Catch This Writer If You Can and Win $5k

Photo: Vanish: Finding Evan Ratliff: Author Evan Ratliff Is on the Lam. Locate Him and Win $5,000.

Call it a high-tech, high-rewards game of hide-and-seek.

Since Aug. 15, magazine writer Evan Ratliff hasn't revealed his location to a soul on the planet, keeping his whereabouts from even his family, friends and employers.

But if you can find him before 30 days runs out, you could snap up a $5,000 prize.

In a contest hatched by Ratliff and his editor at Wired magazine to see how easily you can disappear in the digital age, he must stay hidden for one month with a bounty over his head.

But to keep things interesting, Ratliff can't go entirely off the grid. Like any digital denizen, he has to keep up with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and make at least the occasional cell phone call or credit card transaction.

By posting those digital breadcrumbs to the contest's online page, Wired hopes sleuths both high-tech and low will be enticed to join the hunt. Already, hundreds -- maybe thousands -- have taken the bait, populating Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and comment threads with tips and teasers about his whereabouts.

Disappearing in the Digital Age

Why are people so intrigued?

"It's just the excitement and the human narrative of people getting away," said Nicholas Thompson, Ratliff's editor at Wired and contest co-conspirator. "How does it change in the digital age? Is it harder to get away from our past life?... Or is it easier?"

Thompson said that the two had tossed around story ideas about disappearances for years. In January, after noting an uptick in fugitive and missing persons cases, Ratliff threw out his radical idea: He would try to go underground for a month and then write about the experience.

"My first response was, that's sort of crazy," Thompson said. But after kicking around the idea for another a month, they figured out how the plan could actually work.

For the September issue of Wired, Ratliff wrote about Matthew Alan Sheppard, a financially-beleaguered man who allegedly faked his own death and disappeared to escape fraud charges.

Now, Ratliff is the one who's on the run.

On Facebook, Twitter, the Hunt for Ratliff Is on

"The premise is that he's somebody who really wants to get away but also wants to live a normal life," Thompson said. "The second presumption is that anyone who wants to can be a private investigator."

So while Ratliff hops from city to city (the rules say he can't retire to a national park and hide out in the underbrush), Thompson holds onto personal information any professional private investigator might have.

He doesn't know Ratliff's location but, each day on Wired's Web site, Thompson publishes clues, like credit card and bank transactions, IP (Internet protocol) address logs that might indicate where he connected to the Internet and other tips from tech-savvy Evan-trackers.

Tech writer that he is, Ratliff is trying to cover his tracks, using pre-paid cell phones, an IP blocking application and other masking tactics (as an extra incentive to stay hidden, part of the winnings will come from his compensation for the story). But that isn't stopping amateur private investigators from staying hot on his heels.

Michael Toecker, 27, creator of the Facebook group "The Search for Evan Ratliff," has been on the case since day one.

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