Colin Smithies broke a golden rule of faking your own death when he showed up in Hastings two days after disappearing from Wellington's Titahi Bay. Stay dead is the golden rule.

The Commerce Commission economist, 49, who was believed to have gone missing on a diving trip, walked into the Clive police station on January 12 after instigating an air, sea and land search, costing $50,000.

Family members are baffled by his actions. Was he trying to shed his old live and start afresh with a new identity?

We hear about the unsuccessful attempts of people who fake their own deaths, but it is possible that dozens more are carrying on their lives incognito.

Each year the New Zealand Police receive around 8000 reports of missing people. Of those, about 95 per cent are found within a fortnight and 50 per cent are located within the first two days missing. A small proportion of the 300 long-term missing people may well have voluntarily taken themselves off the grid.

American privacy expert Frank Ahearn has written the book on faking death, Ultimate Privacy: How to Disappear, Erase Digital Footprints & Vanish Without a Trace.

Ahearn says the reasons that women and men want to vanish are often different. Men normally vamoose to escape financial worries or nick off with a windfall. Women are more likely to flee dangerous situations - a violent partner or a stalker.

Flicking through the files of those who go voluntarily Awol, the typical profile of a death faker is a male with significant financial concerns. While technology has created digital paths that are easy to trace-such as social network sites and online photos - it can also be useful for covering tracks, like transferring money with the click of a mouse.

Identities can be kept secret with the help of prepaid phones, prepaid debit cards, free wireless and disposable memory sticks.

One of the world's most famous missing person cases is the puzzling story of Lord Lucan. Richard John Bingham, the Seventh Earl of Lucan, went missing on the night of November 7, 1974, after an intruder bludgeoned to death

Sandra Rivett, the nanny of his three children, and beat his estranged wife, Lady Lucan, at their London family home.

An inquest named Lord Lucan as the murderer. His bloodied car was found abandoned in East Sussex and Lucan has never been seen since.

In 2007, a Marton couple believed they had solved the mystery when they became convinced a man living next door to them in a Landrover he shared with a cat and a possum was Lord Lucan. The man, who identified himself as Roger Woodgate, insisted he was a former photographer who once worked for the Ministry of Defence and left the UK five months before Lord Lucan went missing. Besides, he was younger and shorter than the aristocratic fugitive.

Disappearing on its own is not a crime - and neither should it be, according to associate professor of law at University of Auckland, Julia Tolmie. "There are a lot of things that are morally wrong but aren't illegal and we can't turn all these things into crimes because we couldn't afford to lock everyone up," says Tolmie. "Most people would think disappearing is not morally correct, causing pain and heartache for those left behind but is it wrong in a sense that it's something you want to legally punish?"

Tolmie says there are parallels to the legal issues around suicide. "People trying to commit suicide obviously have problems. On top of that, slapping a criminal charge is pretty harsh. I would imagine people faking their own death also have major problems."

Smithies has been charged with wasting police time, which Tolmie describes as "a pretty minor crime". It carries a maximum sentence of three months' jail or a $2000 fine. Smithies is now in psychiatric care.

Leon Sanders, a 35-year-old South African living in Auckland who sparked a police search when he went missing on December 29, is facing the same charge. Police had concerns for Sanders' safety when his belongings, including a wallet with money and bank cards, were found on Takapuna beach. Sanders was found safe and well two days after his disappearance.

He is alleged to have hidden in a Torbay house as police, friends and family searched. Ahearn asserts people can disappear without breaking the law (he recommends Northern Hemisphere runaways decamp to New Zealand because it's a "faraway English-speaking country with great beaches") but many death-fakers end up in prison for crimes they have committed carrying out the deception.

Bruce james dale vanished on November 6, 2002. He left his passport and $1 million life insurance policy at his Tuakau home and drove to Port Waikato.

Police carried out a search of the area and were convinced Dale had drowned. He seemed a prime candidate for suicide. Dale had problems with debts in the thousands and a failed marriage and those who knew him said there was no way he would abandon his three children.

The evidence of his demise seemed so compelling that Dale was declared legally dead only a year later, and Dale's estranged wife, Sharon Behan-Kitto, was able to claim the life insurance. A person must normally be missing for seven years before they are officially presumed death.

In fact, Dale was carrying out a devious plan, months in the making.

He stole the identity of a dead baby- Michael Francis Peach - and, using this new alias, was able to obtain

a birth certificate, driver's licence, IRD number and register a new car to make his getaway. He settled in Christchurch and set up a cabinetmaking business.

In 2008, not realising he had already been declared legally dead, Dale applied for a passport under his own name. This proved his undoing.

He was convicted on five fraud charges relating to the insurance policies and the dishonest steps he took to obtain the documents he needed for his new life and was sentenced to two years and four months in prison. He was released after serving one year.

At the time of his sentencing, reports quoted Dale saying he could have been found if police had made a proper effort. "It's not like I grew a beard or changed my hair or anything," he said.

Private investigator Ron McQuilter, director of Paragon, claims most missing cases are solvable if you have the resources and the time. McQuilter is working on a missing person's case that he estimates will take 1400 hours at a cost of more than $250,000.

McQuilter has made some grisly finds, such as bodies in hotels, but has not had a missing person, presumed dead, resurface alive. "I understand there are afew out there with potential leads but it's finding the money, that's the problem," he said.

The unveiling of fraudster Harry Gordon was extraordinary in its banality. Gordon, who supposedly died in a speedboat crash north of Sydney in 2000, was strolling around Mt Maunganui five years later with his new fiancee when he found himself face-to-face with his older brother, Michael. "Is that really you?" asked Michael. "Of course," replied Harry. "But look, it's not convenient to talk now. I'll call you in a few days."

Six months later, Gordon was arrested for false representation and conspiracy to defraud his insurance company of A$3.5 million ($4.57m) after trying to enter Australia on his real passport. He spent nearly a year in jail and has written a book about his life, The Harry Gordon Story: How I Faked My Own Death.

The New Zealand-born businessman claims he posed as dead for a number of reasons, including a troubled marriage and business deals gone bad. His wife, Sheila, was in on the deception and visited Gordon in 2002, when he was living in England. His daughter also visited him in his new home in Auckland.

Sheila and daughter Josaphine were charged with conspiracy to defraud life insurance and Sheila served five months of home detention.

Family members were also implicated in the insurance fraud case of serial death faker Milton Harris, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Harris' first disappearing attempt was leaping off a ferry in South Australia.

A 70-year-old retired police officer dived in to save him and found Harris sitting on the seabed breathing from a concealed oxygen tank.

Undeterred, Harris tried a similar trick a few days later. On May 24, 1985, he vanished off the Cook Strait ferry, Arahura. Searchers never found his body but he was presumed drowned and Lloyd's of London and Prudential Insurance made payments to his family in Louisiana that same year.

Lloyd's stopped payment on two life insurance polices valued at $2.9m when it found out Harris had jumped off the South Australia ferry before his disappearance.

In 1989, Harris was discovered living in Kaukapakapa. He had remarried but was living off the insurance money his first wife was sending from the US. Prudential took legal action against Milton's wife Sheila and son LeRoy for defrauding the company. Harris was sent back to the US to face fraud charges and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Three years after his release he went missing again. There has been no sign of Harris since 1992.

Also on the list of missing without trace are Jim Donnelly and Robert Logan. Donnelly, a Howick father-of-two, was last seen on June 21, 2004, at Glenbrook Steel Mill, where he worked. The circumstances of his disappearance are a mystery - police think it is possible he could have assumed a new identity elsewhere, but they have not ruled out suicide or foul play. Donnelly's keys, work ID card, palm pilot, safety glasses and some money were found in a vat of acid at the plant. The case was reopened a year ago. Police scoured the area around the mill using new GPS technology but failed to find any answers.

Each year, Howick Senior Sergeant Dave Glossop compiles a report on the case. He says not a day goes by that he does not think about what happened to Donnelly. "I wait with bated breath any time I hear about a body being found anywhere," he says.

As new technologies develop, the police are optimistic they will uncover new clues. Some of the evidence in Donnelly's case is currently undergoing new forensic testing and Glossop hopes this will throw up new leads in the next couple of weeks, possibly identifying DNA of someone Donnelly came into contact with before he vanished. "I would dearly love to solve this," says Glossop.

The family of Wellington lawyer Robert Logan are hoping the 51-yearold is still alive. Logan was last seen at a supermarket in Kilbirnie on August 25 last year and his white 1991 Nissan Sunny station wagon was found at the Owhiro Bay car park the following day.

An extensive search along the Wellington's South Coast did not turn up any information. Logan is a keen conservationist and a member of the Southern Environmental Association (SEA). The group's chair, June Epsom, says: "The fact that you don't know what has happened-and there's no body and you don't know where he is-is really horrible."

Police believe Logan may be in Auckland, but his whereabouts remain a mystery. Until there is definitive closure in a missing person case, speculation continues to swirl.

Since Lord Lucan vanished there have been more than 70 alleged sightings around the world, from South Africa to Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands. None has been given any credence by Scotland Yard. While Lady Lucan has stated she believes her husband killed himself by stepping off a Channel ferry "like the nobleman he was", the retired detective who was in charge of Lord Lucan's case believes the aristocrat is still alive. And, despite a 1999 High Court declaration that Lord Lucan was officially dead, London Metropolitan Police keep his file open.

International Intrigue

John Darwin Englishman John Darwin had an audacious approach to "life after death", living in his family home and travelling the world on a fake passport. He was eventually found out in December 2007, five years after he was thought to have died in a canoeing accident in northeast England.

Darwin lived in a bedsit next to his home, sneaking into his wife, Anne's, bedroom through a hole in the wall. Anne claimed life insurance of £250,000 a year after John's disappearance and the couple planned to move to Panama to start a new life.

Darwin's cover was nearly blown when an acquaintance spotted him saying: "Aren't you supposed to be dead?" Darwin replied, "Don't tell anyone about this".The man did not tell the police because he "did not want to get involved".

The scam was up when Darwin walked into a police station in 2007 claiming amnesia. He was released from prison last week, after serving less than half of a six-year sentence. Anne is due out of jail in March.

Marcus Schrenker

High-flying businessman Marcus Schrenker was facing financial woes and relationship problems when he tried to fake his own death in Florida in 2009 by putting his plane on autopilot, parachuting to the ground and speeding off on a motorcycle.

The 38-year-old investment advisor was discovered three days later in a campground with self-inflicted wounds. He is now serving a four-year sentence for fraud in an Indiana jail.

9/11

In the midst of the chaos of 9/11, some people saw an opportunity to profit from deception. Steven Chin Leung fabricated his death to escape charges he was facing for passport fraud. Leung forged an email to show he was working in the World Trade Centre when the planes hit and posed as his non-existent brother to obtain a death certificate for himself. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Dozens of other fraudsters claimed fictitious loved ones had died. Namour Young, 32, received US$53,000 for her dead husband who never existed. Rosalba Wild, 60, said her father had been at a meeting at the World Trade Centre and collected US$75,000 before police discovered he had died a decade earlier. And Ricardo Frutos, 47, of Utah got US$47,000 for the deaths of three imaginary relatives.

Patrick McDermott

Olivia Newton-John's boyfriend Patrick McDermott disappeared from a boat off California in 2005.

Three years later, a US Coastguard investigation concluded he had drowned. In 2009, private investigators hired by television programme Dateline found McDermott in Mexico.