Day 6

How to fake a death online

In the digital era, it's suprisingly easy to kill someone off - or at least have them legally declared dead. Computer security expert and author Chris Rock walks us through the process.
(The Associated Press)

Forget about hiring a hit man. There's a far simpler way to get your enemies legally declared dead. As it turns out, you can do the whole thing online in just a few straightforward steps — and you don't have to be a hacker to pull it off. To find out just how easy the process really is, Day 6 guest host Helen Mann is joined by Chris Rock, author of The Baby Harvest and CEO of the Melbourne, Australia-based computer security firm Kustodian.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Helen Mann: How easy is it to actually fake someone's death?

Chris Rock: It's very simple. It will probably take about ten minutes to do the whole process.

HM: First of all, how is an actual real death normally registered?

CR: The normal process is that when somebody dies — for example, in a house — the doctor is called, and he produces what's called a certificate of death. And that describes in detail how the person actually died. Then the family would organize a funeral director, and the funeral director would check the doctor's details and fill in extra information. The document then goes into the government registry, and then the death certificate is then issued from that information that was on the certificate of death.

HM: And I gather that's now online, is that right?

CR: Yes, correct. They're trying to get doctors moving from the paper-based system to the electronic, and they want to make it as simple as possible for the doctors. So in most states in the U.S., they've actually created a 'do it yourself' registration. So the doctor can actually put in their details — such as their desired username and password, where their office is, and things like their licence number, to get access to this system. And luckily for hackers or malicious people, all this information is available online in a searchable database.

HM: So are you suggesting all I have to do is get that information out of the database, register as either a doctor or funeral director — or both — and then plug in the information for myself or the other person that I might want to kill off.

CR: Yes, exactly right. And the birth industry is exactly the same as well. It's easy to register both online.

HM: When you say 'birth industry,' what do you mean?

CR: When I finished my research on the death industry, I wondered how easy it would be to register a newborn, for example, or a virtual baby. So I looked at the online systems in Australia, Canada and the U.S. And it's the same sort of theory. You could actually register a baby online using the same doctor details we talked about in that online database.

HM: You've written of something called a "shelf baby." What's that?

CR: Once I'd done the research on the death industry and the birth industry, I thought, "How could I combine these two things together in a criminal technique that people could use for money laundering?" So I thought that if you could register a fake person, and just put them on the shelf for, say, 18 years, could you then take advantage of that person and kill them off using the techniques I described earlier — or do things like share trading without risk? You could actually have a risk-free virtual person to cause havoc on the financial system.

HM: I guess in the meantime you could be collecting baby benefits, and you could potentially, ultimately, be collecting life insurance.

CR: Exactly right. So the first concept I came up with was called a "shell baby" — so it's like a shell company, where it's really just a vehicle for getting tax benefits and that sort of thing. But then I thought you could make a little bit more advanced, and have what's called a "shelf baby," a bit like a shelf company, that actually operates and appears to be a real person. For the sole benefit that when they turn 18, you have access to life insurance policies, bank accounts, credit, and all those sorts of things that money launderers can use down the track.

HM: Wow. So this is, potentially, a pretty nefarious thing. If it's so easy, why aren't authorities on to this scam?

CR: That I don't understand. I know that, historically, they're trying to get people to register births. And that's not happening. Even in the Western world, people are not registering births. So by doing it online, it makes it easy for mothers and fathers to sit down and register a baby.

HM: How easy would it be to be 'reborn' after you'd already been declared dead? You tell the story, for example, of a man in Ohio who was declared dead even though he was alive. What happened?

CR: In the case of Ohio, the gentleman's name was Donald Miller. He skipped out on his family in about 1991. He was a deadbeat father. Now, the wife wanted to move on about five years later, and she actually had him declared dead because she couldn't get in contact with him. He then turned up in 2013 to court, saying, "I'm not actually dead."

And the judge said, "I can see you're alive; you're in front of me. I know that you're Donald Miller. But once you've been declared dead, there's only a statute of limitations for three years before I can actually bring you back from the dead. So I cannot actually bring you back from the dead. You are now bodiless."

HM: It sounds like the laws and computer protections haven't taken many of these things into consideration. You know it's potentially out there; any chance that there's a lot of people actually doing it?

CR: I don't know. But if someone like myself has thought of it, then someone else who is more imaginative than I am must have come up with the idea before.