completely cash-based life. If you insist on maintaining a legal identity, experienced skip tracer Frank Ahearn recommends establishing a corporation to attenuate the link between your business dealings and yourself.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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