Say you want to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. If you have enough money, but not quite enough, and ditto for computer skills, you can hire a skip tracer, an unlicensed private investigator. This is what Frank Ahearn used to do for a living, before he developed a business, in 2001, that helps his clients disappear. In the old days, Ahearn relied heavily on a tactic called “pretexting”: acquiring information on the person you’re investigating by pretending to be them. Ahearn tells journalist Elizabeth Greenwood in her new book of essays on modern-day death hoaxes, Playing Dead, that his advice on using the technique is to be very persistent: “It’s like dating,” he explains, “every no leads to a yes.” Who’s not going to believe you are who you say you are if you insist on it and are baseline pleasant? Together, these form the common denominator for pursuer and pursued.
Greenwood’s appealing book, which includes extensive interviews with Ahearn, is fittingly structured around questions of authenticity, but she often falls for their pretexts. The book is a collection of interwoven reports on people who fake their deaths, disappear, and reinvent themselves. Greenwood’s sprawling and scattershot group of subjects includes unsuccessful death hoaxers, firms that will orchestrate your disappearance for the right price, and her own attempt to shirk hefty student-loan debt by procuring a death certificate in the Philippines. This latter story unfolds over the span of the book and functions as its dramatic and moral center. Greenwood presents her subjects as fake-death gurus, doling out second-life advice to her readers and herself. Throughout, she wonders whether she will really go through with her plan.
Faking your own death or disappearing is not illegal in America, so long as you don’t file a police report or a death certificate, or try to get a library card, or file to collect life insurance. To provide some perspective, Greenwood notes that there are 90,000 people missing in the United States at any given time, but there have only been 564 reported cases of life-insurance fraud in the past 25 years. She focuses on the marquee cases of “pseudocide,” like those orchestrated by Ahearn, who, he says, charges his clients an average of $30,000. Greenwood’s single-minded pursuit of faked-death narratives, which are relatively rare compared to disappearances (even Ahearn doesn’t recommend it as a strategy), scarcely hides her fascination with the glamor of escapism. But even in the death-fraud underworld, access and authenticity are inseparable.
Greenwood is not concerned with bodies so much as with the traces they leave behind, which, she suggests, have never been more varied than they are today, making them a worthy subject of her investigation. Nowadays, we have several additions to the list of traces: ever-present public cameras; government and corporate databases, choked with the personal stats of its citizenry; security and border checkpoints; and social media. Greenwood spins out her essays along trails of cash flow, digital footprints, grieving and complicit lovers. Life and death reside now more than ever in the eye of the beholder.
Take, for instance, Samuel Israel III. He was the manager of a hedge fund until he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, in 2008, for financial malfeasance and fraud. In response to his sentence, Israel hatched an ill-fated plan, partially inspired by the plot of the Robin Williams comedy RV, to fake his own death. Israel leapt off a bridge in Bear Mountain, New York, onto a narrow construction net to feign death for the security cameras. Then, he went on the run. He chose “professional poker player” as his alias, which might be read as a cooler and more honest version of managing a hedge fund—obviously, it seems more fun. While he was on the lam for the next couple months, before he surrendered, Israel claims he tried to commit suicide for real, but failed.