Selling Lies: Alibi Agencies Help Create Double Lives
An episode of Germany's top crime show recently highlighted a secretive business: helping clients create and maintain lies. Now one such agency is struggling to keep up with the demand.
For his best clients, Patrick Ulmer says he goes out and arranges the lie personally. In one instance, he got into his car and drove south to Cologne, where he rang the doorbell at an apartment.
The door opened to reveal his client. The client's clothing was scattered around the apartment. His cologne and even the cloths he used to clean his glasses were there. The refrigerator contained his favorite foods, from chocolate pudding to melons. All the signs suggested that this was where the client lived.
But appearances can be deceiving. The truth is that this man leads a double life and doesn't want his wife to know.
The client told his wife his work requires him to be in Cologne during the week. Because she occasionally wants to visit her husband there, Ulmer rented this apartment for him, filling it with the man's belongings to lay a false trail. He even drops by, presenting himself as a colleague from work, when the man's wife is visiting. During his visit, he asks innocently where the bathroom is, as if he didn't already know.
The Business of Lies
Ulmer laughs when talking about it. He finds stories like this one amusing. Sitting in a café called Garbs am Markt, in Weyhe, near Bremen, he lights a cigarillo. The 28-year-old is a tall, rotund man who doesn't seem to find anything about his job disturbing. And perhaps he has no reason to.
Ulmer runs an agency that specializes in fabrications. His clients can purchase lies both small and large, from a text message to get them out of a tight spot to an entire package of assistance in managing a complicated double life. Ulmer considers this an ordinary service, much the same as driving a taxi. His clients include men and women in equal measure. Most of them come from southern Germany or Austria, more conservative regions where there is apparently a great need for keeping secrets.
Leaving his client's Cologne apartment, Ulmer offered a cheery goodbye. "The colleague thing makes it especially believable," Ulmer says. His home visit is part of the package.
Ulmer's client paid for 12 months up front at the start of the year, a flat-rate, all-inclusive price for which Ulmer organizes the man's double life. The truth is that this man doesn't work in Cologne at all. Cologne is his alibi.
In reality, he works in Switzerland. He also lives in Switzerland, with his wife, the one who sometimes visits him in Cologne. But he also has a second wife and a second child in a different Swiss city. He doesn't want either family to learn of the other's existence, so he tells one he's working in Cologne when he wants to visit the other.
Ulmer also set up a telephone number with a Cologne area code for his Swiss client. The client can call both his wives from this number and both of them can also reach him -- their calls are routed, via the Internet, to his cell phone. And when one of the women expresses a desire to visit her husband in Cologne, he moves into his alibi apartment there for a few days.
"All the client has to do is open the door, everything else is done," Ulmer says. The price of such an alibi varies according to the amount of work it requires, but falls in the four-figure euro range. Ulmer's other services come at a set price. A text message costs 9 ($12), while an address and accompanying mail service is 59 a month. Booking a vacation costs 89. An invitation is 69, or 99 if the person issuing the invitation should also be reachable by phone.
Ulmer also recently added a "car service" to his offerings, in which he racks up the mileage on a client's car. This is useful, for example, for someone who lives in Stuttgart and claims he has to travel regularly to the Ruhr region for work, but in fact only goes as far as Mannheim to visit a lover there.
Ulmer has been running his agency for five years, but business only recently took off after the German broadcaster ARD aired an episode of the popular crime series "Tatort" that featured an alibi agency and a man with two families.
Frank Koopmann, one of the two screenwriters of the "Tatort" episode, was 22 when he found out that his father had a second family, including a daughter. His father described how difficult it had been to keep his other family a secret, such as the time when he accidentally left his wallet in a telephone booth in a city where he had no reason to be. Wondering how people these days deal with similar problems, the "Tatort" writer did a Google search for companies specializing in such cases.
Dreams of Making It
There are just three such alibi agencies in Germany, none as professional as the fictional one featured on "Tatort." Since that episode aired, though, people now know that such a thing as lies for hire really does exist, and that purchasing such a service is an option.
Once again, Ulmer has worked through the night to keep up with the many requests he receives. He does everything himself, serving as director, webmaster, layout designer and head of marketing. He works from home, under a sloping attic roof that grows hot in the summer.
The agency on "Tatort" operated out of a large, bright office, with a boss who wore elegant suits and directed beautiful secretaries and a host of other employees. That's where Ulmer wants to end up.
Ulmer's father worked as a scaffolder and his mother worked in retail. He spent most of his time on his computer and rarely left his room. He started training to be a pastry chef, but quit before he had finished the program. He has worked for a butcher, in dry wall construction, in a warehouse and at a call center. He never completed a degree, but he met a lot of people over the course of those years and he studied their behavior.
Ulmer came to understand that many lives don't run a straight course. Some wind up in dead ends, others in labyrinths. He himself stumbled into a marriage and then met his second wife by chance online. He and his second wife now live together with two children in a rowhouse with a wading pool in the backyard.
Giving People 'Freedom'
From the café in Weyhe, Ulmer gazes out at a large parking lot, where families are packing groceries into their cars. "Believe me," he says, "there's nothing that doesn't exist somewhere."
Ulmer believes he's making the world better in his role as a liar for hire. As he sees it, the people who book his services are the liars, not him. He is simply the one who organizes things, a specialist in tangled lives.
Liars, scientists say, are not prepared to accept the truth. The people most likely to have affairs are those with low self-confidence. And often it is people with high incomes who tell lies, people who can afford to buy anything, but feel no internal security -- people who can't stand to see their dreams not come true.
"I give people the freedom they need," Ulmer says. He created business cards and a letterhead for an unemployed man who wanted to create the impression that he still had a job. Ulmer sent a retiree, who wanted to travel without his wife, an invitation to a fictional IT seminar.
People need lies, psychologists say, when desires and reality diverge. For example, last year about 3.5 million Germans a month went online to look for "erotic contacts." Such "casual dating" is all about "fulfilling intimate fantasies. Love and sex are kept strictly separate," promises one such website.
"If we can control our secrets, making sure they occupy the place we want them to, then our lives can seem manageable," writes American psychologist Gail Saltz. "But when our secrets start to control us -- and far too often they do -- then a normal life clicks over into something else: a secret life." Feelings of guilt develop, sometimes even making the person sick. Typical symptoms include stomach problems, breathing difficulties and heart trouble.
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