Ever considered faking your own death and starting out from scratch in some foreign land? No, us neither - but it does happen. And there's a booming trade for it in the Philippines, of all places.
For the bargain price of around $630, travellers can purchase "death kits" made up of documents that "prove" your demise. The process involves buying an unclaimed corpse from one of the many morgues in the Philippines that have a decent number of them. And the customers? Desperate Wall Street bankers seeking to escape debt, and men having affairs who want to leave their families, apparently.
Then there's Elizabeth Greenwood, who "died" as a tourist in the Philippines in 2013. Multiple spectators witnessed her crash her rental car into another vehicle on a busy road in Manila, and doctors at the local hospital pronounced Greenwood dead on arrival. Or so her death certificate states.
In reality, Greenwood is alive and well working as a journalist in New York. She is also the author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, a book she wrote having extensively researched the black market and having managed to fake to her own death, fairly easily as it turned out.
Greenwood spoke about the process (don't get any ideas) and why the Philippines is the place to be should you want to follow suit (but really, don't).
First of all, why on earth did she try this?
The idea first tickled Greenwood's fancy back in Brooklyn when a friend joked about it over lunch many years ago. She was ranting about the colossal size of her student debt, and her companion suggested it in jest. But it got her thinking. So she started Googling.
"I began poking around online and discovered that death fraud truly is an industry with a whole host of experts and consultants to help you go through with it, and that there are far more people than you might imagine who had done it themselves, with varying degrees of success," Greenwood explains.
Why the Philippines?
"In my early research, I dug up a 1986 Wall Street Journal article that quoted a representative from Equifax insurance saying, 'In one Southeast Asian country, there's a private morgue that picks up dead derelicts, freezes the bodies, and sells them for insurance purposes.' I found this totally intriguing, bizarre, and macabre," she says.
Greenwood then profiled two elite private investigators, Steven Rambam and Richard Marquez, who consult for life insurance companies.
"Again and again, they named the Philippines as a hotbed for the kind of theatrical death fraud that involves false corpses," she adds. "They sniff out life insurance fraud all over the globe - it is attempted everywhere - but they told me some memorable stories about cases they'd worked on in the Philippines, so I wanted to check it out myself."
How much does it cost?
It varies widely, according to Greenwood. Her own death kit was a freebie as a result of her writing the book, but a fake death certificate from the Philippines generally costs anywhere in the region of $180 to $630. Punters can, however, pay upwards of $36,000 to hire a professional fixer who will help them scratch their trail as they move forwards with a new identity.
How exactly does the process work?
Greenwood, who stayed in the Philippines for a week, found a pair of locals there who obtained her death certificate from a mole working inside a government agency. All the witness accounts were fake, and there was never a fatal traffic accident as outlined on the papers.
She never crossed the line and actually filed the documents with the US embassy.
"My death certificate sits encased in a plastic sheath at the bottom of my filing cabinet," Greenwood states.
Do you need the cadaver for this scheme to work?
It depends. "If you are trying to cash in a life insurance policy - obviously you'd need an accomplice to make the claim for you - you need a body, since without one most companies will wait seven years before paying out the claim," she explains.
"Hence the cottage industry of black market morgues. For this type of fraud, you'll need to obtain a death certificate, autopsy report (if there was one), a medical report, police reports (if the death was meant to be an accident) and witness testimony."
Your more industrious fraudster might go to the lengths of staging a funeral for their dummy corpse and filming it to submit to the insurance company, she adds, but in most cases, this is an unnecessary flourish.
What if you just want to vanish?
"If you're not committing life insurance fraud, you needn't go to all the extra trouble," Greenwood says. "Staging a more open-ended, elegant escape, like disappearing while on a hike, usually looks more believable to investigators."
Just how illegal is this?
Not as legally fraught as you might think. "Many of the cases Rambam and Marquez investigated never got prosecuted, typically because the fraudster was an American national who committed the fraud on foreign soil," Greenwood says. "Getting international police departments to collaborate is costly and challenging. Often the only punishment is the claim being denied."
She mentions Petra Pazsitka as being a great example of somebody who managed to stay disappeared for over 20 years without breaking any laws. When German authorities discovered she was alive in 2015, after being presumed dead since 1985, the only penalty she shouldered was the bureaucratic task of registering herself alive.
As for Greenwood's own level of risk, she's not entirely sure. "In my case, I wanted to go through the motions to see what it would be like to obtain these documents," she states. "Filing would've been illegal. Obtaining them? I'm not sure, and I'm glad I never found out. But I'm not going to lie, I was definitely nervous flying back to the States with my own death certificate in my backpack."
What are the most common motives?
"Financial motives are the big one, usually due to someone coming into money or due to them losing it all," she says. "Some people have faked deaths to evade prison sentences. Romance, surprisingly, also plays a part. Some men in cases I've seen faked their death because they had second families."
Is it getting more common, and easier?
Death fraud happens "constantly", Greenwood states, adding that she saw a particular spike in cases around the 2008 financial collapse.
"I think it will always happen. People will always look for a way out," she says. It's easier today in the sense that there are more avenues to aid in your escape, whether that's buying documents in the Philippines or on the deep web, or employing the services of a privacy consultant.
"But the reason people get caught is time-proof and universal. They just can't cut ties to their old lives."