Is it difficult to fake one's own death?
November 23, 2004 4:18 PM   Subscribe

How difficult would it be for an American to fake their own death? How would it be done?
posted by cmonkey to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Disappear. It's a big world. After a given number of years (seven in my state, I think) you can be legally declared dead, even without a body.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:23 PM on November 23, 2004

Yeah common law varies from state to state. The world is getting smaller all the time though... better chance in western states or Canada. Faking the death isn't the hard part, it's resurfacing and reintegrating that could be tricky.
posted by TetrisKid at 4:31 PM on November 23, 2004

I'm interested in hearing scarabic's take on this.
posted by quasistoic at 4:34 PM on November 23, 2004

Find a good book on changing your identity. Perhaps this one? Most of the books on this topic get pretty mixed reviews on Amazon - it seems that anyone who was really on their game about this sort of stuff would keep it under wraps.

At any rate, find some way t adopt a new identity and ditch your connections. All of them. Then hide out for a while. Then find some way to plant a possible scenario for your death that would not necessarily leave behind a body - perhaps sink your car somewhere where a body could conceivably float away. Or maybe you could procure a dead body from somewhere, throw it in the woods, and destroy the physical identifying features, but leaving some mark of yours around it, such as a wallet buried under loose earth yards away). Make it look as if some strange person killed you and then tried - poorly - to cover it up. Although that death would probably attract too much attention to be useful...on the other hand, if the death is strange enough, people might be too diverted to recognize that perhaps the death itself was just one layer of a larger hoax.

At any rate, after you are prononuced dead or presumed dead, fly to a country where you can buy citizenship and enjoy your new life. And shut up about your old one.

All in all, it seems that you should disappear, and then resurface only to die once your new identity has been cemented. Then, disappear again, hopefully to a place with no extradition treaty should your story get blown.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:46 PM on November 23, 2004

The folks at Loompanics have plenty of books to get you started. But be forewarned, if you succeed in faking your death you may be able to dodge the authorities and your family, but the Viagra spammers will ALWAYS find you.
posted by HifiToaster at 4:48 PM on November 23, 2004

I don't think Mister The Mathowie would be too pleased with this AskMe thread. The question you've asked is something which could easily be answered by ordering a catalogue from one of those tinfoil hat conspiracy theory outlets which I will not link to for reasons of courtesy. If you were inquiring from the standpoint of writing a fictional work on the subject, there could well be a number of bookstores, video rental outlets and libraries available to shed a bit of light on things.

Faking one's death would imply fraud, if not fake id. With the Legion of Decency safeguarding our Beautiful Peoples' Republic (what a great country!), I can only imagine the undue attention your lil' brain teaser might invoke.

On Preview: Damn you both, Stitcherbeast and HifiToaster! This is why we can't have nice things-
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:50 PM on November 23, 2004

Scarabic has helped me before.
posted by quasistoic at 5:00 PM on November 23, 2004

Paladin Press, like Loompanics, probably have a book on the subject.
posted by dabitch at 5:10 PM on November 23, 2004

scarabic rules. but he doesn't seem the right man to invoke when talking about faking one's own death. he seems to be a scholar of the real thing, that rascal
posted by matteo at 5:13 PM on November 23, 2004

Well, you're going to need a body. And a leaky gas line. And take one drink for each of the following Lifetime movie cliches:

An identical twin sibling
Abusive spouse
3+ children under 10 years of age
You are Meredith Baxter-Birney
posted by yerfatma at 5:14 PM on November 23, 2004

I know a guy who faked his own death.
posted by Wolof at 6:26 PM on November 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

The challenge is what to do afterwards. (Note: I have thought about this in great detail, being a mystery novelist and all.)

If you're comfortable working "off the books" for the rest of your life, you're probably fine. As long as you never get sick, because it's damned hard to get health insurance of any kind without a valid, researchable identity. And don't get into a car accident--fake drivers' licenses are cheap, and you can get car insurance without too much of a problem, but the insurance investigators will figure out that you really don't exist.

And of course you won't have a credit record, which means that you'll be living on cash (easier if you're working "off the books" anyway) and renting your domicile forever. Of course, if you marry/hook up with someone who does have a credit record and feed them some nonsense about "having bad credit" then you might be able to convince them to buy a house in their name only, and maybe even put your fake name on their credit cards.

The Loompanics book about how to fake your own death is really outdated; the strategies they suggest aren't possible in the US today, though they might work in an Eastern European/former Warsaw Bloc/former Soviet Union country or in the developing world.

"White, non-Hispanic" Americans would have the most difficult time faking their own deaths, because most of the places that white people live (except for the Warsaw Bloc/Soviet countries) have pretty good systems of keeping track of births, deaths, and payments into the country's retirement system.

African Americans with a gift for languages might do well disappearing into South Africa and reappearing as a South African; the trick would be to go to a city where (for example) most of the black residents speak Zulu and claim to be a native speaker of SiSweti. You'd only have to learn a little Afrikaans to get by, because the lingua franca of South Africa is apparently a combination of English and Afrikaans.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:59 PM on November 23, 2004

I know a guy who faked his own death.

He didn't fake it very well, apparently.
posted by PrinceValium at 7:49 PM on November 23, 2004

Very difficult, if anything serious is at stake. Detectives and insurance investigators are well aware of the obvious good attempt methods, and they are going to break down a half-assed death faking as a matter of technique.
posted by crunchburger at 7:54 PM on November 23, 2004

In the Japanese press I probably see one or two stories a year about "dead" Japanese guys getting caught in southeast Asia. It seems like a good idea: take out insurance with your favorite bar hostess as beneficiary, disappear, get declared dead, have hostess slide that money into an offshore account, spend the rest of your days sipping cocktails out of coconuts in a tropical paradise with a low cost of living. I think there must be a cadre of Japanese private investigators living in Thailand tracking down Japanese embezzlers and insurance scammers.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:56 PM on November 23, 2004

I know a guy who faked his own death.

But what if he's lying...and actually is dead?

Anyway, two more thoughts: one, that faking your death would only add more risk to the more important plan of finding a new identity and disappearing. A successful fake death would require your ability to disappear, whereas an unsuccessful fake death would immediately sabotage an otherwise reasonable attempt to hide.

Secondly, here's a fanciful, wackadoo plan to fake a death. (I don't think this could work outside of a Brian De Palma movie.)

Get TWO fake identities. Have one be a somewhat weaker one that could be traced - not too easily, but there's a thread someone trained could follow. Then have another, ironclad one in reserve. Fly somewhere strange without an extradition treaty and fake your death there. Make sure the news gets out that you're dead...and that you tried to change your name in the process, in an attempt to hide. People will think you tried to run away, but then fucked up.

Then, hide out with your good fake identity in that country. Get a passport and leave for somewhere else. Identity laundering. Hope you brought a lot of cash, and never tried to cash in on your own life insurance.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:14 PM on November 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

He didn't fake it very well, apparently.

True, although he lasted about six months. The coppers were dark on him for wasting their time, and threatened him with the bill for the investigation.
posted by Wolof at 8:20 PM on November 23, 2004

If you fail, remember: it's still legal to fake your own life.
posted by Termite at 9:12 PM on November 23, 2004

If you fail, remember: it's still legal to fake your own life.
posted by Termite at 9:12 PM PST on November 23

Just look around.
posted by orange clock at 11:06 PM on November 23, 2004

hmmmm.... watched a true-crime type story (happened in canada, i think) where there was proof of a crime but no body. ended up with the prosecution showing the amount of blood recovered in the scene was enough that the missing person couldn't have survived. and as blood is connective tissue, it was evidence of a body, and the killer was convicted of murder, with the missing person declared dead.

so, start saving up pints of your blood. if anything would work, the "excessive puddle of blood method" might be it. you'd need to also leave some sort of evidence trail though, to make it look like the "killer" disposed of your now-dead "body".

(you are of course researching this only out of idle curiosity and/or to get a plausible theory for a novel or screenplay, right?)
posted by caution live frogs at 6:08 AM on November 24, 2004

I've thought about this more than I probably's something of a mini-obsession of mine.

One question to ask yourself first: How sure do you want people who were close to you to be that you are dead? "He's been missing for seven years and has been declared legally dead, and he probably really is dead, but there's still a glimmer of hope that he might be alive" is easier than "I'm virtually certain than he died three days ago." Let's look at the more difficult, second option.

The next question is whether to leave a body or not. If you have some way to get a body that generally resembles your build, etc., and remove identifying information (as HiFiToaster suggested), you could maybe use that as your double, and leave that to be found. Assuming you're not willing to kill to get the body, however, this is highly problematic. First, you have to find a corpse which has a reasonable fit and procure it without arousing suspicion. Second, there's going to be the issue of how they died...if you make it look like the work of a bizarre serial killer (who removes fingerprints and teeth), but the autopsy shows the person actually died of prolonged cancer, you could be in trouble. Third, if there's any question whatsoever about the identity, DNA tests will give you up.

I think there's just too much risk there, so you need to go with a method that doesn't involve leaving a body. The problem with most methods that wouldn't leave a body is that they don't give the people around you enough certainty that you're dead...just plain disappearing won't cut it, I'm afraid. So we need a method where a) people around you are reasonably sure that you are, in fact, dead; yet b) they have no body.

If you had been in New York City on 9/11, that would have been ideal, since there were so many dead of whom nothing was ever recovered. If no one who knew you heard from you after that, they would assume you had died in the towers even without any evidence of your body. But of course you can't plan for something like that to happen, you just have to be in the right (or wrong, as it were) place at the right time.

The best I've come up with is drowning on a large body of water. For example: buy a boat. Get in the habit of going out alone on your chosen body of water. Out of the view of anyone else. At night. Make sure lots of people know you do this. Make sure people know the boat is yours. Go out one night, and don't come back. When people report you missing and start looking for you, they should find your empty boat, floating on the water. Now, what you're going to do once you get off the boat is problematic. You can't actually bring the boat to shore, as people will assume you made it to shore and look for you on land. If it's too close to shore, people will start looking for you there. It's probably best if you're a good swimmer (but people don't know this about you). Leave your boat a good mile off shore and swim from there. Even then, pick your shore carefully. Something rocky, preferably. Not a sandy shore, where you'd leave footprints.

Second "drowning" possibility: go on an ocean cruise. Go out on deck late one night (a calm one), when there are few (but not no) other people around. Strike up a conversation with them. Be generally despondent about something, but not so obviously suicidal that they'll become immediately concerned. Just after they leave around a corner, throw something large and heavy overboard, making a loud splash (and not leaving anything floating which was the obvious cause of the splash). Hopefully, the person or persons who just left will rush back to see what it was--you have to be out of sight by that time. They now hopefully think you've committed suicide by jumping over the side. Hide very well for the rest of the voyage.

There's plenty of unresolved details still in either of these scenarios (how to hide adequately in the few seconds you have after people hear the splash but before they return to where you are is a particularly thorny one I haven't been able to work out), but this is as far as I've gotten so far, and I think are the options with the most likelihood of success.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:49 AM on November 24, 2004

so, start saving up pints of your blood.

Here's the problem: blood clots when outside of the body. When you donate blood, they add an anti-clotting agent to prevent this from happening. I imagine if you added an anti-clotting agent to your own blood which you were collecting for this purpose, then a) it also wouldn't clot properly when spilled on the ground or wherever, possibly leading to suspicion; and b) the anti-clotting agent could potentially be detected if the blood were tested.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:58 AM on November 24, 2004

Well, conceivably, you could buy a skeleton under the guise of doing medical research, then set fire to your house or car with that skeleton in it.

It seems like going to a very remote rural location with a skeleton of approximately the same age/gender/ethnic origin, setting fire to your car and watching it as it burns, and then leaving the burnt car with charred bone inside it would probably work reasonably well, presuming you weren't being sought by the police or FBI or anything.

If most local police forces in rural locations found a car with charred lumps of skeleton inside it, they wouldn't bother (or have the resources) to do a comprehensive forensics examination of the car to make sure that fat, hair, etc. had combusted at the same time as the skeleton.

Hmm. This could be another story idea.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:12 AM on November 24, 2004

Dental records, of course, could be problematic in this instance. It might be best to remove all the teeth in which either you or the skeleton has fillings, as well as some other small bones (finger bones, etc.) to cover that removal.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:14 AM on November 24, 2004

Well, conceivably, you could buy a skeleton under the guise of doing medical research, then set fire to your house or car with that skeleton in it.

Would such a fire naturally burn off everything except the skeleton? I'm not so sure. I can't say I've ever seen a body which was burned in a fire, but my mental image is of a very charred corpse, but not just a skeleton.

It might be best to remove all the teeth in which either you or the skeleton has fillings, as well as some other small bones (finger bones, etc.) to cover that removal.

Except now you no longer have just a simple "car caught on fire with a person inside" as the explanation. There's clearly something more going on there, which may lead to a more in-depth examination.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:51 AM on November 24, 2004

No, if the fire burns long enough (and a car fire can do that), you can be left with just, er, "cremains".

And the thing is that if you choose a suitably remote site, it would (one hopes) take a few days before the charred car is discovered. In which case, one could expect a number of the smaller bones to have been abstracted by critters. It's rare that, after a couple of weeks in the wild, a body is discovered with all of its bones. Critters like bones.

Again, the thing here is that this would only work if the only people investigating your death are from the local three-person police department. My experience of growing up in a small town is that the police a) are understaffed and have lame equipment, and b) are really anxious to close cases quickly.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:54 AM on November 24, 2004

Another option might be to fake your own abduction, using the MO of a known and uncaptured serial killer, and then bury said medical skeleton somewhere a serial killer might bury one. The recent apprehension of the Green River Killer closes one set of options, but as a woman I might want to take advantage of the current serial murders in Juarez or Vancouver to "disappear" myself.

The idea would be: a) drive to Juarez or Vancouver; b) check in to hotel and pre-pay for two weeks; c) put "Do Not Disturb" sign on door of hotel room; d) take skeleton out to area in which bodies have been discovered, and bury same; e) leave car, identification, etc. a few miles away from buried skeleton; f) get back to city somehow and leave with new false identification.

Again, taking a number of bones from the skeleton, including any teeth that don't match, and putting an identifiable necklace, bracelet, or ring on the skeleton's neck (it might be a good idea to crack or abstract the hyoid bones, too, in case the serial killer turns out to be a strangler) seem like good ideas.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2004

Maybe it's just the Lexipro talking, but Sidhedevil's "plans" are cracking me up...!
posted by LordSludge at 11:11 AM on November 24, 2004

Re: trying to make the skeleton look like the work of an established serial killer could be risky. I remember from *embarrassed ahem* Exorcist III that the police department had intelligently mixed up the details of the Gemini Killer, so that copycats would get the MO all wrong. While I don't know if any PD does that ever, it still seems like another risk. Also, what if you're spotted travelling way out to where the serial killer is? It could raise some eyebrows. Unless, of course, you simply have a good excuse to get out there, which could be easier for some people than others.

On the other hand, fire sounds like a super duper idea to get rid of some inconvenient bones.

Also, don't check out any books or DVDs on this topic at all from a library. Or a bookstore, just to be safe. Give no hint whatsoever that you've been researching anything like this. They'll notice your $30 late fee on Seconds! :)
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:49 AM on November 24, 2004

If CSI and Law & Order have taught us anything it's that the key to a good crime is either lots of money or simplicity. Most people who want to fake there own death don't have a lot of liquid capital so I'd say go with simple plan:

I like the abandoned boat idea but swimming at night comes with the good possibility of becoming actually dead. A better way may to be take up bird watching or similar isolated sometime solitary pursuit. Once you have a firmly established routine of being off in the woods at ungodly times of the morning simply abandon your vehicle in an isolated spot not too to far from some other transportation and proceed to vacate the area as fast as possible. Hitching a ride on a freight train can put many miles between you and your car in a short period of time. If you disappear in BC they won't be looking for you in Toronto. Eventually the authorities will assume you got eaten by a bear or whacked by some psycho.

Establishing a new identity is the hard part.
posted by Mitheral at 12:04 PM on November 24, 2004

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