Reporter Vanished, But Not For Long

Read More About Evan Ratliff's Deliberate Vanishing, "Writer Evan Ratliff Tried To Vanish: Here's What Happened"

Evan Ratliff wondered if he could disappear, even in an era of Facebook, cell phones and online databases. WIRED, the magazine he writes for, offered a $5000 reward to find him. Ratliff explains how he was found, and why he believes that he proved you can still disappear.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Evan Ratliff wanted to know if someone could disappear completely and start over even in an era of Facebook, cell phones and online databases. He dyed and cut his hair, printed fake business cards under the name James Gatz, sold his car, tried to vanish for one month. The catch, Wired, the magazine he writes for, offered a $5,000 reward if readers could find him. The full story is in the December issue of Wired.

If you'd like to talk with Evan Ratliff about how to vanish or if you followed his story, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Evan Ratliff - excuse me - Evan Ratliff is a contributing editor at Wired and joins us now from studios at Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. EVAN RATLIFF (Contributing Editor, Wired): Thanks. It's good to be here.

CONAN: Good. I'm going to try not to cough my brains out. We have to begin by pointing out you did not drop off the grid completely and holed up in a cabin in the mountains. That might have worked. You had a very different approach.

Mr. RATLIFF: I did. I wanted to stay on the grid actually, partly because I was only disappearing for a month. So, generally, when people disappear it takes a long time to find them if they're pretty good at it. So, given that we only had a month, it seemed like if I just went and lived in a tent somewhere in a national park campground, that there was really no chance of anyone finding me and that wouldn't really illustrate anything.

CONAN: Except that maybe you should get a job at Outdoors magazine and not Wired.

Mr. RATLIFF: Right. Maybe so. But then the other reason was that we really wanted to see what kind of digital trail you leave behind if you disappear in this era. So, the idea was for me to try to reinvent myself as someone new but to not live an entirely different life than I would want to live. I would be more like someone who was actually trying to start over.

So, given that I don't want to live in a tent for the rest of my life if I was going to start over, then it made sense to stay on the grid and just try to be a different person.

CONAN: And indeed, this is a fantasy that many people have. If I could just blow this town and change my name, all my problems would go away.

Mr. RATLIFF: Indeed, yeah. It's a sort of staple of fiction, of film, and it's - I've discovered in the process of reporting this, I've heard from a lot of people who said, you know, I've thought about this in my life and I've - when the pressure gets to be a lot, I think, well, what I could just leave, if I could just start over. And then there are people who do it out of necessity, either for good reasons or nefarious reasons�

CONAN: Right.

Mr. RATLIFF: � either they're being stalked by someone and they have to reinvent themselves and they have to hide or, you know, they're on the lam from doing something that they shouldn't have done.

CONAN: Shouldn't have done. And in - your story is a fascinating part of this, but the other side of the story, the side of your pursuers, it's a case of sort of collective intelligence as various readers grouped together on various tweet sites and - Twitter sites and on Facebook and other places to try to share the information they had and to follow up leads, and then got ever more secret and smaller groups. It really is interesting.

Mr. RATLIFF: Yeah. That was one of the most amazing and sort of striking aspects of the whole thing was how people sort of spontaneously organized into these communities and then they started using these social networking sites like Twitter to exchange information so they would swap clues. And one person found one thing somewhere about me�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RATLIFF: �another person made a call to FedEx and discovered this is the package he sent before he left. And those people could use these sites to coordinate and try to sort of triangulate my location. But then they had another problem, which was I was also looking at the site, so I was trying to figure out, where are they and what have they discovered? So, then they started moving into secret chat rooms where they could sort of do the same thing but keep me out of it so that they knew - I wouldn't know how close they were to my actual location.

CONAN: And your story includes emails and tweets from various people involved in this story. But my favorite comes from Laurie Ambrose(ph), and it was sent, in fact, after you were found. Why would a middle-aged woman with virtually no technical knowledge be interested in following Evan's vanished story on Twitter? You see, my father walked out one morning in Sumter, South Carolina, kissed the wife and two children goodbye as if he was going out to work as always and disappeared for 12 years. He was around Evan's age. He sent the family a telegraph a few days later asking them not to look for him. To this day, no one knows anything about his personal life during those years. I guess I'm hoping to have some clues to some of my questions.

Mr. RATLIFF: Yeah. I've heard that sort of thing from a couple of different people that they have this experience in their life or in their extended family of somebody who just walked away from their life. And it's not pleasant for the people who were left behind. And part of what we wanted to explore is sort of what is that like? You hardly ever hear the story of someone who does that�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RATLIFF: �and then we wanted to sort of add a fun aspect to it, so it wouldn't be entirely dark, where it was, you know, what is it like when someone's sort of on the lam from people who are chasing them, and how do they hide in the digital era? So it was kind of a combination of both of those two ideas.

CONAN: And a lot of these is technical in terms of - well, it is Wired magazine after all, so you're setting up dummy computer accounts and leaving computers in, you know, shabby rooms in Las Vegas so you could route messages through there to elude your electronic pursuers and dust up your electronic trail. But part of it is also a very personal story because you discover identity is a pretty important thing.

Mr. RATLIFF: Yeah. And I discovered sort of about what makes up your identity and if you think about all the information that sort of makes up you and then discarding it, then you need to establish a whole new set of information that constitutes you.

And I had this interesting experience of operating under a fake name, setting up new fake Facebook accounts and other online accounts and sort of operating as this new person. And then the question becomes, if you can't talk about anything that happened in your real life, what can you actually talk about and what makes up your identity? It was very difficult to connect with people, as you might imagine, when you're kind of being very vague about who exactly you are.

CONAN: And where you went to school and where you grew up and that sort of thing.

Mr. RATLIFF: Right.

CONAN: There is also a paranoia that strikes you at one moment. You're jogging along the beach and a helicopter approaches.

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, the paranoia started building from the very beginning. And part of the reason was that of the $5,000 that people could win if they found me, $3,000 was actually coming out of my pocket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. RATLIFF: And that was designed partly to create a slightly more realistic aspect to it in that I had something to lose. And very quickly after the whole sort of contest started, you know, I didn't want to be embarrassed, I didn't want to lose the money, so I was - I became very obsessed with staying hidden. And I also didn't know how close people were to catching me or how many people - there were hundreds and then thousands of people who were involved in the contest. And I didn't know where they were and I didn't know, you know, to what extent they had tracked me to where I was at the time.

So when I was in Los Angeles, I actually withdrew money from an ATM. And I did that partly to sort of throw them off the trail because I was leaving Los Angeles. But I knew as soon as that transaction posted to my online account, everyone would find out about it because we had - my editor was sort of distributing all the digital information that was coming through my account. So I knew they were after me. I saw the helicopter, and the thought just crossed my mind - maybe one of these people has a friend who has a helicopter and sent them out to look for me. It was getting ridiculous now.

CONAN: All of sudden, you're Will Smith in "Enemy of the State."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RATLIFF: Right, exactly. And I ran.

CONAN: And you run away from this helicopter, which was pursuing you except of course, it wasn't.

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, I'll never know. I can always claim that there was a, you know, less than one percent chance that it really was. I never found out one way or the other.

CONAN: Well, if they were after you, Charles Bronson would've gotten you. He was in that helicopter.

Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Evan Ratliff, who vanished on behalf of Wired magazine and tried to elude his electronic pursuers in the age of Facebook and cell phones and, well, ATM accounts. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And this is Daniel(ph), Daniel with us from Mountain View in California.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi, Evan. Thank you. A fascinating piece. I was wondering what your top tips or takeaways for someone who is actually trying to reestablish a new life as opposed to living in a park in Montana, what, you know, tips to make it successful and not be found would be?

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, if you're talking about not being found, I mean, the interesting thing is what you really have to do is you have to divorce yourself from the life that you led before because the way investigators track people is they use connections with your old life.

So - if you think about something like Facebook, where you put up all of this information about yourself, all the things you like, all the people you're friends with, you know, that's basically a profile of you that someone could use to find you if you decided that you didn't want anyone to find you.

So there's really two ways to go about, you know, dealing with that. One of them is to try not to put much information out there about yourself, to try to keep yourself out of databases, to keep yourself off of social networking sites. That's one obvious solution. And the other one is to put so much information out there about yourself that no one could possibly ever sort through what's real and what's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But in your case, for example, you were a rabid supporter of the United States men's soccer team. And so that - those who knew you pretty well could figure out that you would try to show up at that game in Salt Lake City.

Mr. RATLIFF: They did, and they - and that was a situation where, you know, like many people who try to leave their life behind, you know, I still had things that I love. I still had habits and hobbies that I wanted to keep up. And one of them was I love watching U.S. soccer games. And they pretty quickly determined that I would try to go to that game.

And at a certain point, I figured, well, you know, I might as well go to see how difficult is this really. They know I'm going to be there. Can I disguise myself? Can I slip in and out without the people who were looking for me finding me? And as it turned out, I could, although I didn't last that much longer after that.

CONAN: Hmm. Daniel, thanks very much for the call.

DANIEL: Thank you.

CONAN: There were also a set of challenges that were, well, our old pal Will Shortz plays into this.

Mr. RATLIFF: Yes. They - Wired had determined that in the last week or so, they would offer additional challenges for me. And they were meant to sort of replicate the kind of risks that someone faces if, you know, they have to disappear and then they have to make choices, you know, how much am I going to expose myself? And these are sort of accelerated versions of that.

So I - I was - had to do things like go to the 50th story of a building and go to a book reading one day. And during that week, they actually - just to make it a little more fun for the people who were following me, they actually embedded them in the New York Times crossword puzzle. So people had to solve the crossword puzzle, figure out what I was going to do, which people did incredibly quickly, because there were people way smarter than me actually looking for me.

CONAN: People who solve these kinds of puzzles also solve the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Mr. RATLIFF: Absolutely.

CONAN: And were they able to find out the clues to your challenges there. We're talking with Evan Ratliff, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, who tried vanish. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Rob(ph). Rob with us from Charleston. Rob, you there? Rob? Well, I guess Rob has, I hate to say, vanished. I wonder, Evan, do you regret the fact that now people - all these people who investigated your life, I mean, they were essentially this squadron of private investigators looking into every interest, every friend you've got. They have this massive amount of information on you.

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, I don't necessarily regret it. It was very surreal when it was happening, and it was scary when it was happening. You know, the fact that there were a lot of people out there who knew everything that they could find about me, and I knew very little about them. But it was interesting, once the whole thing was over - I mean, these people didn't have an interest in me outside of this particular contest. So even though I know that all of that information is still out there about me, it doesn't really feel any different than it did before because I know that they just dropped it, and the communities that formed, you know, sort of dissolved. Actually, some of them still communicate and�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RATLIFF: �and became friends and things like that. But - and when it comes to me, they're not really concerned with using that information for anything.

CONAN: Let's go next to Greg(ph). Greg with us from Dover in Delaware.

GREG (Caller): Hey, great show. My question is - well, not a question so much as a comment. You were definitely going to call Mark Burnett as soon as you get off of here, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The game show impresario.

GREG: Yeah.

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, as far as like replicating it in the future, I don't know. I've had a lot of people ask me and I've definitely been talking to people about, you know, could you do a TV show out of it and things like that. And that's - those are certainly possibilities. And when people ask me, would I do it again? I don't think I would ever do it again.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Greg, and you'll get 10 percent. Don't worry.

GREG: Okay, cool.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Rob has called back. Rob is with us from Charleston.

ROB (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ROB: Yeah. Absolutely. A kind of in the same, except I did it permanently. I transferred across the country (unintelligible) with my wife and basically didn't want to be found. And although I wouldn't say people were after me so much, it was very - I came from a very shady�

CONAN: Well, apparently a very shady cell phone area. But, yeah, I think he's talking about, maybe in his case not official, but witness relocation, witness protection programs, not dissimilar from the kind of experience you went through.

Mr. RATLIFF: Well, yeah, and I did a lot of research on whatever was out there about those types of things, witness relocation program. There were actually a couple of really interesting psychological studies of people in the witness protection program and what happens to them. And a lot of people actually end up dropping out and these studies were sort of speculating about the reasoning behind it. And part of it is that it's so difficult to carry out a deception on a daily basis and to feel like you're deceiving people at a fundamental level about who you are.

And so a lot of people would sort of start out saying, okay, yeah, I can be this new person. That's not a problem. And they learn the name, and learn the background and all that, but then it just wore them down day by day. That was at least what these couple of research studies found.

CONAN: And in fact - you would conclude, in fact, that the - your pursuers wore down your endurance, eventually that's how you got caught. And again, readers can find out about the entire story in Wired magazine. But I wondered if you had followed the recent experiment done by DARPA where they hid five weather - 10 weather balloons across the country, all numbered, and said the - you know, there's a reward for the first person who could identify the locations of them all. Again, an exercise in a collective intelligence, in which readers would share which information with other readers so that somebody could put this all together, this big puzzle.

Mr. RATLIFF: I did follow it. And as a matter of fact, some of the people who were chasing me got together on Twitter and they were working on solving that. A team from MIT actually won the contest. But some of the same people who were chasing me were also trying to solve the balloon contest.

And it's this idea that if you get people together, they can solve problems of a wider geographic area than any of them are in, maybe of a more complex nature than any of them are in. And that was certainly true in my case, that people could utilize the fact that they could coordinate online to avoid the problem that, generally, you had to - I mean, someone had to be where I was to catch me. So they had to get online and coordinate in order to use their resources to actually find me.

CONAN: And some of the most interesting parts of the stories are the internal dynamics of the pursuers as some people are thrown out of a group and then get back in. It's a fascinating story. Evan Ratliff, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. RATLIFF: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Evan Ratliff is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Wired magazine. We posted a link to his story "Vanished." You can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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