September 25, 2020

He Might Have Been Able to Fake His Death, if Only He’d Spell-Checked

The name of the deceased was typed in an unusual font on the death certificate. Other details, like the manner of death, appeared to be printed in much smaller type than normal. And then there was the biggest red flag that the document was fake: The name of the department that would have issued it was misspelled.

The death certificate, which supposedly came from the New Jersey Department of Health, Vital Statistics and Registry, had it rendered as “Regsitry.”

Those errors led prosecutors to charge a Long Island man, who was facing sentencing on two felony charges, with forging a death certificate to avoid prison time. Prosecutors said it took a simple Google search and a matter of days to confirm the document was a sham.

ImageA death certificate for Robert Berger contained odd fonts and a glaring spelling error that gave it away as fraudulent.
Credit…Nassau County District Attorney, via Associated Press

“We’ve seen it where people fake their deaths so that they can receive life insurance benefits or where family members have died and no one notifies anyone so they could keep collecting those benefits,” said Madeline Singas, the Nassau County district attorney. “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The man, Robert Berger, 25, of Huntington, N.Y., now faces up to four years in prison if convicted of the falsification attempt. He also still awaits sentencing for pleading guilty previously to possessing a stolen car and attempting to steal a pickup truck.

Mr. Berger was initially scheduled for sentencing on those charges late last October. But that is when a representative of the office of his lawyer at the time notified court officials that Mr. Berger had died about a month earlier by suicide.

The lawyer, Meir Moza, who said Mr. Berger’s fiancé had sent him the death certificate, forwarded it to the district attorney’s office in Nassau County, which is when, prosecutors say, the man’s scheme began to unravel.

At first glance, the certificate looked authentic, Ms. Singas said. The state registrar’s signature of verification appeared normal. A blue border on official forms that mentions “multiple security features to deter fraud” was intact. And the unique bar code and filing number across the top were even there.

But Ms. Singas said that when the prosecutor on the case received the death certificate, she quickly noticed something was off and compared the document with an online example. She realized that, among other things that were not right, the complex watermark underneath text was missing.

She showed the document to some colleagues, and after a few phone calls with the New Jersey State department that would have issued the certificate, Ms. Singas said officials verified it was not real.

Nassau County officials said they also notified the Suffolk County Attorney’s Office of the falsified certificate, since Mr. Berger had another pending criminal case there.

Around the time officials were sorting out those details, in November, Mr. Berger was having a hard time staying dead: He was arrested in suburban Pennsylvania on charges including providing a false identity to law enforcement.

On Tuesday, Mr. Berger pleaded not guilty to the charge related to the death certificate; he is set to return to court later this month. Mr. Berger’s current lawyer, Taryn Shechter, declined to comment.

He had been set to spend one year in prison ahead of his initial sentencing, Meir Moza, his former lawyer, said, which seemed like a “really good deal.” That’s why, he said, he was “flabbergasted” upon learning that the death certificate was doctored.

“Our heart went out to the family upon learning of the deceased,” Mr. Moza said. “It was a tragedy. And then to learn it was a hoax, we were shocked.”

Like Ms. Singas, he said he had never seen someone manufacture a fake death certificate following a guilty plea.

On Long Island, a man was sentenced to jail time six years ago for faking his own death to collect more than $400,000 from life insurance. In 2004, a funeral director in Queens pleaded guilty to defrauding insurance companies out of more than $3 million during forged-death certificate scheme that lasted more than 10 years.

In the region, people have also faked their deaths as a way to end affairs, escape debt and avoid convictions, but there have been few recent cases of doing so to dodge a sentence after having pleaded guilty.

Ms. Singas said the case served as a reminder to her office to double-check documents and as a lesson to others.

“I would say it’s probably a bad idea to give phony documents to the district attorney,” Ms. Singas said. “You’re going to get caught.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.