'Missing' Wired Magazine Writer Tracked Down

Wired writer tried to vanish for 30 days, but tech-savvy readers found him.

September 10, 2009, 4:39 PM

Sept. 11, 2009— -- You can run and you can hide.

But, especially in the digital age, do you have what it takes to disappear?

In a contest hatched by Wired magazine, writer Evan Ratliff tried to see if he could fly below the radar for 30 days with a bounty over his head.

Starting Aug. 15, he traveled the continental United States without revealing his location to a soul on the planet. Wired offered $5,000 to anyone who could find him before the time ran out, but Ratliff would pocket $3,000 if he survived the month incognito.

With just one week to go, it looked like Ratliff might outsmart the hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of hi-tech sleuths who had joined the hunt.

But, on Tuesday, on his way to pick up some pizza, he was nabbed in New Orleans.

"I actually thought that I'd make it back to New York. So much so that I had plans," said the New York-based writer. "I had already plotted out what I'd do. I hadn't quit trying. I really thought that I was going to make it."

At the same time, he said he wasn't absolutely sure he'd survive the whole month without getting caught.

"I started getting paranoid about two days into it and remained paranoid the whole time," he said.

Soon after the contest launched, Nicholas Thompson, Ratliff's editor at Wired and contest co-conspirator, told ABCNews.com 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 seemingly far-fetched 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.

Then, Ratliff himself went on the run.

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

Wired Contest: Anyone Can Be a Private Investigator

The premise of the contest was that Ratliff was someone who wanted to disappear without sacrificing too many elements of normal life. The contest also assumed that anyone who wanted to could be a private investigator.

So while Ratliff trekked around the country, Thompson held onto personal information that any professional private investigator would have had.

Each day on Wired's Web site, Thompson (who didn't know Ratliff's location) parceled out 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.

And to keep his hunters engaged, Ratliff promised to remain partially on the grid. He stayed connected on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, followed the progress of the contest online and went out for the occasional piece of gluten-free pizza (he has celiac disease and cannot tolerate gluten).

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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