Disappearing Inc.

 

By Louise Ure

 

Back in August I got an email from an old friend, Jake Young, the Managing Editor at WIRED magazine. “I generally avoid spamming my friends with WIRED stories, but this one – about how to ditch your current life and start over – seemed perfect for you.” 

He was right.

In that article, WIRED writer Evan Ratliff chronicles the attempt by Matthew Alan Sheppard to fake a suicide and disappear. And writing the story led him to wonder just how difficult it would be for someone to drop out of their current life and disappear completely in this digital age.

 

“Starting over, however, is not as simple as it used to be. Digital information collection, location-aware technology, and post-9/11 security measures have radically changed the equation for both fugitives and pursuers. Yesteryear’s Day of the Jackal-like methods for adopting a new identity — peruse a graveyard, pick out a name, obtain a birth certificate — have given way to online markets for social security numbers and Photoshop forgeries. Escapees can set up new addresses online, disguise their communications through anonymous email, and hide behind prepaid phones.

In other ways, however, the advantage has tipped in favor of investigators. Where once you could move a few states over, adopt a new name, and live on with minimal risk, today your trail is littered with digital bread crumbs dropped by GPS-enabled cell phones, electronic bank transactions, IP addresses, airline ID checks, and, increasingly, the clues you voluntarily leave behind on social networking sites. It’s almost easier to steal an identity today than to shed your own. Investigators can utilize crosslinked government and private databases, easy public distribution of information via the Internet and television, and data tucked away in corporate files to track you without leaving their desks. Even the most clever disappearing act is easily undone. One poorly considered email or oversharing tweet and there will be a knock at your door. As missing-person investigators like to say, they can make a thousand mistakes. You only have to make one.”

 

He decided to find out for himself and on August 13, 2009, Evan Ratliff disappeared.

Although he had an emergency link to his parents and his girlfriend, no one, not even his boss at WIRED who had organized the hunt, knew what his name would be or where he would go.  His goal was to remain undiscovered for thirty days. If someone tracked him down they were to approach him and use the word “fluke” and take his picture. The prize money for the discovery was $5000, much of it coming from Evan’s own pocket.

The “hunters” – some professional missing-persons trackers and some high-tech junkies – were given lots of personal information to aide in their pursuit, just like the police or a regular PI would discover in looking for a missing person. In Evan’s case they knew his middle name, his credit card and telephone numbers, and his email and Twitter accounts, along with the fact that his diet was gluten-free and he was a rabid soccer fan.

Here’s the story of his run. 

Evan’s accounting of the time-consuming, attention-requiring, ultimately lonely life of the runaway is an incredible read. Traveling under the name James Gatz (the name that Jay Gatsby drops to start over in The Great Gatsby),  he was far more wiley and technologically savvy than I would ever know how to be, using online cut-outs and identity concealing apps, hitching rides, making up friends, and making it through several close encounters with nothing more than sheer bravado. I’m not sure I would have been as successful, although I think I would have done better in the disguise department than he did.

But it got me thinking: could I disappear? If I needed my own version of Witness Protection or just wanted to drop out and get away from sixty years* of being Louise Ure, could I do it?

Ratliff says to go someplace you’ve been before so that you at least have a cursory overview of the city and its transportation system. That doesn’t sound right to me; I think I’d have to go places I’d never been before otherwise I’d likely run into old friends on the street or haunt my old favorite restaurants. I guess that means you’d be looking for me in the mid-West.

I’d have to give up smoking; there are too few smokers, especially of my brand, to not be obvious.

What else would give me away? My book buying habits? My tendency to visit liberal blogs? My love of Golden Retrievers? My absolute inability to not check in with my family.

What about you, ‘Rati? What one “trick” would you be sure to use? What would catch you up in the end? And have you ever want to just disappear?

 

 

* BTW, I’m not really sixty yet. I always add a few years just so I can get used to saying it by the time the real age rolls around. And in the meantime I can bask in those “Gosh you look good for your age!” comments.

 

28 thoughts on “Disappearing Inc.

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    What a fascinating post! Many happy returns for a few days’ time, and no – no way do you look sixty, my dear ;-]

    My one trick for disappearing? Don’t give away my one trick for disappearing in the comments section of anyone’s blog …

    Reply
  2. JD Rhoades

    Zoe beat me to it.

    What would probably hang me up is my complete inability to keep my mouth shut. Either that, or they’d check with Strings and Beyond to see where they were mailing my order of Elixir Medium Gauge guitar strings (expensive as hell, but they last forever and S & B has them cheap. No I don’t work for them.)

    And darlin’, you’re lovely for any age.

    Reply
  3. Kaye Barley

    Would having Harley the Wonder Corgi with me be a give-away, do you think? Or having my laptop permanently by my side so I could blog about my every move?
    I think the disappearing thing might be beyond my capabilities.
    Sixty?! You!? Dahlin! Nevah!

    Reply
  4. Karen in Ohio

    What a fascinating idea, to vanish without a trace. And yet people do vanish, some forever, and no one knows whether they are still alive or not. I guess a surefire way to disappear would be to die and not have your body discovered.

    Thanks for bringing this guy to our attention, Louise. It’s so obvious to me how he got caught: he couldn’t resist watching the progress of the people who were after him. If he had stayed offline, or only checked occasionally, and then not posted so many clues, I think he could have remained anonymous indefinitely. Furthermore, as you pointed out, some of his disguises were just lame. We just had a Halloween party, and one of our female friends dressed so convincingly as an old man, it was astonishing. She had the gestures down pat, including scratching her crotch, and moving slowly, all hunched over. She was totally unrecognizable. Evan could have done a much better job of making himself look much less like his real self.

    Shortly after 9/11 I was traveling and waiting in one of those interminable lines at security. The guy in front of me, an obviously gay hairdresser, was freaking out a little bit about his ID. He showed it to me, and I understood immediately what his concern was. He had black, spiky hair, but in his ID photo it was long and bleached blond. He looked nothing like the photo. Women alter their appearance this way all the time, changing hair color and style, and I do wonder how it affects their ability to get on airplanes at times.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    No fair, Zoe! (But you’re right.)

    JD, Kaye and Naomi … yes indeed, the guitar strings, the sweet Corgi and Robert Crais would have given you away.

    I agree Karen. It’s the "checking in" that did him in. And of course those last two "challenges" he was asked to do. But in a real disappearance, I’ll bet you always feel like that pack of wolves is nipping at your heels.

    Reply
  6. Wilfred Bereswill

    Intriguing thought, Louise.

    I’d probably try the Andy Dufresne route in Shawshank Redemption, slide down to Mexico or make my way to China. But then again, in our Post 9/11 paranoia it’s difficult getting out of the country (let alone into a country) without a passport.

    Missing my family would catch up to me. I’d HAVE to talk to them.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    Hi Wilfred. Mexico or Canada are options I suppose, especially if you’re traveling by bus. I’d never make it to China with the ID restrictions on airplanes these days.

    Reply
  8. Chris

    What a great article, thanks for linking the WIRED pieces.

    As for me, I think I could run from my old identity. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t run from . . . the kavorka.

    Reply
  9. Patricia Smiley

    Disappearing would be no problem for me. As it is, some people I know don’t recognize me from one time to the next. And next time you say you’re going out for a pack of cigarettes, I’m going to follow you.

    Reply
  10. Louise Ure

    Ah yes, Patty, that famous "he just went out for a pack of cigarettes and we haven’t heard from him since" disappearance! Gotta try that.

    You couldn’t disappear quite so easily. I’d know you anywhere.

    Reply
  11. Tammy Cravit

    The Wired article was just fascinating – thanks for sharing it, Louise! I’ve already snipped a copy into my Evernote database for possible future reference.

    I think what this article shows is that there isn’t any magic "avoid this one mistake and you won’t get caught" solution anymore. In an age where everything’s digital and everything leaves footprints, you only need to make one mistake to get caught. And, I think the biggest mistake of all when you’re on the run (as the article showed) is letting your guard down. That’s what would trip me up, I think. I just don’t think I could maintain that kind of hyper-vigilance for very long.

    Reply
  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I think you’d get busted pretty quickly the moment you went to accept your Edgar, Louise.

    Boy, I’ve often thought of doing the disappearing act. It’s a little more difficult to make the entire family disappear, however. I think we’d just move up to Canada.

    Reply
  13. Louise Ure

    Tammy, the hyper-vigilance would definitely fail me, too. I’d turn in response to my spoken name. I’d make some too-revealing comment about Tucson. I’d know the lyrics to a mariachi song even though I said I didn’t speak Spanish. But Evan gave us some terrific plot ideas in the article, didn’t he?

    Very funny, Stephen. I don’t know about the Edgar, but I’d surely get caught up trying to recommend a copy of Liars Anonymous to some customer in a bookstore. And the whole disappearing family? That makes it so much more than four times as hard.

    Reply
  14. Michelle Moran

    Great post!

    I’m pretty sure my book buying habits would give me away. All they’d need to do was watch Amazon for the person buying more novels and biographies than anyone could ever read in one lifetime.

    Reply
  15. Louise Ure

    Michelle, actual book buyers have become such a selective group in the U.S. that I’m sure we’d give ourselves away easily! "You read more this year than Dan Brown’s book and New Moon? You must be the person I’m looking for!"

    Reply
  16. pari noskin taichert

    I can think of twenty ways I’d be found; book buying habits, running mouth, food preferences . . .

    But thing that would most surely stop me up would be stamina; I’d just get tired of having to fib all the time.

    The one thing I *can* do? I can lie very, very well — with utter sincerity — and that scared me so much I stopped a long time ago.

    Reply
  17. Louise Ure

    Pari, a talent for lying (or "a gift for fiction," as I like to call it) would be absolutely mandatory. And you’re a good liar? I never would have guessed it. Hmmmm … now I wonder how many times I’ve already been taken in by your skills.

    Reply
  18. Leigh

    Interesting post….
    I think I could disapear for the simple fact of I have a friend in a distant city (we’re talking a couple states away) that not many people know about. he and I look so much a like that I could become his sister and live near/with him and his boyfriend.

    My only problem would be being able to not check in with my friends or family for a while. That would bug me.

    Reply
  19. Cornelia Read

    I would definitely have to learn to walk a different way–not all bouncy and on my toes. I’ve had twenty-years-lost pals recognize me from several blocks away just because of it.

    And my grandmother used to always say, "I always tell people how old I really am. What if they thought I was OLDER?"

    You look a good twenty years shy of sixty, Louise.

    Reply
  20. JT Ellison

    Hmm…………. I’ve already reinvented myself once. I think I could probably pull it off. A little plastic surgery and some hair dye, contacts and I could easily disappear. I’d get caught getting in touch with my family, I still talk to my parents multiple times daily. I couldn’t give them or Randy up, no way.

    Louise, I think you’ve spawned a 1,000 books today. We should rename you Helen.

    Reply
  21. Louise Ure

    Pari, I knew way down deep that you were too goodhearted to do all that lying …

    Leigh, I like the idea of a look-alike pretend brother. I, too, would have to bring someone else into the disappearance, just to round out my story and give me cover. Hmmm, there was that pot-smoking immigration lawyer from Florida I met forty years ago …

    Cornelia, you’re right. I would know your walk in a silhouette. Start practicing now: heel-toe-heel-toe. Me? I’m perfecting a limp …

    JT. I love the notion that authors, particularly those who write under a pseudonym, have already begun this disappearing act. And I equally love the notion of launching 1000 books today, but we should probably credit Evan Ratliff and WIRED with that.

    Reply
  22. Alafair Burke

    If I really had to disappear, I’d use it as an excuse to eat everything in the world that I wanted. (I fantasize about being an actress just so I can get an award-winning part as a morbidly obese person. An Oscar for eating hamburgers and ice cream!) An extra 70 pounds would probably be a good disguise.

    My big mouth would get me caught. I constantly tell stories – about myself, about my friends, about my dog. Me me me me.

    And of course you don’t look anywhere near 60. Quit smoking and you could shave off another 10!

    Reply
  23. Louise Ure

    That extra 70 pounds would be a superb disguise, Alafair! I’ve seen people just slide their eyes over an unattractive or grossly overweight person, noticing them but paying them no special attention.

    And yeah, even my sister wouldn’t know me without a cigarette in my hand! Shaving years and disappearing, all at the same time.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Naomi Johnson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *