Savvy Readers Find 'Disappeared' Writer

Evan Ratliff wrote a story for Wired magazine last month about people who disappear — who leave their lives and start somewhere completely new. It's a lot tougher in this post-9/11, anti-identity-theft era, but Ratliff tried to do it himself. He disappeared August 15, and Wired gave readers a month to track him down — for a $5,000 reward. They did, just a few days ago, in New Orleans. Host Guy Raz catches up with Evan Ratliff on the phone from an undisclosed location (OK, the Atlanta airport).

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GUY RAZ, host:

Eliminating your carbon footprint is one thing. Try erasing your identity. Last month, Evan Ratliff wrote a story for Wired magazine about how it's nearly impossible to drop out and start a new life with a new identity. Then, Evan Ratliff tried to do just that: drop off the face of the earth. And he challenged his readers to try and find him.

This past week, he got caught. We caught up with him in the Atlanta airport, and he talked about the steps, technological and otherwise, that he took to throw off his pursuers.

Mr. EVAN RATLIFF (Contributing Editor, Wired): I didn't try to get rid of all my accounts, but I dropped all of my credit cards. I quit using my cell phone. In fact, I took the battery out of my cell phone because if your cell phone has a battery in it, it can be trackable, and I started setting up a new identity under a new name with new accounts, and I wanted to see if they would make the connection between the old one and the new one and whether they could take all of my information, which they had access to through my editor - my bank accounts, my phone records, my past e-mails - and if they could synthesize all that and use that to figure out where I might go.

RAZ: Well, that wasn't enough, of course, because you were caught.

Mr. RATLIFF: I was found by a combination of really high-tech sleuthing and some very on-the-ground kind of shoe-leather work. The high tech part was someone set up a Facebook account that was all about my pursuit. And the reason they did that was that they were hoping, in part, that I would go log onto that site, which in fact I did. So one particular very smart searcher was able to use that information to try to figure out which person accessing the Web site was me.

RAZ: How were you found?

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, I was found by a guy in Seattle, who combined digital information and clues that he had unearthed online to determine that I was likely to be in New Orleans, and then once he had that theory, he basically got in touch with a pizza place in New Orleans that makes gluten-free pizza.

I, because of a dietary condition, I'm required to eat things that are gluten-free. So he enlisted that pizza place to physically scour the city for me, and they spent a day doing that. And they eventually staked out a book reading where they thought I would show up, and indeed I showed up.

RAZ: Evan, given how much information, you know, we all share, willingly or not today, is it possible to erase your identity?

Mr. RATLIFF: I think it can be done, but it requires a type of discipline that most of us aren't really cut out for. It requires not just shedding your accounts and things like that. It actually requires shedding a large part of who you are and really changing your habits and eliminating contact with the people that you once knew.

You know, it sounds like if you wanted to go on the run, that wouldn't be that hard. That's what it sounded like to me, but even in a very, very short period of time, that became very difficult for me to do.

RAZ: Evan Ratliff - and that is your real name, right?

Mr. RATLIFF: That is correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Evan Ratliff is a contributing editor for Wired magazine. He's writing a story about his month on the run for the December issue of Wired.

Evan, thanks so much.

Mr. RATLIFF: Thank you. It was great to be here.

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