Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Reading/ Speaking - A Disappearing Act

Below is an article from the BBC about John Darwin - the man who faked his own death for the insurance pay outs - and how to disappear. Questions follow and then it's all set up for an extended discussion about what your students would do if they had to vanish without trace...

For an intro you could quickly ask your students for 5 things they would need to do if they wanted to disappear. Then they can check if their answers are included in the text (answers below). You could also pre-teach/ check some of the key vocabulary from the article...

Key Vocabulary

to fake
to vanish (without trace)
to make the headlines
to track down
to trip up
money laundering


How to disappear without a trace

John Darwin and his wife Anne have been jailed after faking his death for £250,000 in insurance pay-outs. How and why do people go about vanishing?

John Darwin thought he could get away with apparently drowning in a canoeing accident, and starting a new life in a tropical paradise. A new life funded by a fraudulently obtained insurance payout.

He eventually admitted his deception after an incriminating photograph - which showed him very much alive and house-hunting in Panama - surfaced on the internet.

The man who came to be dubbed Mr Canoe isn't the first to fake a suicide in the hope of leaving his troubles behind him; former Labour Cabinet minister John Stonehouse's staged drowning in Miami made the headlines in 1974.

Others seek to wipe any trace of their whereabouts for their own safety, such as protected witnesses or battered women.

And the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic changed his name, occupation and appearance to avoid extradition for suspected war crimes.

He was captured in Belgrade after more than a decade in hiding.

Outside the system

Faking one's death is known as pseudocide. And a score of websites offer tips and hints on how best to vanish successfully - providing advice on how to cut family ties, sell possessions and start up a new business under an new identity.

But for Darwin to disappear for five-and-a-half years takes some doing, says Frank M Ahearn, an expert in the art of vanishing. A United States-based privacy consultant and "skip-tracer", he has tracked people down for more than 20 years.

The hidden room into which he would disappear when friends and family visited, the beard disguise and the false documentation are all hallmarks of an elaborate pseudocide.

But Mr Ahern says that Darwin tripped up by allowing his photo to be taken and posted online by a Panama real estate agent, and by acquiring a girlfriend.

"This may have put strain on the relationship between him and his wife. Therefore, his straying was a balloon waiting to bust."

Anne Darwin, who has been jailed for fraud and money laundering, told the court that she forgave her husband for having an affair.

But Nick Rosen, who runs the website Off-Grid to help people legitimately live outside the system, is amazed that Darwin wasn't caught earlier. His mistakes included returning home, and joining a local library - albeit under a different name.

"The one thing he did that was the right move, when he first disappeared he went to live rough in Cumbria for the first few weeks. Well away from CCTV cameras, using cash, not using cards."

Homeless helper

While what Darwin did was illegal, there are people who want to disappear for legitimate reasons, such as women fleeing abusive partners, business people in fear of kidnapping, and celebrities who want to avoid the media.

"Disappearing is quite different to announcing your death," says Mr Rosen.

As most people need a phone, the first step is to get a pay-as-you-go mobile - but acquiring one can be a giveaway.

"Go to a town you've never been to before, find a homeless person and get them to buy a pay-as-you-go phone so you're not caught on CCTV.

"The other thing is not to have anything to do with places where records are kept - so [pay by] cash, or barter. And if you have a laptop, use it outside places with wi-fi access that don't have passwords.

Mr Ahern adds that the internet has made disappearing easier.

"The internet can make a person virtual. You can open an IBC (international business corporation) and operate out of that."

This means no addresses for shareholders and directors need to be publicly listed, as required for a British-registered company.

"You can use 'black' credit cards that list no transactions, have a cell phone billed to anywhere in the world, own a virtual fax number that goes to an e-mail address and own property under a corporation."


How did John Darwin disappear?
Why was he eventually found?
What mistakes did John Darwin make?
Why is his affair described as a 'balloon waiting to bust'?
What advice is given in the text about how to disappear? Check them against your original ideas.

Advice given in the text about how to disappear

Don't have an affair
Don't return home
Don't let people take photographs of you
Don't join a library
Always use cash not credit cards
Go somewhere quiet that you've never been to before
Buy a pay-as-you-go phone (or get a homeless person to buy it for you)
Use 'black' credit cards
Get a virtual fax number


Next week you have to disappear without a trace. You need an elaborate escape plan so that no-one ever finds you. Think about some of the following:

Why do you need to vanish?
Where will you go?
Will you change your appearance?
What will you need? How will you survive?
Will you tell anyone where you're going?
What will you do when you get to your destination?
Will anyone try to track you down? How will they do it?
How will you stop them finding you? What will you do to make you don't trip up?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of disappearing?

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