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Dying for attention: Why people are killing themselves online

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A LiveJournal community named fake_lj_deaths investigates suspicious deaths of journal writers (Howard Swains/CNS)

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The sleuths at fake_lj_deaths attempt to expose the fraudsters who fake their own deaths online (Howard Swains/CNS)

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The busy discussion forums at TheCatSite.com are usually concerned with all matters feline. But in January, a member claimed that his wife had died to garner sympathy from the boards (Howard Swains/CNS)

One morning in January, members of the cozy online community TheCatSite.com received some devastating news. Their fellow cat lover Amber, known to the busy discussion forum as 4crazycats, had died during emergency surgery to deliver a baby daughter.

"I feel like I'm in some horrible nightmare and just want to wake up but I can't," wrote Amber's fiance, John, on a board usually reserved for the lighthearted exchange of anecdotes and welfare tips on all matters feline.

As more than 150 condolence messages flooded in, some members were suspicious. People familiar with John and Amber from their five months on the site knew that Amber's death was just the latest in a long series of acute misfortunes: John had been involved in a car crash; one of their cats had died; and Amber had suffered from depression and a fall during her pregnancy.

Their story was almost too tragic to be true.

After members were unable to verify the death by contacting hospitals and morgues, the site's owner, Anne Moss, grew concerned that the cat lovers had fallen victim to a peculiar variety of online fraud: Amber may not have died because she may never have existed. John, it seemed, had been creating five months of disaster-filled fiction.

"I think we'll never know for sure one way or the other," Moss said. "Maybe some of it was true, maybe all of it was true, maybe none of it is true. This is the Internet, and I have no way of finding out."

The unique freedom offered by online anonymity is increasingly being abused. As people share their innermost thoughts in blogs, journals, chat rooms and discussion forums, some writers are muscling their way to the center of attention by artificially manufacturing tragedy. When an online friend gets sick or dies, things aren't always what they seem.

Tragic online deaths have become common. After discovering a number of fabricated deaths on the LiveJournal social-networking site, a group of users established a community named "fake lj deaths" in 2004 to investigate suspicious ends to journals. Only about 10 percent of the hundreds of deaths investigated by fake lj deaths have turned out to be real, according to the community's administrators.

Recently, more than 50 people replied to a query posted on a community bulletin board asking for examples of such fraudulent claims. While their stories cannot be verified, respondents detailed ruses of varying sophistication dating back to 1998. Some were sick jokes. Others had financial motives or malicious intent. The majority, however, fit a clear pattern designed simply to garner maximum attention: a feigned illness or brooding melancholy leads to progressive deterioration and then a family member, with surprising access to the password-protected sites, announces the tragic end.

Whatever the method, duped online friends are left feeling used, maligned and baffled.

"Part of me wants it to be proven to be a hoax, for that way nobody will have died," said one member of TheCatSite.com in the wake of John's story. "But if this isn't real, what kind of confused, messed-up mind could fabricate a story as elaborate and awful as this?"

Dr. Marc Feldman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama, has investigated such minds for 15 years, usually in the "off line" world. Feldman is an expert in factitious illnesses, including Munchausen syndrome, in which sufferers feign the symptoms of an illness, usually in order to get attention.

Feldman has coined the term "Munchausen by Internet" to describe the online version, where it is possible to take the fabrication all the way to the grave.

"The Internet is the perfect medium," Feldman said. "One can claim to be anyone or anything."

At age 16, Rebecca Kent, from Fullerton, Calif., was desperate for proof that her virtual friends genuinely cared for her. So she posed online as her sister and told readers that she had been injured in a car accident. When she "died" after a 48-hour struggle, the initial shock among her online friends became genuine grief and mourning.

"It sounds odd, but you feel loved," said Kent, who is now 24 and bitterly regrets her deception. "There are people who don't know you from Adam but they show you they still care."

Some of Kent's friends were suspicious, however, and she felt a dreadful sense of shame at having duped them. Eventually she admitted the hoax and battled, successfully, to salvage the friendships.

Kent now fully understands how her friends suffered. Last December, a close online confidant, who Kent had even met once in person, faked her death on LiveJournal. The woman stopped updating her journal for two weeks before her "husband" posted a notice that she had died in a fire just before Christmas. Remembering the gaps in her own fiction, Kent investigated and discovered no news coverage or obituaries. When she confronted the suspected fraudster via e-mail, she was immediately removed from the list of friends with access to the journal.

Kent later discovered through mutual friends that her suspicions were well-founded.

As Internet users become more sophisticated, fewer "deaths" are likely to go unquestioned. Already, crude fakes can be easy to detect. A poster might somehow continue to update his or her journal despite suffering from a debilitating illness. In the event of death, the supposed relative often becomes defensive when friends seek funeral information. When confronted, perpetrators of the fraud sometimes vanish. Other times they reappear with a new identity. Some even die again under another name.

In John's case on TheCatSite, he went so far as to ask members for music suggestions for Amber's funeral and for contributions to animal shelters in Amber's name. When questioned, he disappeared and has not been heard from again. He could not be contacted for this article.

"I really have no idea why he did it," Moss said. "I don't even know yet if he did it. I don't even know if there ever was a John."

E-mail: has2114@columbia.edu