Evan Ratliff’s Hi-Tech Game of Hide and Go Seek

On August 13, 2009 Evan Ratliff, a writer for Wired Magazine, who had written about the faked deaths and intentional disappearances of other people in past articles, began his own hi-tech game of hide and go seek when he left San Francisco that evening on a travel adventure that involved evading being found for a whole month.

On August 14, 2009, almost 24 hours after Ratliff embarked on his adventure to disappear, Wired Magazine posted the following online message to readers: “Author Evan Ratliff Is on the Lam. Locate Him and Win $5,000.”

The invitation to take part in the manhunt for Evan Ratliff by Wired Magazine coincided with the publication of Wired’s September 2009 issue, which contained a page of mugshot-style pictures of Ratliff for readers to view.

People who joined the search for Evan Ratliff would have from August 15 and September 15, 2009 to locate him.

The contest was straightforward: Ratliff will try to disappear for a month under a new identity while Wired readers and others try to find him.

Ratliff’s editor at Wired, Nicholas Thompson was given complete access to Ratliff’s personal information, including: his real bank accounts; credit cards; phone records; social network accounts, and email addresses.

In addition, Thompson was given contact information for Ratliff’s friends so he could interview them. Thompson would then periodically reveal some of Ratliff’s personal information online for searchers who took part in the manhunt.

The search for Ratliff ignited Twitter discussions under the #vanish hash tag as well as Facebook groups and discussions on finding him. At one point the search for Ratliff generated 600 Twitter posts in a day.

From a recent Wired article, written by Ratliff on the event:

What had started as an exercise in escape quickly became a cross between a massively multiplayer online game and a reality show. A staggeringly large community arose spontaneously, splintered into organized groups, and set to work turning over every rock in Ratliff’s life. It topped out at 600 Twitter posts a day. The hunters knew the names of his cat sitter and his mechanic, his favorite authors, his childhood nicknames. They found every article he’d ever written; they found recent videos of him. They discovered and published every address he’d ever had in the US, from Atlanta to Hawaii, together with the full name and age of every member of his family.

Ratliff planned for his disappearing act for months in advance and used a combination of both hi and lo-tech tools and tactics to evade being located, including:

– letting his hair and beard grow out.

– using several different laptop computers.

– installing software to hide his web searches and registering numerous fake email addresses.

– a set of professionally designed business cards with a fake company name and the fake personal name of James Donald Gatz.

– two prepaid cell phones purchased with cash and prepaid gift cards for purchases.

– Just for Men beard-and-mustache dye along with numerous other disguising tools like glasses and hats.

– a $477 bank cashiers check for rent on an anonymous Las Vegas office.

– a combination of “head-fake” tactics and misdirections were used to throw his hunters off his path.

Evan Ratliff’s vanishing adventure took him from San Francisco on a zig-zag-criss-cross trip around the US to New Orleans, where he was eventually tracked down and located on September 8, 2009 by a computer programmer named Jeff Reifman who worked long distance with New Orleans resident and Naked Pizza owner Jeff Leach to find Ratliff.

Ratliff’s visits to the Naked Pizza website helped to verify his location in New Orleans where he was ultimately found.

Ernest Hemingway wrote: “There is nothing like the hunting of a man… and those who have hunted men and liked it have never cared for (hunting) anything else thereafter.”

And so it goes for all the people who set out to hunt and find Evan Ratliff.

To read the full intriguing and highly instructive story about how Evan Ratliff disappeared and how he was tracked and found, read his story on Wired.com.

You can also watch Evan Ratliff discuss his personal story in the video below.