'Missing' Wired Magazine Writer Tracked Down

Hundreds -- Maybe Thousands -- of Sleuths Join Hunt Online

By posting digital breadcrumbs to the online page, Wired lured in sleuths from around the world who populated Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and comment threads with tips and teasers about his whereabouts. A counter Facebook group even sprung up to help Ratliff and throw his pursuers off the scent.

Assuming the name James Donald Gatz, Ratliff created an alternate identity online and off. He created a Website, Facebook page and Twitter account to support his new identity, post information about his activities and follow the progress of his trackers.

But Jeff Reifman, CEO of social media software provider NewsCloud, uncovered Ratliff's secret identity and tracked him to New Orleans. Noting that "Gatz's" Twitter account had started following a business called Naked Pizza online, Reifman figured the writer eventually would head to Naked Pizza, the only New Orleans pizza joint with a gluten-free option.

He sent the restaurant's management an e-mail in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning and by Tuesday evening, Ratliff was a found man.

"I think it was shock on both sides," said Kenneth "Brock" Fillinger, co-owner of Naked Pizza and part of the team that nabbed Ratliff. "Shock that 'Holy crap! There he is!' And on his side, 'Holy smokes! Somebody found me.'"

Fillinger said they plan to share the $5,000 prize with Reifman.

He and his Naked Pizza colleagues spent the whole day planning the sting operation, including staking out other New Orleans locations Reifman thought Ratliff might visit.

What Does it Take to Disappear?

"It turned into this long seven-hour discussion about what would you do if you were hiding," he said. "I think to disappear in this society, in the digital age, you would have to change all of your habits."

Noting that Ratliff was found, in part, because he sought out a favorite food (that satisfied a publicized dietary restriction), he said, "You would have to completely forget everything you once were, and I don't know many people can honestly do that."

For his part, Ratliff said he made a few mistakes and could have been more careful about covering up his tracks online. But he emphasized that Reifman's techniques were very sophisticated.

"He was triangulating a lot of information himself," he said. "He was actually using pretty ingenious investigative techniques, in my opinion."

But, after all this, does he think he could go underground for real, if he had to?

"I think you could do it. I think it would take an incredible amount of discipline," he said.

But, he added that being on your own for days without end is tiring and disorienting.

"It's really hard to stick to your plan when you don't know how close people are [and] when you don't have anyone to talk to," he said.

Over a long period of time, he said, mistakes are inevitable. And though he said experts warn that the classic mistake is returning to the familiar -- be it a place, a food or a hobby -- some habits are physically impossible or emotionally too entrenched to change.

"I tried to avoid that but at the same time I violated that," Ratliff said.

You can shed all the things that identify you, but then, he asked, "Who are you?"

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