Aug. 26, 2009 -- 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.
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.