So you've decided you want to drop off the map and leave Big Brother behind. It's harder than ever in our always-connected world, but if you're ready to plan your big vanishing act, here are a few tips to get you started.
Who hasn't thought about how nice it would be to start fresh somewhere new, preferably with nicer weather and cheaper drinks? Whatever your reasons for wanting to disappear — maybe you just want to get The Man off your back — with enough diligence and planning you can vanish and start anew somewhere else.
For the lowdown on disappearing and starting your life over, we turned to the book How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace by Frank M. Ahearn and Eileen C. Horan. Frank Ahearn is the grizzled grandfather of the vanishing act. After 20 odd years working as a skip tracer — an investigator who specialises in finding people who don't want to be found — he realised he could make just as much money and incur a lot less risk helping people avoid investigators like himself. We've culled a few of Ahearn's tips below, but if you're really serious, his book is a great pocket guide to getting lost. Photo adapted from the Australian edition of How To Disappear.
How Not To Disappear
The cardinal sin in any serious disappearance is drama. You don't successfully vanish by staging an elaborate disappearing act that ultimately involves a tri-state search, police dogs and your home town believing that you were mauled by a bear and dragged off into the dark night. Ahearn stresses the importance of disappearing in a legal fashion. You shouldn't, for example, try and secure false papers: It's a felony to use false identification, and you have no idea if the papers you secured are legitimate. (What if your new social security number belongs to a dead guy or a criminal? What if the passport you bought is bogus and now you're staring down a customs agent?). Instead, you want to obfuscate your identity in a way that it's so difficult for people to follow you that anything short of a government task force will lack for the patience or funding to keep doggedly trying to find you. Here's a little about how that might work. Photo by David McDermott.
Minimise Your Social Connections
People who hurriedly throw all their crap in a suitcase and run out the back door are the ones who fail at disappearing. Instead, one of your most important jobs, prior to your successful disappearance, is to slowly cut the fat from your social life. Stop using Facebook — ditch all social networks — maybe under the pretence that you're spending too much time online (or any other pretence that people around you will accept besides "I'm going to torch my crappy life and move to Belize").
You want to minimise the social footprint you occupy so that when suddenly you're not standing in it anymore, few people will notice or care. If you're the most prominent member of the local social scene and you vanish tomorrow, people will notice. Minimising your virtual trail is more important than minimising your real life trail. It takes mere minutes for an investigator to comb through social networks and search results, but hours and additional expenses to investigate on foot and by phone. Photo by Luis Perez.
The one social connection most people are unwilling to ditch is communication with their immediate family. Unless your immediate family is the reason you're pulling a vanishing act, chances are you'll still want to talk to your parents or siblings. This can the toughest communication to break, and it's where almost everyone fails. All the planning in the world is worthless if you call your relatives from your new location and a skip tracer gets her hands on the phone records. If you want to communicate with your family or best friend after you've vanished from the less desirable people in your life, then you need to figure out, well in advance, how you will do so. Never communicate with them directly from any account linked to your new life or new residence. Anonymous email accounts and prepaid phone cards and mobile phones are the only way you're going to be finding out if Grandma's hip surgery went well.
Ditch the Plastic; Cash Is King
Get used to the idea of ditching the luxuries you had in your former life. Gone are the credit cards, the convenience cards and loyalty cards, even simple things like a video rental card. Pay cash for everything and don't use anything that could link you new life and your plans to your old life. Don't check out books about Chile from your local library or buy them with a credit card. Don't use a credit card or frequent flyer points to book a flight out of the country. Your goal in everything you do is to minimise the number of connections between your old life and your new life. Whenever you undertake an interaction with another person or business, ask yourself "Is this the least traceable method I could use?" Paying cash for a cup of coffee at an old coffee shop? Obscure. Paying with a credit card for a cup of coffee at an airport kiosk under the eye of four different security cameras? Not stealthy in the least. Cash is king. Photo by Andrew Magill.
Lie, Lie, and Lie Some More
Ahearn's goes into intense detail on the topic of disinformation and its importance in disappearing. He notes that the thing skip tracers hope for most is just enough information — too little and they'll never find their prey, too much and they'll waste all their time and funding looking in the wrong places. Your goal is to create disinformation.
As you prepare to disappear, slowly but surely start fudging the information companies have on you. "Correct" the spelling of your name on file with the local utility company, change your mailing address for your bills to a fake mail-drop you set up through a private mailing company. If people come looking for you, you want them to waste their time looking in the wrong places. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 of Ahearn's book are all devoted entirely to disinformation, creating false leads (with examples from his work that are so clever you'll want to hire him just to see him in action), and establishing yourself securely in a new locale. Photo by Anonymous9000.
Incorporation, The Binding Glue
At this point you might be nodding your head, thinking that the plan sounds great so far, save for the one glaring detail. If you can't use anything but cash how on earth are you going to establish a new identity in your new location? Since you don't want to lead the life of an illegal alien in your new locale, you're going to need some way to have a legal presence that isn't intimately tied back to your old identity.
Creating a corporation to manage your assets is one way many people handle their affairs once they have disappeared. Your corporation, only vaguely linked to you and not in the way that is readily identifiable to skip tracers, will be the entity that leases your apartment, pays your utility bills and otherwise delegates your money out while serving as a shield between you and those looking for you. The details of this are best discussed between you and a lawyer or after careful research into what kind of corporation (and where) would be the best fit for you. Photo by Diana.
Lastly: Don't Bother If You're Not Committed
Disappearing is not easy. You don't just fake your own death, buy some false papers in an alley from a guy with a indiscernible accent, and then retire to a life of leisure on a small island nation. Disappearing, and doing so legally and without incurring a bigger headache than the one you're running away from, takes careful planning. You need to be willing to cut contact with nearly everyone you know (if not everyone), change how you shop, and even ditch your hobbies. Disappearing means beginning a game of chase with people who want to find you and being willing and strong enough to outlive them at that game. If you can't do that, you'll waste a lot of time and money trying to disappear but failing. Photo by Bohari Adventures.
The total planning and execution of your disappearance is well beyond the scope of this article. If you're seriously entertaining the idea of disappearing, we highly recommend checking out Ahearn's book How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace. If you're serious about vanishing, it offers insights and tips you likely never even thought about. If, like most of us, you're not serious about vanishing, it's still packed with fascinating stories culled from the hundreds of clients Frank has helped vanish from their old life and start a fresh one more to their liking. Either way you'll end up a little more paranoid about your privacy and security and a lot more knowledgeable about the ways people abuse both.