One cause of people deciding to go missing is mounting debts. It’s difficult to know how many people in the world have gone missing in order to escape their debt, but as Vice reports, it’s an enticing option in particular for some young college graduates in the US. Collectively, Vice reports, Americans owe $1.3 trillion in college loans. On average, a person with an outstanding loan will owe $28,000.
Vice profiles some graduates who have moved to Berlin in part to escape having to pay off their debts, as well as to reduce their living costs and find job opportunities that the sluggish US economy hasn’t provided. These people aren’t ‘missing’ as such. While they may have trouble living in the US again in the future having defaulted in bad faith on enormous amounts of debt, their friends and family know where they are, and they have not taken steps to actively hide their whereabouts. Being overseas in itself can make it difficult for lenders to recover debts.
There are also more extreme cases in which people have gone to in order to escape student debt. Some people fake their own deaths.
In 1999 – well before the global financial crisis, and well before student loans skyrocketed to present day levels – the Times Higher Education Supplement reported that over the two years prior, $70 million worth of student loans went uncollected because borrowers falsely claimed that they were dead or disabled. The article also says that the fraudsters were able to financially thrive as a result:
Investigators also found that many of the people who avoided paying off their loans by faking death were now high earners. Thousands who had been excused from loans by claiming disabilities also had big salaries.
Over the years, there have been occasional stories of people faking their deaths and fleeing the country in order to avoid repaying massive loans. Writer Elizabeth Greenwood considered doing this herself while she was staring down the barrel of almost $100,000 in student debt. She kind of went through with it too – she bought a death certificate in the Philippines but didn’t end up filing it, and so never technically committed fraud (nor got out of her debt). Her investigations into faking a death in order to avoid loan repayment became the subject of her book, Playing Dead, in which she interviews people who did go through with it. She told NPR how the process of ‘pseudocide’ works, although her book is not ultimately an endorsement.
Staging a death requires a lot of planning, and usually the apparent form of death is suicide or an accident of some kind. Then, you must essentially exist undetected. Often, insurance companies and investigators won’t take the staged death on face value, particularly if there’s no body. Greenwood talks about fascinating – and frankly eerie – ways to circumvent suspicion in the Philippines:
I’d 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 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. And the whole way leading up to that moment I wasn’t that nervous. And then when I actually opened up that manila envelope and held this very clinical government document in my hands that said I’d died on arrival at this hospital on this date, it was very, very chilling.
So, it’s possible, but potentially difficult, and as Greenwood points out, faked deaths can be very harmful too. You cannot let others know that you are safe in order to successfully fake a death, it’s far too risky and creates possible avenues for investigators to follow.
You really have to be able to cut all ties, never look back, to leave behind all the parts, good and bad, of who you are. And that is a very tall order, and I think for most people nearly impossible.
To fake a death, you have to cruelly convince your loved ones that you’re dead as well as lenders and the authorities. It’s a huge betrayal. Greenwood spoke to a woman who had gone through almost all of her life believing her father was dead until some online research confirmed that he had been alive for most of it (she found a recent obituary of him).
It’s not just Greenwood who thinks that using these methods to avoid debt is a bad idea. She spoke to a person who helps people go missing in these ways for a living and even they think it’s a bad idea. Debt is a very tough problem to face, but it’s not as harrowing as staring at your own death certificate and inflicting that false death onto others.