Committing pseudocide

When I returned to the US in the 1980s, we had little money and a six-month old daughter. If something were to happen to me, I wanted there to be at least some money to help in taking care of the baby and so I set about immediately getting a life insurance policy.

I found one that I liked and the agent came over to our apartment to finalize the paperwork and get the contracts signed. There was just one catch, however. He said that before he could finalize the policy, I had to sign a statement saying that I would not leave the US for three years. I was surprised at this unexpected requirement and balked. I asked him for the reason for this rider but he merely hummed and hawed. I told him that I had family back in Sri Lanka and that if there was some kind of emergency, I would need to go back. In fact, my father had died suddenly when I was in graduate school necessitating a trip back so for me it was not a theoretical possibility.

The agent said that he had to have this condition agreed to but I said that I would not sign and that if he continued to insist, the deal was off. Finally he gave in and handed over the contract without the rider.

It was some years later that I figured out what was going on when I came across a news item about a scam that some were running where they would come to the US, take out a life insurance policy, return home, and then have a family member send in a fake death certificate to claim the insurance. Since it was expensive and difficult for the insurance companies to investigate deaths in other countries, they put in this rider to deal with it.

I came across this NPR interview yesterday with Elizabeth Greenwood the author of the book Playing Dead: A Journey Through The World Of Death Fraud where she describes how she wanted to escape from her student debt and set about getting her own death certificate from the Philippines:

My death certificate indicates that I perished in a car crash that there was a side collision and that I was brought to the hospital dead on arrival.

I had heard about the Philippines all through my research. I had heard that there are black market morgues where unidentified people are brought in and kept on ice and then death fraudsters will go to the morgues and buy them, these bodies, very cheaply, have them cremated immediately and then try to pass off the cremains as their own. So I was very excited to visit the Philippines.

While I was there, I was able to acquire my own death certificate and accident report detailing my fatal car crash.

She says that there are many reasons beyond insurance scams why people want to commit this practice that she calls pseudocide and she lays out what kinds of steps you need to take to be able to pull it off successfully, although most people eventually conclude that the price is too high.

So when you fake your own death, the first step is really planning that accident, whether it’s going to be staging a suicide.

The second is to have a place to go, a place to hide, enough cash on hand to sustain yourself without having to rely on credit cards or other methods that might indicate where you are.

And the third thing is really just being able to cut off all ties and communication with friends.

I can understand why the insurance agent was suspicious of someone opening a life insurance policy soon after coming to the US and why he was unwilling to divulge the real reason since it implied that he thought I might be a con artist. Eventually he must have decided that he could trust me. But I still think he would have been better off telling me the truth. I still have the policy so his gamble paid off.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Committing pseudocide

    Hey, there’s actually a law against killing phonies?


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