Insurance Detectives Bring the 'Dead' Back to Life : Fraud: False documents from abroad, even funerals, used in attempts to cash in on life insurance.


Officially, Dan Brownlee is dead and buried in Haiti.

One day a few months ago, he walked into a government office in Port-au-Prince, plunked down about $5, filled out the paperwork saying he had died, and strolled out into the sunshine.

"I think I died on Halloween," said Brownlee, obviously very much alive as he talked on the phone from his hotel room in Tokyo. After Japan, he was off to Mexico.

No, Brownlee isn't running from the law. In a way, he is the law. He's a private detective for insurance companies. He faked his own death to prove to himself and his bosses just how easy it is.

The old foreign death trick. It's an exotic type of piracy, with perpetrators often going to the ends of the earth to pull off their scams.

Insurance companies, lawyers and fraud investigators agree it's the most frequently tried life insurance swindle in the United States. It happens when a beneficiary of a lucrative life insurance policy produces phony documents--death certificates, even photographs of funerals and bodies--that claim the insured person died in a foreign country.

If it works, the beneficiary and the supposedly dead person make off with the money, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. More often, they never get the money because investigators like Brownlee help uncover the fraud.

Most fake death certificates from Third World countries in the middle of social or political upheaval--Nigeria, Haiti, El Salvador, to name a few.

Chaos makes death claims harder to verify. During the Gulf War, some insurance companies saw an increase in death certificates coming from the Mideast. One fraud investigator for Prudential, in Detroit, said he's still trying to track down a death claim from Iraq.

Lawyers get just as frustrated.

"How would you even attempt to confirm a death in Chechnya or Somalia or a similar country that's suffering civil war? Or Bosnia," said David Brink, a Boston-area attorney who represents insurance companies in fraud cases.

Brink recently handled this case for Aetna: A man took out a $100,000 life insurance policy on his brother. Then, he said his brother died in Haiti, and to prove it he presented death and burial certificates. He even had photographs of a body in a coffin.

Enter Brownlee's detective firm, First Services, hired by lawyers to send an investigator to Haiti.

First, the investigator discovered the documents were phony.

Then, he talked to some relatives of the supposedly dead man.

"It turns out this guy Louis--who was supposed to be dead--is alive and well and living in a Boston suburb," said Michael Cullen, the assistant attorney general prosecuting the case for the state's bureau of insurance fraud.

The man faces insurance fraud charges and a possible five-year prison sentence. His brother, who says he knew nothing of the insurance policy, is to testify against him.

One of Brownlee's colleagues at First Services, Diane Kellner, handled a similar case out of Haiti.

She was in the middle of tracking down the documents when the "dead" woman turned her husband in to police in New York City.

He had taken the life insurance money and fled with his girlfriend.

Brownlee, 31, got into the investigative end of things largely because he loves to travel. About four years ago he was a computer-parts salesman in the San Francisco area who fed his wanderlust with trips to unusual destinations. On vacation in Nigeria, he met an insurance fraud investigator and that was that. He'd found his niche.

In 3 1/2 years he's been to 60 countries. He has no permanent home, because it's more convenient to share apartments in New York and Bangkok with other investigators.

"Great way to see the world, bad way to see home," said Brownlee.

Insurance companies are touchy about saying how many life insurance claims they investigate. An executive with a Midwestern firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he sees about six fake deaths a year. A spokesman for New York Life said his company had three in 1991. Other companies, such as MetLife and Prudential, declined to comment.

In Massachusetts, the state insurance fraud bureau prosecuted six foreign death scams in four years and has three cases pending.

On average, Brownlee says, he checks one death claim a week for the more than 200 insurance firms who hire his agency. Insurance firms use in-house investigators to check cases in the United States, but use international private detectives for overseas work.

Not all deaths arefakes.

In Mexico, about half of the documents Brownlee looks into are legitimate. In Western Europe, fraud is even more infrequent. But in Haiti, about 80% of the deaths are false, Brownlee said--"including my own."

Right now, investigators say Nigeria, with its many dealers in phony documents, has become a hot spot for fraud. Brownlee says he's been to Lagos, the capital, dozens of times and every investigation has revealed a scam.

Prosecutors in Massachusetts recently sent a man to prison for at least 2 1/2 years in a case out of Nigeria. The man submitted a phony Nigerian death certificate to try to cash in on a $134,000 insurance policy he had taken out on a woman he claimed was his wife.

The woman was indeed in Nigeria, but she was alive.

"It's all for sale in Nigeria; it's unbelievable," Brownlee said. "You can get the papers. You can buy a body. You can rent a funeral home and hire a priest and put on a whole show."

Brownlee usually follows paper trails, not people. But last year, he went to Vietnam to find a man who--on paper--was killed in a motorcycle accident. The man, with an accomplice, had tried to claim his own life insurance in San Francisco.

Eventually, Brownlee tracked the man to Ho Chi Minh City. When the Vietnamese police arrested the man, Brownlee, looking conspicuously American, was waiting at the station.

"He saw me, and he nearly died," Brownlee said.

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