“A delightful read for anyone tantalized by the prospect of disappearing without a trace.” —Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of Dead Wake
“Delivers all the lo-fi spy shenanigans and caught-red-handed schadenfreude you’re hoping for.” —NPR
“A lively romp.” —The Boston Globe
“Grim fun.” —The New York Times
“Brilliant topic, absorbing book.” —The Seattle Times
“The most literally escapist summer read you could hope for.” —The Paris Review
Is it still possible to fake your own death in the twenty-first century? With six figures of student loan debt, Elizabeth Greenwood was tempted to find out. So off she sets on a darkly comic foray into the world of death fraud, where for $30,000 a consultant can make you disappear—but your suspicious insurance company might hire a private detective to dig up your coffin...only to find it filled with rocks.
Greenwood tracks down a British man who staged a kayaking accident and then returned to live in his own house while all his neighbors thought he was dead. She takes a call from Michael Jackson (no, he’s not dead—or so her new acquaintances would have her believe), stalks message boards for people contemplating pseudocide, and gathers intel on black market morgues in the Philippines, where she may or may not obtain some fraudulent goodies of her own. Along the way, she learns that love is a much less common motive than money, and that making your death look like a drowning virtually guarantees that you’ll be caught. (Disappearing while hiking, however, is a way great to go.)
Playing Dead is a charmingly bizarre investigation in the vein of Jon Ronson and Mary Roach into our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to give up their lives—and their families—to start again.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Elizabeth Greenwood teaches creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She is the author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud and Becoming a Yoga Instructor.
Read an Excerpt
When Sam Israel III woke up on a hot Monday in June 2008, he had already decided it was a good day to die. He’d lost everything. He had lost his job as founder and CEO of the Bayou Hedge Fund Group, his reputation as a guy who could double your money, and his family in an ugly divorce. And more than $450 million of his investors’ dollars.
That day, Sam was supposed to be reporting to Devens Prison in Massachusetts. At his sentencing hearing a few months earlier, he’d been handed twenty-two years for financial malfeasance and fraud—one of the harshest punishments a white-collar criminal had ever received. His Ponzi scheme was one of the largest to date, until Bernie Madoff’s crimes surfaced eight months later. Sam thought he’d do three to five, but the judge surprised him with seventeen more than he had expected.
Something about Sam Israel rubbed people the wrong way. He always seemed to be smirking. He refused to mimic the narrative of regret and atonement so many scammers adopt, at least after they get busted. Even the feds in court that day were stunned by the severity of Judge Colleen McMahon’s decision. As he was being led out of the courtroom, an FBI agent leaned in and whispered to Sam, “I have two words for you: Costa Rica.”
Going on the run hadn’t crossed Sam’s mind, but the agent’s words stuck with him. And since an officer of the court had presented him with the idea, though jokingly, he thought he’d been given the green light. By now, Sam understood that things were often not what they seemed. In his mind, his crime had not been typical Wall Street greed or a pyramid scheme. As he understood it, he’d been tapped by the Octopus, an international conglomerate that dictated all financial markets. He had entered a world where he believed that a shadow market secretly controlled the Federal Reserve and that he had survived attempts on his life. While others thought he’d been a pawn in a long con, Sam now saw the world’s power structures as deeply connected and profoundly duplicitous. Messages could be anywhere, and an FBI agent was not the most outlandish emissary.
After his sentencing in April 2008, a limousine dropped off Sam with his mother and his girlfriend in the driveway of the house he’d been renting since his divorce. They were all in shock. Twenty-two years. He was forty-nine; he might as well have been handed a life sentence. Bright yellow pollen from budding trees blanketed the GMC Envoy truck that he rarely drove—it was simply one among his fleet of a half dozen cars. His mother asked Sam what he was going to do. In the neon scrim of pollen dust, he traced the message “suicide is painless” onto the hood. She told him the joke (which also happens to be the theme song from M*A*S*H), if it was one, was not in any way funny.
Costa Rica. Of course! The country was a metaphor for escape. It meant save yourself; don’t go down without a fight. And he would heed the advice. But he wouldn’t defect south of the border. Inspired by the Robin Williams comedy RV that Sam happened to catch on late-night TV one night around the time of his sentencing, he realized that he’d already seen the world, but not much of his own country. Why not hide in plain sight, in a mobile home? In just a few short weeks between his sentencing and surrender date, he cobbled together an exit plan. Disguised in a hat and sunglasses, he bought a laptop at Best Buy in the Palisades Mall. He found an RV for sale on Craigslist, just like the one Williams commandeered in the film, and purchased it from an elderly Long Island couple for $55,000 cash. He told them he was a professional poker player.
Sam tapped the former CIA and Mossad connections he had established through the Octopus. They helped him score IDs and a Social Security number in the name of David Klapp, an Iowa man who had died in 2001. He got a parking permit for all five boroughs of New York, a gun permit, a library card, and signed up as a night school student at a local community college. In three days, he had a new identity and the authenticating documents to prove it.
He told a friend he had business to take care of at West Point, and needed a ride. He wanted to check out the Bear Mountain Bridge as a place to stage his suicide but knew he needed to avoid photos of his own car being taken at the tollbooth. Sam didn’t spot any cameras on the bridge itself, and he noticed that the southern lane was cordoned off, with construction nets hanging beneath. If he could swing it, he could step out over the ledge and fall into the net. He’d look like just another disgraced Wall Streeter who would as soon take his own life before paying his debt to society and his investors. No one would miss the man who had lost millions, whose constant smirk reporters’ cameras had plastered on the nightly news.
On that Monday in June, Sam parked the RV at a truck stop off Route 684 in Brewster. He paid Hassan, the twentysomething nephew of one of his Mossad associates, a wad of hundreds to help him stage his death. Hassan would tail the convicted man’s truck and wait for him on the other side.
Sam had several cars he could’ve driven that day, but he took the Envoy because the family rarely used it. It got such little mileage that he’d forgotten the prescient suicide note he’d written on the hood weeks prior. He parked the truck at a vista point overlooking the Hudson River and then got into Hassan’s Nissan. They drove back over the bridge at fifteen miles per hour to make sure that repairmen weren’t working on the construction site that day. Sam thought back to the FBI agent’s Costa Rica suggestion. He’d been given the green light, right? There would be sacrifices. He wouldn’t have contact with his family, and he’d have to go underground for a few years. The thought of not seeing his kids—a boy in junior high and a girl in high school—was distressing. Even in the throes of his divorce and legal troubles, they’d never spent more than a week apart. But anything was better than rotting in prison.
When Hassan dropped him back off at the Envoy, Sam started to obsess over the things he’d be leaving behind for the cops to find. His own wallet, IDs, and credit cards were on the passenger seat. He considered writing a real suicide note but decided against it. That’d be too cute. Let them figure the fucking thing out, he thought. He opened up the back tailgate and smoked a cigarette. He walked over to Hassan’s car. They were both jumpy with nerves.
“I have to be out of my mind,” Sam told Hassan.
“Look, man,” Hassan said, “either way, you are dead. So at least now you’ll choose your own end. This is crazy, but you may live and be free. You know you’re crazy,” he added. “So just do the fucking thing!”
In that loaded moment, Sam received Hassan’s wisdom—that he was fucking crazy and to just do the fucking thing—as from a divine oracle. He would do it. But he’d given Hassan’s uncle a contingency plan. Late the night before, they’d been drinking Scotch, and Sam said that if things went south—if he missed the narrow construction net and plummeted to the Hudson River below—Hassan should give $200,000 to Sam’s girlfriend and the rest to his son. Sell the RV, but wipe it of any evidence and fingerprints first.
He paused, as if waiting for some act of God to intervene, something that would prevent him from slamming the truck door shut and doubling back across the bridge. But nothing happened. So Sam climbed in, alone, and turned on the engine. He reflected on his life as he drove. What had brought him to this point? How the fuck did it come to this, man? He’d believed he was a good person, but in the last few years, he’d gotten away from himself. He’d lied to his investors when he didn’t have to. He’d gotten divorced, and he had never considered himself the type to end a marriage. He’d joined an underworld where secrets ran deep. Nothing was what it seemed.
But as he circled the rotary back across the bridge, he smiled. No matter what, he was free already. It didn’t matter how much work lay ahead of him, or if he lived another fifty years or fifteen minutes. The decision had been made. Today was a good day to die.
He drove up and paid the toll.
“HIS WHOLE ‘SUICIDE IS painless’ thing?” Frank Ahearn says. “What, did he think the feds were going to show up and say, ‘Hmmmm, he wrote a suicide note on his truck, he must have jumped off the bridge! All right, fellas, let’s go home!’ ” Frank shakes his head wearily. “He conforms to a category of a thief with no walk-away plan.”
I’m talking to Frank Ahearn to get an expert opinion on faking death in general and on Sam Israel in particular. We are sitting in his garment district office in New York City: a converted factory ensconced between a modeling agency and a drag queen costumer. Frank is the coauthor of How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish Without a Trace, a manual for those who want to do just that, and he took a special interest in Sam’s case, one of the higher-profile instances of pseudocide in recent years. Sam is one of Frank’s favorite “morons and idiots.” He fits a certain death fraud trend that’s all too familiar. “None of these white-collar criminals plan their exit. They just keep going until it all falls down. If he’d thought about his exit plan as smartly as he’d thought about his crime, he’d be in a lovely locale right now, enjoying his money.”
Frank knows all about planning the exit. Billing himself as a “privacy consultant,” Ahearn is the self-proclaimed “world’s top expert” on helping people dissolve their identities, physically and digitally. In other words, he helps people disappear—which, he instructed me, is a very different act than helping someone to fake his or her death. Frank is in his fifties and resembles a Hells Angel. The word Freedom is tattooed across his broad shoulders. His speech is prone to Bronx inflection, and he uses profanity in a way that borders on Zen poetry. (“Some days, life is a shitty piece of shit.”) He doesn’t buy politicians’ platitudes: “I think the government blows, in plain English. They’re a bunch of lying mothafahkas.” And he believes in the right to protect and conceal one’s privacy. Though he does not recommend pseudocide, and claims that he never helped any of his clients fake a death, he wrote a chapter in his book on the phenomenon.
I sought out Frank because of his peculiar expertise. A question had been plaguing me, one I hadn’t yet been able to answer with any satisfaction: Is it possible to fake your death in the twenty-first century, and, if so, what does it really take? Here was someone who had made a business out of obscuring people, so the most dramatic kind of disappearance—pseudocide—must have crossed his desk. For someone who helps people disappear for a living, Frank works very much out in the open. He has lent his expertise to the New York Times and National Public Radio on famous missing persons cases such as the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, who evaded capture for sixteen years, and fabled hijacker D. B. Cooper, who in 1971 parachuted out of a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom money and has never been seen since. If Sam were a case study in how not to fake your own death, I hoped that Frank would be my Rosetta stone for how to pull it off.
But obtaining an audience with the world-famous privacy consultant proved more difficult than finding him in the first place. I’d tried to meet with Frank for over six months before he finally relented. He would cancel at the last minute every time. He bailed on me while I was waiting for him at a Starbucks on a rainy March afternoon, and when I was downstairs from his office in a skuzzy roller-rink-smelling lobby that shares an address with Fabric Czar USA. He simply texted me “Sry Cant Today.”
As with a bad boyfriend, the more Ahearn pushed me away, the more determined I became to win him over. If he was going to play hard to get, I would meet him with equal and opposing resolve. Each time I set out to meet Frank, my well-intentioned friends warned me to be careful. Why the heck would I need to be careful? This guy charges more for his services to disappear people than I make in a year, so I felt pretty confident he wouldn’t do me in for free.
One steamy summer afternoon, I head out for yet another meeting, steeled for disappointment and prepared to reverse course back home when he cancels. But moments before our appointed time, my phone has yet to buzz and deliver bad news. Even the elevator ride up to meet him feels victorious. I have finally managed to move beyond the lobby. An unmarked white door swings open, and Frank, six foot four, with his hair scraped into a thin ponytail, extends a meaty hand, splotchy blue tattoos coiling up his forearms. “How ya doin’, hon?” he says before leading me through a honeycomb of offices separated by flimsy particleboard. After all his evasions, this is like getting an audience with the Pope.
He is warm and engaging, a far cry from the slippery front he’d used to stonewall me. I ask him why he’d blown me off for so long, and he admits that he thought I was merely posing as a writer and was actually going to serve him papers. He takes precautions with nosy inquirers: “If you look me up, you’ll find an address in the Bronx for me, which is actually my brother, and if you ring the doorbell, he’ll stick a gun in your face.” And given the fuzzy area of the law his work occupies, he possesses a healthy skepticism about anyone who contacts him. “You’re a cop, a criminal, or crazy until proven otherwise,” he says. And he doesn’t help criminals.
Frank is a god of high bullshit. Not the kind of bullshit that is necessarily lying, but the kind of storytelling that seduces anyone, anywhere. His infinite yarns—from growing up on the city’s mean streets to scoring criminal records from a pay phone—establish an immediate intimacy, as he inserts your name into the million hypothetical scenarios he constructs to illustrate his dark work. Frank tells his story like an origin myth, replete with American up-by-your-bootstraps redemption, self-made entrepreneurship, and the right to individual privacy. And a little bit of bullshit.
To my dismay, it turned out that Frank frowns upon death fraud. But only out of pragmatism: he says it simply doesn’t work. “If your purpose is to defraud an insurance company, there are guys who are paid to check you out,” he explains. “Grave robbing—finding a kid who died at a young age—doesn’t work today. Twenty years ago, you could walk into the Social Security office and say, ‘I’ve never worked, but I just got a job, and I need a card,’ and they would give it to you if you had a fake birth certificate. Death records are now connected to Social Security records, but it didn’t used to be like that.”
As Eileen Horan, Frank’s former employee, ex-fiancée, and coauthor of How to Disappear, would explain later, “There’s always one factor you can’t count on when you fake your death. You’re doubling your chances of getting caught.” Ahearn echoed her sentiments: “Think about any crime. Usually police don’t catch them in the act, they catch them for the broken headlight on their car.”
Which is exactly what happened to Bennie Wint, who had been presumed dead since staging his drowning off the coast of Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1989. He’d been involved in a narcotics ring, and, swept up in paranoia, he believed the cops were onto him. He was vacationing at the beach with his fiancée, Patricia Hollingsworth. After swimming about a mile down the shore beyond the breakers and vanishing from view with $6,500 stuffed into his swim trunks, he emerged from the water, dried off, and bought a T-shirt at a nearby store. While Hollingsworth reported him missing to the beach patrol, he hitched a ride with a trucker to Ozark, Alabama, and ran a business selling NASCAR merchandise for twenty years, going by the name William James Sweet. During his tenure as Sweet, he shacked up with a common-law wife and had a son, whom he named after himself. But he never filed for an ID under his new alias.
So twenty years later, when he was pulled over in North Carolina, where he’d been living with his new family, for not having a $1.50 lightbulb over the license plate of his car, he couldn’t produce a driver’s license and was booked in jail as John Doe. But Bennie Wint left behind a grieving fiancée and a four-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Wint took the precaution of avoiding identity fraud but got caught on the most mundane infraction instead. He was charged with driving without a license and giving a false name to the police. After coming clean, he told reporters, “The person I was died, in my opinion. I will never be that person again. I will always be Bill Sweet.”
Wint’s case illustrates the problem of determining any reliable statistics for how many people successfully fake their deaths and disappear: we learn only about the failures. On average, ninety thousand people are missing in the United States at any time. But how many of those people disappear intentionally? In my highly unscientific data collection via Google alerts, I noticed a would-be death fraudster making headlines every few weeks. Since the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a national alliance of consumer groups, public interest organizations, government agencies, and insurers, began keeping records in 1990, 564 cases of life insurance fraud were reported. That averages out to roughly 23 cases per year that get flagged. Not exactly endemic, but two dozen industrious people faking their deaths and getting caught still speaks to a lot of folks with equal parts chutzpah, greed, and shoddy planning skills.
But what of death fakers who don’t attempt to collect on a policy, or remember to replace their license plate lightbulb? For every Israel and Wint, perhaps there is an undead doppelganger kicking back in Margaritaville, or maybe even walking among us.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the people who’d gotten caught faking their deaths simply hadn’t been proactive enough. Are they really “morons and idiots”? Or is it possible that they just aren’t doing it right? Or are their foiled attempts perhaps inevitable in our digital age?
IN HIS AUTHOR PHOTO on How to Disappear, Frank Ahearn is lit from the side like a late-career Marlon Brando. Despite the book’s large print and his liberal deployment of the word fuck as noun, adjective, and verb, he has written an exhaustive guide to disappearing in the twenty-first century, and it sells more than 150 copies per week. It hit the New York Times Nonfiction Best Sellers list in 2014, four years after it was published. Disappearing is clearly on the minds of many. In his book, Frank discourages readers from faking their deaths, claiming that it’s “highly illegal.” But, in fact, there is no law on the books called “faking your death.” Sam Israel got two years heaped onto his prison sentence for obstruction of justice. If you don’t file a police report or death certificate, making it look like you are deceased violates no law except perhaps that of good taste. Promoting the idea that you have met an untimely end when in fact you are lazing beachside, paying for your daiquiris with a suitcase full of cash, is perfectly legal.
“In those narrow confines, it wouldn’t create any legal issue,” says Judge Daniel Procaccini, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge who dealt with the legendary case of Adam Emery. Adam and his wife, Elena, appeared to have plunged from the Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport in 1993. The young couple abandoned their Toyota Camry on the bridge, also leaving behind packaging for eighty pounds of strap-on weights. This occurred just three hours after he was convicted of stabbing a twenty-year-old man to death but somehow was allowed out on bail. In September 1994, pieces of Elena’s skull were positively identified. Adam’s remains have never been found. After eleven years with no sign of him, Judge Procaccini pronounced Emery dead so that his family could collect life insurance money.
If you even try to rent a bike or apply for a library card with another identity, and especially if you try to cash in a life insurance policy, then you are committing fraud. But to make believe that you are dead poses no crime. “It’s surprising more people don’t do it,” the judge says.
But some do. Petra Pazsitka, a German woman, seems to have pulled off a fully legal faked death for over three decades. Paztiska was a twenty-four-year-old computer science student in 1984 when she was last seen boarding a bus in Braunschweig. One year earlier, a fourteen-year-old girl had been murdered in the vicinity. Her parents reached out to a crime stoppers television show to solve the cold case, and in 1985 a carpenter’s apprentice, a nineteen-year-old known as Gunter K., was arrested and confessed to murdering the fourteen-year-old, and later to murdering Pazsitka as well. Petra was declared dead. At fifty-five years old, she was resurrected when she alerted police to a burglary taking place at her Dusseldorf home. When police asked her for identification, she introduced herself as “Mrs. Schneider,” but couldn’t produce any official documents. She had spent the past thirty-one years bouncing between different German cities, without any government ID or bank accounts, and paying for everything in cash. She told police she “wanted nothing to do with her family” and no contact with the public. She refused to give any motive for her disappearance. Since she committed no life insurance or identity fraud, she was not charged with any criminal offense. She did, however, have to register herself with German authorities as alive.
I find this refreshing. As morally questionable as faking death might be, at least you can pull it off while still being a good citizen. As Frank explains, “Picking up your suitcase and going to the bus stop is not a crime. Is it against the law to walk out on your wife or husband? I don’t think so.” Not that being on the right side of the law much interested Frank Ahearn. He didn’t start out in the disappearing business. He actually got his start finding people in the course of a fifteen-year stint as a skip tracer. A skip tracer, in Frank’s words, is a “liar for hire.” Skip tracers locate people and uncover their most intimate information. The difference between a private investigator and a skip tracer is that a PI must be licensed. Kurt Duesterdick, a PI himself and a friend of Frank’s, explains: “The state police perform a crazy background check to license PIs. Let’s just say there are a lot of skip tracers who couldn’t get licenses.” Skip tracers can extract hard-to-get information for police, PIs, lawyers, and anyone else with enough cash, because they don’t get bogged down in pesky details such as warrants or privacy laws. Frank has tracked down deadbeat dads and missing witnesses, and accessed the checking accounts of financiers suspected of embezzling money. He has worked with tabloids targeting celebrities. One of his main clients was a British tabloid that hired Frank to locate famous people. In 1998 it sent him the as-yet-unknown name Monica Lewinsky.
“I had no idea who she was,” he says. He called her home, saying he was from UPS and had a water-damaged package for Ms. Lewinsky that was about to be sent back. The housekeeper who answered the phone told him just to leave it on the doorstep. Frank unwittingly broke the scandal of the White House intern simply by verifying her identity and whereabouts. “My client told me to watch the news that night,” he says, “and when I did, I discovered who she was.” As a practical joke, he would page his friends with celebrities’ phone numbers, having them call Britney Spears and Nick Nolte.
In his time as a skip tracer, Frank—whose formal education concluded in the ninth grade—obtained criminal, phone, and banking records and scored intelligence from the FBI and Scotland Yard. “All a skip tracer needs is charm and a telephone,” he says. He could access any piece of privileged information by posing as someone else and providing false pretenses (such as posing as a UPS deliveryman), a routine he dubbed “pretexting.” If a client wanted the phone records of a cheating spouse, for example, Ahearn would simply pick up the phone and call the company, pretending to be the cheating spouse himself. “I’d say, ‘How ya doin’? This is so-and-so, and I just want to make sure I’m on the best calling plan, and by the way, could you read me my call history for the month?’ ” He likens his technique to the scorched-earth policy deployed by creepy guys everywhere. “It’s like dating: every no leads to a yes,” he explains. “If I get some twenty-year-old guy on the phone, I start shooting the shit, like ‘Hey, I’m going to the Caribbean over the weekend with the guys; nothing but booze, beer, and babes!’ Or I get the middle-aged woman, and I’ll talk about how my daughter is getting married on Sunday.” For someone who considers himself a misanthrope, he sure knows how to connect with people, at least when there’s something to gain. “Skip tracing is really about taking the person on the other end of the phone away from their day,” he says.
At the height of his skip tracing business, in the 1990s, Ahearn lived in an affluent New Jersey suburb with his wife and employed a staff of fifteen who helped him locate people and information. Single moms, he claims, were the best workers, because he allowed a flexible schedule and found them to be quite motivated to earn commissions on top of their base salary. One could easily take home up to $1,500 per week for telling a few lies on the phone. “We had a lot of fun. Everyone was dysfunctional,” he recalls. His former employees remember Ahearn as a generous boss who treated them to lunch regularly and surprised them with cakes on their birthdays. The staff nabbed records and documents from the Canadian newspaper publisher Conrad Black, who was worth millions and subsequently imprisoned for fraud. Ahearn still relishes the fact that his team contributed to Black’s demise, because, as he likes to brag, “the highest level of education in that office was a GED.” With the help of his team, Frank says he located more than forty thousand people.
Skip tracing provided instant gratification, a rush of adrenaline, and more money than Frank could ever have imagined. Assuming a new identity for each pretexting phone call allowed him to slip away from himself, to disappear for a moment. Perhaps Frank’s aversion to death fraud is because his ethos is built like a chest of drawers, with comfortable compartments in which to stow different levels of deception. Lying never bothered him. “If your name came across my desk, you had probably done something wrong,” he rationalizes. The part of his mendacity that did bother him, however, was his natural facility. “The thing that played in my mind was ‘Why am I so good at this deception thing?’ Like, why did I grab that bag when I was born? Why didn’t I grab the bag for being good at painting?”
His inauguration ten years ago as a “privacy consultant,” or disappearance concierge, occurred not so much by choice as by accident. After 9/11, Frank’s business crumbled, along with his life. With the economy in the tank and new privacy laws that made it illegal to pretext banks, skip tracing became more difficult. The Internal Revenue Service caught up with him for unpaid taxes, his wife divorced him, and he “had the misfortune of quitting drinking.” After he and his wife separated, he slept on a couch in his office and kept all his clothes in the trunk of his car, waking in the early morning to shower in the office bathroom, wiping the water drops off the shower curtain, and slipping out so no one would catch on. “I’d bounce around for a few hours and roll into the office at nine thirty with a cup of coffee. No one knew anything,” Frank says. He paid his employees a small severance with the money from the sale of his house after the divorce. The day his skip tracing office closed, he packed up whatever he could stuff into his car, unable to pay the deposit on a moving van. “I looked back at this vacant office, just a sea of empty desks, and said, ‘There’s my empire.’ ”
Newly sober—without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, he is quick to point out—he attempted to skip trace for regular people instead of PIs and police. Frank placed an ad on the website EscapeArtist, a community bulletin board for expats, but soon got an email from the administrator saying that locating people kind of went against its mission, so why didn’t he write a short article about disappearing instead? And from his “crappy, unedited” piece about the mistakes people make and the slipups that get them caught, he started receiving emails and calls from all over the world requesting his consulting services to help people make their getaway. So Frank inverted his business model and used his insider knowledge to aid those desperate for a respite from their lives. Because he knew how to find people, he also knew how to help them hide.
But why disappear rather than fake your death? Frank maintains strongly that the two are very different things. To him, simply disappearing—walking out on your life without leaving a trace, rather than staging an elaborate accident suggesting your death—is the way to go because of its austere elegance. But it still didn’t make sense to me. If you’re not leaving behind anything outstanding in your wake—like a jail sentence or impoverished investors—wouldn’t people just assume you died if it looked like you died? If you’re not planning on coming back, the illusion of death might actually be gentler. Then at least your loved ones can mourn your memory rather than try restlessly to solve the mystery of your disappearance. It seemed to me that people would be more suspicious if you simply vanished without a trace. Wouldn’t someone come sniffing around as to your whereabouts? And wouldn’t you have to assume another identity anyway?
Although there is no law on the books explicitly against death fraud, Frank holds firm that even tiny auxiliary crimes can get a person in trouble, like the authenticating details that bolster the credibility of a death scene: “You blow up your house, you chop your fingers off, you leave your fingers behind—that’s a crime. If somewhere down the line you find out they paid your wife a hundred thousand dollars in insurance, that’s a crime.” It occurred to me that he was talking about people with quite a bit of baggage, the baggage one accumulates over a lifetime of chasing the American dream: a wife, a house, a family, a little trouble with the law trying to get more. But me? I was an unencumbered, footloose and fancy-free, unmarried, childless young adult. I had only garden-variety six-figure student loan debt. It’s true that the debt was incurred in service of chasing that elusive American dream, but that did not make me special. So how dire, how irreversible, do your problems need to be to “kill” the person—you—responsible for them, rather than just walking away?
WHEN A PERSON DECIDES to disappear, the stakes are high. Prior to meeting Frank, I’d thought that my debt qualified as pressing, but compared with someone like Sam Israel, who was looking down the barrel of two decades in prison and a half-billion-dollar IOU, my little problem was just a drop in the death-faking bucket. Ahearn sorts his clients’ motives into two categories: money and violence. Occasionally you could file it in the category of “love,” like when the husband wants to run away with a woman (or man) who is not his wife, but this motivation is an outlier.
Ahearn estimates that from 2001 to 2012, he helped around fifty people disappear, charging up to $30,000 per case for his services. More than half of his clients were men, whom he charged full freight to help underwrite his female clients. Men came to him with money problems; they had come into money or had lost it all and his female clients had violence problems: stalkers or abusive husbands. If the woman contacting Frank felt like her life was in imminent danger, he wouldn’t charge her anything.
“Most of the men were in search of the palm-tree lifestyle,” Frank explains, referring to middle-aged men who lit out for places like Belize or Panama (countries where you can open an anonymous corporation with little oversight and hassle), free from the IRS or the “ex-wife sucking him dry.” He never helped people with offshore banking but instead set up his clients as “virtual entities.” He’d then funnel money to fund their livelihoods—from phone bills to rent—under a limited liability company (LLC), which, depending on the state, can be set up with varying degrees of anonymity. Along with a variety of other undetectable methods, such as prepaid cell phones and credit cards, Ahearn could make his clients invisible without their assuming false identities: “The minute you open up a bank account with a fake identity, you’re violating so many laws,” he says. “And how do you know whose identity you’re buying? What if the person is a pedophile?” Good point.
But even to get to the point of “undetectable”—and Ahearn maintains that these days “everything” is traceable, even cash and burner phones (disposable cell phones unlinked to a credit card or social security number)—one must go to great lengths. Methods that at one time seemed viable, like the anonymizing software application Tor, have all proved fallible to a baby hacker. Whatever new technology comes along promising citizens privacy will inevitably become obsolete in a matter of moments. And Big Brother’s surveillance is very real. Your image can be captured on Google Street View, by drones, by security cameras everywhere. Erasing a digital footprint is now impossible, Frank maintains, but you can take measures to disconnect yourself from the trail.
This involves a method of outsourcing the dirty work that Frank dubs “stretching the footprint.” He illustrates his point with a surprisingly wholesome example, given his rakish personal presentation: “Say you ask the bully’s girlfriend to dance, and now he’s coming to kick your ass. You duck from him, but then a week later you’re delivering pizza because that’s your job. You show up at the house, and you realize, ‘Oh shit! It’s his house.’ If you ring the doorbell, he’s going to open the door and punch you in the face. How do I accomplish my goal of delivering the pizza and getting paid without him realizing it’s me? You go to the schoolyard, you get a kid, and say, ‘Hey, listen, deliver this pizza; keep the tip money.’ I give the pizza money to my boss, I keep my teeth, and we’re all happy.”
The idea is to create buffers with other people in other places to insulate you from detection. How can I remove myself from the picture and have somebody else leave my digital footprint for me? Frank describes how he stretches his connection when making contact with a client who really, really does not want to be linked to the privacy consultant: “If I need to email somebody in Romania, I will never email them from frankahearn.com. I have a circle of third-party people in all different parts of the world who work as assistants for companies like oDesk [a freelancer service] who will have a prepaid cell phone to call this person in Korea, and I will dictate an email. They will email it to a location email address. I will have someone in Norway access it, copy it, and then they shut down that email. Then they email it to where I want it to go in Romania. Is it perfect? No. But the average person can’t get that. Can law enforcement get it? Sure, but it’s going to take a little time, and by then you’re gone. You’re going to create the digital footprint no matter what, so make your footprints few and far between.”
But even getting the prepaid phone requires some extra planning. People get so wrapped up in the digital footprint, Frank says, that they forget about being out in the real world, where a security camera captures a picture of them buying the phone at CVS. “I have certain clients who will contact me, and they’ll just email me a word. And I’ll know what that word means and where to call. So I will shoot to Times Square and find myself a homeless guy. I’ll say, ‘Go buy me a prepaid phone,’ and I’ll pay him a hundred dollars. His face is on the camera buying it. I make sure I’m not walking deep into Times Square where my face is being picked up on camera, nor am I being picked up at the location where he’s giving me the phone. Now that phone is anonymous; nobody knows Frank Ahearn used that phone.”
It seems like an awful lot of trouble. But that is the price of doing business. If you want to disappear, and do it right, the planning is not for the faint of heart, or the careless. “It’s a pain in the ass,” Frank admits. Which is part of the reason why people who want to disappear hire him to do the grunt work. It’s a fraught and lonely world out there on your own.
So how does a woman with little disposable income and even less time ditch a madman hot on her trail? “The less money you have, the easier it is to disappear. Give me a waitress with shitty credit who doesn’t own a house, all I have to do is skip trace her information and see what she needs to do. Piece of cake,” Frank says. With fewer assets, there’s less to detect. Of course, I can project myself into that model, with my own lack of funds, shitty credit, and history of verbal leases. No real estate, no inheritance, nothing to hide. I could walk out of Frank’s office and into the thick humidity of the August afternoon and dissolve easier than I thought. Confronting the flimsiness of my life, at least on paper, I recognized a certain lightness of being. I felt as if I could blow away.
Frank’s process disappears people in three easy steps. The first step is “misinformation,” which means destroying any information available, from closing bank and phone accounts to removing your name from online databases. Then he creates “disinformation,” or false leads to throw off pursuers. So if the waitress is repairing to Kansas in February, Ahearn starts diverting traceable leads to Chicago in January. She will place calls to realtors, utility companies, and restaurants that might be hiring. “If I’m a stalker and I hire a skip tracer, the first thing I’m going for is your phone records. Anyone who is looking for you is going to look at that January information.” If she has enough money, she can travel to Chicago for the day and meet with realtors to see apartments. If a skip tracer brings up her credit report, he will see an inquiry from a Chicago realtor.
Once Frank has sufficiently engineered enough false leads and set her up in the next place, he calls the woman to say it’s go time. Fleeing under these conditions means leaving behind almost everything. “If you live with the guy, you just pack that one fahkin’ bag, and you go. You don’t risk hiring a moving company.” To escape her pursuer, the woman might hire a PI to do surveillance and make sure he’s out of the way. And, of course, the woman should take an indirect route to Kansas by buying a bus ticket to Chicago with a credit card and paying for her Kansas ticket with cash.
Now begins the off-the-grid life. When the woman makes the move to Kansas, she will pay her rent and bills from an LLC. But how to earn a living? “You can’t be a regular employee or a licensed professional, like an accountant or a nurse,” Frank says. “But you can work off the books—as a waitress, or graphic designer, or house cleaner—and claim the cash you make. I would never tell anyone not to claim their cash,” he adds with a smile. “That would be un-American.” A Massachusetts lawyer retained Frank’s services to help her escape an ex-boyfriend who was stalking her. Since she could no longer practice law (“She’d have to join the bar in that state, and all the guy would need to do is make fifty phone calls. There are fifty states, right?”), she became a legal consultant in New Hampshire to avoid registering her address in the very public state bar association database and filed her taxes as an independent contractor.
I was shocked to learn that a woman who felt her life was in danger from a deranged stalker would merely cross a single state line to hide. Couldn’t they plausibly run into each other at the gas station? But many of Frank’s disappearees have relocated to towns just hours away. Most stayed close because they couldn’t afford a big move, but, as Frank says, “Sometimes disappearing two hours away is better than going cross-country because you’re hiding in plain sight.” To keep in touch with loved ones left behind, Frank devised codes in the form of Craigslist postings and classified ads. “If Mom wants to find you, all she needs to do is look up ‘1974 Cadillac Seville with whitewall tires’ and switch the last two digits of the phone number in the ad to call your prepaid cell phone.” Some of his clients corresponded by using a single email account, with each user having the password, and not sending their messages but saving them as drafts so that no electronic trail could be recovered. Other clients did the same with unpublished blogs. “I’m good,” he chuckles.
One of Frank’s favorite clients was a man named Louie, a gruff older gentleman who had amassed a small fortune from hot dog carts and food trucks. “He cursed and smoked cigars and had a lawyer son who was a prick and wanted his money,” Frank recalls. Louie’s wife had died recently, and he regressed into bachelorhood, buying sports cars and dating women decades younger. The son thought Louie was acting irresponsibly, so he filed a petition for power of attorney. “He wanted his son off his back, and he knew the best way to do that was to disappear. Move to the Caribbean. Enjoy his fortune and a cold Corona next to the bright blue sea,” Frank writes in How to Disappear. Louie read an article about Frank and had his lawyer contact him.
“The lawyer said, ‘He doesn’t need your help getting from point A to point B; he just wants to make sure no one finds him when he gets to point B. And he wants to create “fahk you” things for the son to find when he goes after him.’ ” So Frank went to town creating disinformation for the son’s private investigator to find. Frank hired an expensive escort (“I didn’t want a two-bit hoo-ar”) to live in a luxury apartment in Louie’s name. The PI staked out the doorman building, and, after days of not spotting Louie, he approached the escort, who handed him an envelope with a phone number. Louie’s son dialed the phone number but was looped to his own home answering machine, as Frank had set up a call-forwarding service by pretexting a phone company.
FAKING DEATH IS HARDLY a new phenomenon. Rather, it seems as if people in the past gave it a whirl with far fewer technologies at their disposal and for less urgent motives than the money or violence Frank cites. Up until relatively recently, faking one’s death was as easy as placing an obituary in the local newspaper. In 1913, French police investigated the “queer case” of a wealthy Côte d’Azur contractor who’d built many of the gleaming Mediterranean-style mansions dotting the Riviera. The contractor’s son, a wealthy Parisian playboy, had run up steep debts in his father’s name. The contractor’s obituary ran in the local paper, and a funeral procession departed from his gigantic villa, Star of the Sea, and marched to the village cemetery—where his empty coffin was buried. His mansion fell into disrepair. The manicured lawns grew ragged weeds and jungle vines. The banks in Paris closed the case on the debt. But a few months later, a friend spotted the contractor crossing the street in Cannes. Other reported sightings came in from Nice and Antibes. When authorities announced that they planned to dig up the coffin, one villager came forward and revealed that the funeral invitations had been penned in the dead man’s handwriting.
While the financial motive remains common, the stakes weren’t always so high. One young Englishman, William Mellor, registered his own death in 1885 because he was wanted for stealing a horse. The contraband horse was located in Manchester, where Mellor had sold it for £18. Mellor’s pseudocide was just the anticlimactic coda to a life of petty crime. According to the London Pall Mall Gazette, which documented Horsegate, the nine-year-old Mellor collected alms for a youth group of missionaries. He took his meager donations to get drunk at a pub and then burned his alms box. Two decades later, Mellor fraudulently obtained a government loan to stock a farm that did not exist. When an inquiry officer paid him a visit to check up on Her Majesty’s investment, Mellor toured him around a thriving farm down the road, which belonged to neighbors he knew to be out of town. Mellor was not heard from again until ten years later, when he reported himself dead. But police were suspicious of the fortuitous timing of his death. Officers speculated that he “succeeded in escaping to America with the proceeds of the horse robbery.” The newspaper editorialized, “not a few hope he has made his escape good.” Faking death has always been the province of low-rent con men.
While Frank maintains that romance is a distant third motivation to fake one’s death, in 1879 one fanciful young woman fulfilled every jilted lover’s fantasy. Twenty-one-year-old Ida M. Eddy placed her own obituary in two Boston-area newspapers, saying she had died of heart disease, replete with lurid details of belabored breathing and coughing up blood. But her plan had a sinister twist: on the morning of publication, she furiously called the newspapers herself, upbraiding the editors for running her death notice without fact checking. She was very much alive, and accused Jennie Bessom (whom the Boston Advertiser described as a “respectable young woman”) of writing her obituary. Ida had organized the subterfuge because “a young man had transferred his affections from Miss Ida Eddy to Miss Jennie Bessom, and that the former had since endeavored to win him back by composing malicious forged letters written to herself, purporting to have come from the latter.” It was a sublime revenge scenario: Ida would illustrate to her ex-boyfriend the agony of what life would be like without her while simultaneously maligning the new girl’s character, painting her as an amoral home wrecker. When police investigated the story, they found “the animus of the whole affair ‘appears’ to have been a desire to destroy Miss Bessom’s reputation.” Ida eventually admitted her dastardly hoax and was ultimately fined $100. It is unknown whether she was able to reignite the young man’s affections.
Not all pseudocides intended to teach a heartbreaker a lesson end so whimsically. Some romantic ploys have ended up in lives cut tragically short. In a 1935 article entitled “Wife Dies in Ketchup Case,” the New York Times reported that after a domestic dispute, a Yonkers policeman “smeared his face with ketchup and then fired his pistol into the floor of their home after his wife had threatened to leave the house after a quarrel.” When she saw her husband covered in what she thought was blood, she grabbed the pistol and fatally shot herself.
STORIES OF FAKED DEATH are proto narratives. The founding myth of the Talmud features Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai faking his death so that he can escape Jerusalem during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in the first century AD: “Pretend you are sick, and let everyone come to visit you. Bring something rotten and place it with you, and they will say you died.” It’s a theme that resurfaces frequently in literature. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Wakefield,” for example, a man leaves his London home “under the pretense of going on a journey” but instead takes an apartment around the corner where he can watch his own life progress without him, from a ghost’s perspective. Huck Finn smears pig’s blood around a cabin and plants clumps of hair on an ax, orchestrating a hoax to “fix it now so nobody won’t think of following me,” and sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, unencumbered by the adults who would want to “sivilize” him. Juliet downs a tincture to make her “stiff and stark and cold, appear like death,” to leave her family’s warring tribal politics and live happily ever after with Romeo. But much like the ketchup fiasco, this plan, too, went awry. Men in crime novels by John Grisham and Tom Clancy disappear or fake their own deaths regularly, like their cultural predecessors in pulpy noir paperbacks. To become invisible is to cast yourself as both the villain and the hero of your story.
And now more than ever, audiences hunger for stories of deliberate disappearance. Everywhere I looked, there they were: Monica Ali’s 2011 novel Untold Story suggests that Princess Di faked her own death. Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestseller Gone Girl is plotted around a staged murder. One of the computer-generated suggestions in my Netflix queue was a self-produced documentary entitled Alive! Is Michael Jackson Really Dead? (one of the most popular instant-streaming choices at the time). In September 2011 the Discovery Channel debuted a new series called I Faked My Own Death, which chronicled some of the “morons and idiots” referred to by Frank. Gossip Girl’s steely robber baron Bart Bass returns from the dead in the penultimate season, a classic soap opera trope. Don Draper on Mad Men ditched Dick Whitman in the Korean War and assumed a dead man’s identity. And everyone’s favorite antihero, Walter White on the TV show Breaking Bad, hired a consultant like Frank to deliver him to a new life off the grid.
Pseudocide boasts an eternal fascination—think Elvis and Tupac—but why the seeming ubiquity? Perhaps I was just experiencing the phenomenon of naming the thing and then seeing it everywhere, but new death fraud cases kept popping up with uncanny frequency. Even Paul Walker, the blandly handsome action hero of The Fast and the Furious movie franchise, was rumored to have staged the car accident that claimed his life in 2013. It was as if people needed the fantasy as a place to project their longing for a different ending, or even a resurrection.
Today, disappearing seems virtually impossible. This, I think, is what accounts for our renewed fascination with it. We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data stats that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder. Disappearing means disconnecting—unimaginable yet totally captivating. Precisely because it has become less feasible, that deep urge to be anonymous, or even to be someone else, exists ever more powerfully within us. The desire to disappear doesn’t go away just because times change and technology strangles us. That we cannot fulfill the urge as easily is perhaps the greatest tragedy.
The economy has been in the toilet for the better part of a decade, and Americans find themselves saddled with more personal debt than ever before in human history. Like my own plight, many feel they might never recover from their financial turmoil, or have been set so far back that they have little investment in playing by the rules that have screwed them. Prospects we once trusted—home ownership, a comfortable retirement, hard work leading to a decent life—crumble every day. The typical college student graduates burdened with $35,000 in debt, the average household owes $15,706 to credit card companies, and if you are lucky enough to qualify for a mortgage, you’ll owe in the ballpark of $156,474. Disappearing seems like a reasonable daydream to indulge.
The fantasy might also represent a pendulum swing away from the hypervisibility of our age. We project pieces of ourselves in humble braggy status updates and clever hash tags, and refuse even the blood and viscera of speaking on the phone. Instead of expressing emotion, we have emojis. One has not experienced the present moment until it has been photographed, posted, and liked. Our lives are processed through cables and screens, and filtered through Mayfair, X-Pro II, and Valencia. We are only as sensitive as the ironic graffiti we notice and post, as sexy as the selfies we flaunt. The fevered curating and monitoring weigh us down while simultaneously abstracting us from relationships IRL.
A 2010 University of South Carolina study suggests that loneliness increases with time spent on the internet, reinforcing a 1998 study, published in the journal American Psychologist, which finds that digital dependence leads to depression, loneliness, and neglect of existing relationships. Psychologist Sherry Turkle, famed professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in the New York Times, “We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely.” Perhaps faking death and disappearing appeals to the part of us that still craves authenticity and unfettered solitude, the truest antidote to loneliness.
Having others reflect and validate our existences back at us is exactly what the narcissism of social media has conditioned us to expect. Consider the temptation to check in on yourself, once you have disappeared, by logging on to Facebook through a bogus account to monitor your in-memoriam profile. It’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of Tom Sawyer showing up at his own funeral.
The temptation was too much for Patrick McDermott, Australian singer Olivia Newton-John’s longtime boyfriend. He faked his death on a fishing trip in 2005 shortly after the couple had broken up. He’d chartered a boat and allegedly fell overboard at night, drowning in the waters off the coast of Los Angeles. His motive appeared to be monetary. He had filed for bankruptcy while still with Newton-John, and, according to various news sources, might have wanted the proceeds from a $100,000 insurance policy to go to his son. A group of private investigators hired by Dateline located McDermott when they noticed a centralized cluster of IP addresses originating near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, all clicking onto a site dedicated to tracing his whereabouts. Keeping tabs on oneself through the disembodied filter of the computer screen highlights how egomaniacal one must be to fake one’s death in the first place. But perhaps McDermott thought he was harnessing technology to his own advantage: a real-time report of where his pursuers were searching for him. His case shows how easy it is to get yourself caught, even off the grid. “Disappearing makes you infinite,” Frank says. “If you disappear, people will always talk about you.” Somehow the mystery of the disappeared makes more present the person who has gone.
Surprisingly, Frank maintains that technology has actually made disappearing much easier today than in the analog days of yore. He too has noticed an increased fancy for the world of disappearance, and he too agrees it’s because things are shitty. But he also thinks it’s because the fantasy is less of a hassle to enact: “Twenty years ago, if you wanted to disappear to Belize, you would have to go to a bookstore and buy a book about Belize. Then you’d have to call the tourist bureau down there, but first you’d have to call directory assistance to get a long-distance line—fourteen dollars later—and then, ‘Hi, I’m looking to move to Belize,’ and they’ll send you a brochure. Then you’d have to call airlines to see who flies to Belize. It would be a weeks-long project. Today all you need to do is sit in front of your computer for twenty minutes. You can rent an apartment, buy plane tickets, and you’re gone.” But what about the fact that you could be traced just as easily? “The internet is a double-edged sword,” Frank admits. In his view, “it all comes down to who’s better at it: the person looking or the person disappearing?”
That’s why Frank has set his sights on a new frontier, retooling and revamping his business yet again, to help clients bury negative information available about them online. While disappearing clients typically seek his services for reasons of money or violence, his digital-deception clients’ needs vary. Frank cites a common scenario: “The problem with information is that it’s starting to affect the average Joe. Say that before you were born, your father had a DUI and killed a kid in Iowa. And now, all of a sudden this small newspaper from Iowa is putting up all their issues online, and all of a sudden there’s this information about your father. That’s a problem, because some guy has changed his life and now has to pay the price. I find it fahked up because at the end of the day, the only reason that newspaper is putting that online is so they can make more money on ads.” He deals with people like the hypothetical DUI dad who seeks to distance himself from the sins of his past (he clarifies again, “I’m not talking about a pedophile or someone like that!”) or people who might want to hide only certain parts of their identities, such as a world-traveling photojournalist who also happens to be a millionaire, or a prosecutor who has sent murderers to jail and doesn’t want the convicts to know the particulars of her family life and residence.
The notion of making the move from physical to digital disappearance occurred to Frank when he was a guest on a local New York cable TV show in 2010. He was on for his expertise in the art of disappearance. The other guest was Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, who Skyped in from a conference in Washington, DC. Fertik’s company offers a variety of services, including “helping people establish a positive online visibility” and “combat[ting] negative content.” The two guests could not have been more different. Frank, in his uniform of sunglasses and black T-shirt, spoke of his trademark recipe of manipulating information to disappear, while Fertik rhapsodized about reinvention as an American ideal and the internet as the locus of a “collective permanent memory.” Frank recalls the taping to me: “Fertik was talking about how they manage reputation, using these huge words, and I was like, ‘What the fahk does this guy do?’ I hate highfalutin individuals. It really drives me fahkin’ nuts.”
But Frank also saw a flaw in Fertik’s methods. “You can’t delete shit online. If you ask a newspaper or a blogger to take something down, that can backfire. It can be front-page news the next day. I realized, why not just create deception?” Fertik told me over the phone from the Bay Area, “Very emphatically, that”—deleting shit online—“is not what we do. We are a globally scalable business with two hundred people who are PhDs in math, computer science, and statistics. Frank is not a technologist,” he said. “He seems like the kind of guy you’d see at the corner bar.”
Corner bar or not, Frank has his method down pat. He manages his clients’ reputations by essentially creating fake people who make fake websites, all with his clients’ names. It’s a variation on misinformation, also called “data pollution.” For example, if Noah Schwarz made an amateur porn back in college, Frank builds websites for thirty other Noah Schwarzes, buying up every domain name, such as NoahSchwarz.net, NoahSchwarz.co.uk, and NoahSchwarz.org. One Noah Schwarz will be a juggler, one Noah Schwarz might be an accountant, but one Noah Schwarz (also fictional, but sharing certain traits with the real Noah Schwarz) will have gone to the University of San Francisco and will reminisce about his wild fraternity days when he and his buddies produced porn. The mostly fake Noah Schwarz, however, will live in Austin, Texas, while the real Noah Schwarz lives in New York. The mostly fake Noah Schwarz will be an insurance salesman, while the real Noah Schwarz is a professor. Ostensibly, the crime will be assigned to the mostly fictitious Noah Schwarz. “You can’t rid yourself of the information,” Frank says, “but you can use digital information to have somebody else take the glory or the misery, or just murk it up enough so it doesn’t look like my client did the thing.” Or more simply: “It’s like high school. My goal is to make my websites more popular and yours less popular.” He charges in the ballpark of $25,000 to build and maintain the websites for six months.
It seems to be effective, but some clients have objected to his method. Frank dealt with a wealthy horse trader whose former partner spoke disparagingly about him in a New York Times article. “He wanted me to get it down. He wanted me to pretext the New York Times! I told him, ‘Look, you can’t get rid of it.’ ” If the article exists on the Times website, it most likely exists on other aggregator sites, and locating every mutation of the article would be like ripping up a ream of paper into confetti, throwing it into the wind, and trying to recover every bit. Frank then gave a quick demo of how he would handle his client’s predicament: by building ten fake websites, “with the stupidest stuff in the world,” under the horse trader’s name. When you typed his name into Google, you would find nothing but horses—clowns with horses, cowboys with horses—but nothing directly identifiable to the actual horse trader. Despite the fact that Frank managed to bury the negative article, the client was less than pleased. “He got pissed off at me. He was actually insulted. The problem I face with people is vanity. He didn’t want to be attached to this dumb thing.”
I asked whether any of his clients ever question the veracity of the search results they receive, whether it ever seems fishy to type in the name of a prominent person, and yet the top hits come up as jugglers and clowns. “Clients worry that someone is going to think it’s bullshit,” Frank admits. “But when was the last time you said ‘This Google search is bullshit’? And who goes past page one or two on a Google search? If I can dump the damning thing on page eight, people most likely aren’t going to find it.”
Despite Frank’s insistence, this strategy has been criticized as ineffective when the websites appear too tawdry or haphazard. Still, it’s clever. As Frank put it, “You don’t even have to disappear anymore. With digital deception, you can create the illusion of disappearing.” I thought about this for a moment. Could you make it seem as if you’ve started a new life in Los Angeles while you’re actually going about your business in New York? It seems impossible. In a city of eight million, I’m ashamed to recall the times I’ve found myself hiding behind cars to avoid ex-boyfriends or ducking into Duane Reade rather than engaging in awkward conversation with a vague acquaintance. And what about bill collectors? They’re a pretty plucky bunch. Could I potentially avoid these confrontations without uprooting my life?
“You’re using the deception to create whatever world you want,” Frank explains, “to let people believe you’re here rather than there. You can move from Upper Manhattan to Lower Manhattan and give the illusion that you’ve moved to East Jabib.” Frank made it sound as easy as Photoshopping a picture of me in front of the Space Needle and writing a status update such as “Love it here in Seattle!” But what about my friends and family? Wouldn’t I have to let them in on it, lest they think I am suffering from multiple personality disorder or delusions of grandeur? And how would that help me on the student loan front?
It began to occur to me that just as there are many layers of intimacy and connection with the people in our lives, there are also multiple layers of our manifestation in the world. Our selves are fluid, and we shift seamlessly between the physical and the digital. Integrating our physical being with its digital shadow—the unseemly events of college, or rumors, true or not—makes deception inevitable, whether you consider withholding information deception at all. People can live one life but change age and gender online. “Deception” is just another name for “avatar,” “casual encounter,” or “Facebook profile.” “Technology allows us to be who we want,” Frank says philosophically, “and it’s not always ourselves.”
Deception has fascinated Frank since he was a kid, because he saw the power it gave the liar. Frank Sr. ran illegal gambling clubs in the Bronx, and, as a boy, Frank Jr. was impressed with what lying could get him. “I must have been six or seven years old, and one of my sisters had her first communion or something like that, and my father took us out for Chinese food. There was this little lobster fork my dad got with his meal, and my father said to the Chinese waiter, ‘We’re tourists visiting the city. Can I keep this fork?’ We lived a couple blocks away! But the guy said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ That story has always stuck in my head. I said, ‘Wow! If you lie, you get things.’ ”
Maybe some people are just better at deception and even consider it a means to an end in the first place. I’ll tell a white lie to make someone feel better (“That bolero jacket does not emphasize your midsection!”) or a lie of omission (I do not speak of my Meat Lover’s pizza and Bravo reality-TV marathons), but telling out-and-out whoppers (like that I am dead) is daunting. What if Frank is right, and deception is just a move toward personal liberation? Do we have a right to disappear? Or is shirking our responsibilities—the debts, the marriage, the tedium—the ultimate in human hubris?
Maybe evaluating one’s motives can answer those questions. From Frank’s descriptions of the queries he fielded, most of the potential clients sounded less like nefarious conspirers or lazy deadbeats and more like everyday cogs in the wheel: “I have people who email me ‘I’m thinking about disappearing,’ so then I email them back and say, ‘Tell me what’s going on.’ And they say, ‘Nothing, I just don’t really like my life.’ ”
Dr. Ze’ev Levin, a New York University psychiatrist and professor who specializes in personality disorders, tells me just how widespread this impulse is: “There’s this fantasy that many of us have that if we moved to a different place, our lives would be different. It’s not unusual for people to say that things are terrible in New York, so if I moved to Australia, things would be better. I think there are universal fantasies we have about wishing we were somewhere else, and someone else. Taken to an absolute extreme, erasing your life assumes you will then be reborn as something different. If I died while I was alive, I could come back as something other.” Dr. Levin sees this tendency of avoidance cloaked in a daydream as an evolutionary trick that prevents us from confronting and examining the uglier parts of ourselves. “We are structurally designed to not want to look at what’s upsetting,” he observes. Actually going through with such a deceit and making the fantasy concrete would indicate antisocial and manipulative behavior, but as Dr. Levin says, “Fantasizing has nothing to do with being a sociopath.” Dr. Laura Gold, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, echoes Dr. Levin. “I have certainly heard people fantasize about the power of the credit card, to just go to an airport and get on a flight far away from their lives,” she says.
This sentiment resonates with many people. Says Frank, “I think we’ve all dreamt about it at one point in our lives. There’s a cathartic thing about it. It’s like going for a long walk, or looking at apartments in Paris online, which I do every day. You can envision yourself there. Go to Google Earth, you can see the front of the building. No matter how good our lives are, there’s a part of us that would just like to leave the whole world behind.” Even Frank, whose occupation allows him to live out the fantasy of beginning again with each client, finds himself underwhelmed. “I’m so fahkin’ bored. I’ve had my fill. I need to find something to occupy my time, but I hate hobbies. You can only write so much, you can only dream so much. I’ve been thinking about my own escape plan, and I think it’s coming soon.” I ask him why he thinks the urge to dream yourself away is so universal: “We all have wants. Unfortunately, life doesn’t let us have those wants.” Maybe fantasy can take you only so far; maybe a real erasure and revision offer the only solution.
SAM ISRAEL AND I struck up a correspondence in the form of very long emails and letters to and from Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina. Like faking death and disappearance itself, Sam’s story, too, was much more complex than it seemed at the outset. He’s infamous for the “suicide is painless” message, but, at least according to the man himself, he simply wrote it as a flip response to his mother’s question of what he planned to do now that a court had handed him a twenty-two-year prison sentence. The newspapers didn’t report the IDs that Sam was able to score in record time, or the other contingency plans he had set up. And there was still another part of the story missing, about how he managed to angle his jump off the bridge to land in the construction nets below—designed with high-tensile strength to catch chunks of falling concrete—and crawl hand over hand to the other side, and scramble unseen up the shale banks of the Hudson River to Hassan’s getaway car. Even though the New York Times ran a story five days after Sam went missing, announcing that the search for the convicted financier was “going global,” the feds didn’t catch him. But the triumph was brief. He turned himself in to a police station in Southwick, Massachusetts, almost one month after he appeared to have jumped off the Bear Mountain Bridge. Why?
“You know how they got Sammy?” Frank asks me. “They squeezed his girlfriend and told her she’d get indicted.” Frank invokes a rule: “Never become attached to anything you can’t walk away from in five seconds.” Summoning the will to walk away is not a possibility for most people. They’re thwarted not by carelessness but by caring.
I WALKED OUT OF Frank’s office into Friday rush hour in August, the heat from the sidewalk radiating up my legs and the smoke from a deliveryman’s cigarette blending with the fumes of his idling truck. Pushing through the tides of people, I thought about escape plans. Maybe some of the faces in the crowd had already left one life behind. Once Frank had registered the fact that I was not going to serve him papers, he offered up so many insights about disappearance that he complicated my glib ideas about what leaving it all behind really meant.
Is faking death really as impossible as he made it sound? It seems that pseudocide becomes troublesome when it comes to trying to commit life insurance fraud, or when you already have the feds watching you. But what if you maintain a low profile? How long could Sam Israel have pulled it off if he’d never turned himself in?
Faking death still held a much deeper emotional resonance for me than disappearing—if you were going to do it, you’d really have to do it. In a cultural and technological moment when we are neither ever fully present nor totally detached, when we can scroll through thousands of potential suitors on our phones and meet none of them, when we can curate a feed of foreign lands we will never see and aspirational gurus doing life far better than we are, pseudocide means surrendering potential desire for actual gratification. We live in a world of limitless options, commitmentphobia, and half measures. Disappearing, even as Frank described the benefits, felt like yet another way to hedge. It sounded a little wishy-washy. Pseudocide, instead, was all backbone, total investment. Besides, it was just sexier than disappearing.
If I’d learned anything about Frank, it’s that he made a living off bullshitting. Maybe he had hypnotized me with his stories, bawdy jokes, and laser-like attention. He’d shown me how people can get lost, vaporized, obscured, hidden. And sifting through new permutations of life-on-the-lam fantasies and exit strategies, I felt more confused than ever. My fantasy of getting lost was shifting into a great big question mark. I needed a second opinion. I needed to be found.
Table of Contents
1 How to Disappear 1
2 How to Be Found 41
3 The Canoe Man 85
4 The Believers 139
5 Collateral Damage 177
6 Faking My Death with Mr. Clean and Mr. Bean 201
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Young, fresh-faced Elizabeth Greenwood considered faking her death once all those pesky student loans starting knocking on her door. It's not always fun being a grown-up is it? She started researching and this initial thought morphed into something entirely different. Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud is a nonfiction account of all those who tried and failed at disappearing, examples of pseudocide scenarios that would warrant criminal charges and ones that would simply bring the dead back to life, an eye-opening look at the black market business end of it, the reality of what a new life would look like in this camera-heavy digital age, and how Elizabeth ended up holding her very own death certificate in her hands. Of course, she isn't dead, not even fake dead. She never submitted the documentation. Elizabeth uses Playing Dead to show that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I really enjoyed this reading experience. I learned a great deal about a subject I didn't know a lick about. It was truly interesting albeit sad. When you disappear, you don't get to choose what or who you are disappearing from. You have to leave it all. I think I'd rather stick around and face the music with those I love. ♥ Happy Reading. My favorite quote: "Payment. Every debt has to be repaid. Repaying one's debts, according to Plato, at least, is the true definition of justice. Nothing is ever free. There is no such thing as getting away with it. When I looked, I saw ugliness, broken families, loneliness. Some people I spoke to clung to me as one of the few left who would listen to them. They had lost so much. Is transformation without annihilation possible? Freedom comes at a high cost. These lessons are not glamorous, like what I was hoping to find. But, God, are they true."
Insightful, entertaining, beautifully written. I strongly recommend this book--I tore through it.