Catch This Writer If You Can and Win $5k

Amateur Sleuths Share Tips, Clues Online

The St. Louis-based computer engineer who specializes in security work said he spends about two hours a day strategizing and digging. "I'm kind of a paid hacker sometimes, to put it mildly," he joked.

He said the thrill of the hunt engaged him more than the possibility of a financial prize.

"The whole idea of disappearing for a while [and] being able to walk away from it all and say I'm done… that just kind of made me go 'wow,'" he said. "Then, of course, the mystique of life on the run and the mystique of being the guy who tracks down the guy on the run."

At least the more than 700 members who joined his group (not to mention the followers who Thompson said have sent him hundreds of tips via e-mail) appear to feel the same way.

Through Twitter, Facebook, comments on Wired and e-mails to Thompson, the sleuths are sharing tips and ideas about Ratliff's location.

Cyber Leads Are Behind

When Thompson published a check that Ratliff had ostensibly deposited in a Santa Monica, Calif., ATM, the trackers went wild thinking up places he could be. Noting Ratliff's affinity for the Boston Red Sox, Toecker even tracked down a Santa Monica bar known for showing Red Sox games.

But, ultimately, Toecker said it will be a combination of high-tech investigative work and old-fashioned elbow grease (like following-up human leads with phone calls) that will lead to Ratliff's discovery.

"Cyber leads are always a couple of days behind," he said. "As long as he keeps moving, the trail will run dry."

If Ratfliff remained in one place, Toecker said he could find him in two weeks, but Ratliff's mobility makes him extra-difficult to pin down. The fact that he only needs to stay underground for one month also works in his favor, he said.

Though he said luck and skill might root Ratliff out, Toecker said it's possible he might actually succeed in his mission to stay below the radar for the entire month.

"Evan just has to last 30 days," he said. "With that goal in mind he'll be likely to do a few things [others] wouldn't."

But Thompson places his bet on Ratliff's trackers.

"I think he's going to get caught," he said. "I think there's a chance he's going to make it through the month but there's some very smart people looking for him."

And if you want to join them, Thompson had this clue: He's probably in a beach city right now, drinking sangria with his feet up and his Wi-Fi on.

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