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700,000 People in the U.S. Disappear Every Year. Where and How Far They Go Is a Matter of Degree.
If you want to know how to disappear from the grid, you should know that it’s not about living in a log cabin in the woods with solar panels on the roof. It’s the intentional decision to step out of society and cut all ties with the outside world for any number of reasons.
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This action usually starts with someone stepping away from the Internet and the digital world and that’s the grid that this activity usually refers to. Not the power grid.
The Serious 90,000
Of the 700,000 people who disappear in the U.S. every year, most return to their everyday life relatively soon, but 90,000 remain unaccounted for over an extended period of time. Some are the unfortunate victims of foul play while others may be avoiding exactly that.
Who Does This?
It’s hard for most of us to imagine engaging in this kind of activity. It means walking away from everything and everyone: family, friends, jobs, careers, homes, hobbies, lifestyles, and even pets.
In actual fact, that level of commitment and change is what keeps most people home to endure whatever life has thrown at them. But for some, it begins to become an appealing alternative:
People in an Abusive Relationship
Recent statistics indicate that more than 12 million people in the U.S. are living in an abusive relationship. For some, the only alternative is escape.
876,000 divorces occur in the U.S. every year on average. Some of the divorces are highly contested and have motivated some spouses to simply walk away from everything and disappear.
If you think Big Brother is watching you, he is. Now more than ever, and in 10 to 20 years, any thoughts of personal privacy may be a thing of the past.
As of today, the NSA is able to analyze every Facebook post, tweet, and YouTube video; every tollbooth tag number; every GPS download, web search, and news feed; every street camera video and every restaurant reservation on Open Table. Some people don’t like that.
The Fed Up
More and more people seem to be spending a lot of time simply throwing their hands in the air. It’s usually a combination of factors sometimes including failed relationships, the economy, politics, job dissatisfaction, and general dissatisfaction with an unrewarding lifestyle. For some, the idea of disappearing to a new life has some appeal.
Some people get in trouble even when they’re not looking for it. In some instances, the Federal Government can actually step in and help through the Witness Protection Program. They help people disappear. Usually, they’re informants testifying against criminal groups like the Mafia or drug cartels, or double agents who can be threatened by foreign governments and others.
There are probably many more who feel physically threatened in some way that aren’t eligible for witness protection. For them, disappearing may be the only solution.
More often than not, the exact reason someone disappears remains a mystery.
Is It Illegal to Disappear?
The short answer is no. While there is nothing in the Constitution granting you the right to leave society, there are no U.S. laws expressly forbidding you from simply disappearing as long as it’s not connected to a criminal act.
You even have the right to fake your own death as long as you don’t engage in identity theft involving a new Social Security number or fake driver’s license, or try to claim life insurance on yourself or falsifying any other federal or state identification.
In fact, there are other actions that could get you into legal trouble for disappearing:
- Tax evasion charges for failing to pay taxes while employed in the U.S.
- Tax fraud charges for filing taxes under an assumed name.
- Perjury charges for testifying in court under an assumed name.
- Insurance fraud charges for collecting life insurance after faking your own death.
- Conspiracy charges if you involve anyone else in any of the above.
The simple fact is that it’s a felony to use false identification. You can call yourself anything you want but if you falsify identification, it’s a crime. According to Frank Ahern, a former private investigator who tracked people who disappeared, it’s better if you just make it really hard for people to track you down.
Is It Worth It?
For most people, probably not. In fact, many find the hassles and troubles of disappearing become greater than the troubles they thought they were leaving behind. It’s probably why so many disappear for such a short time.
It’s All a Matter of Degre
There’s a term that relationship counselors use to describe someone who has suddenly and intentionally disappeared. It’s called “Ghosting.” Some are gone for months, others for years, and some “ghosts” never return.
What these people are demonstrating are varying levels of ghosting, and those levels begin to define the degrees or levels of disappearance.
Ghost Level I: Erasing Your Digital Fingerprints
This is often identified as the first step for anyone who plans to disappear. Then again, it may not be a bad idea for anyone concerned about invasions of privacy and hackers even if they never leave the comforts of home.
Ghost Level II: Losing Your Old Identity
This is when things start to get serious. Anyone willing to change their name and their appearance is taking some serious steps to get away from something. It also involves diminishing and eventually ceasing social interactions on any level.
Ghost Level III: Making The Move
This literally means moving and taking significant steps to establish a new life and lifestyle somewhere else.
Ghost Level IV: Maintaining Anonymity
Many people who try to disappear fail. An abusive spouse suddenly shows up at their new front door or some other threat they were trying to flee starts closing in. There are simple reasons why they fail and some basic but difficult steps to always keep in mind.
The General Rule: Keep It Low Key
Anyone planning to disappear shouldn’t announce to the world or anyone else what they are planning to do, even if it’s as simple as moderating their Internet use. As quietly and calmly as possible, they should make plans and take the steps they need to take to start their new life.
Here’s some detail on how to disappear from the grid:
Ghost Level I: Erasing Your Digital Footprints
This is the person who simply wants to diminish their life and lifestyle and preserve their privacy as much as possible. They don’t move to another location or relocate to another country; they simply choose to withdraw. The steps a level one ghost takes are the first steps every other type of ghost will need to begin with. It starts with erasing your digital footprints.
In actual fact, erasing your virtual trails is more important than any real-life trails you may choose to change. Every time you use any digital app or equipment, you’re leaving breadcrumbs that someone can follow—from law enforcement to data miners to hackers—and some may already be doing that.
If you have any doubts about the digital trail you’ve already left behind, try Googling yourself. And that’s just a start. If you really want to see how large your digital footprint is, do a search for your name on Intelius, Whitepages, Reputation.com, Spokeo, Zabasearch, and Pipl.
And by the way, this kind of activity is called looking for a tail. You don’t want to do this once you have slipped into anonymity. It’s a giveaway as to whom and where you really are.
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The bottom line is this: the first step toward ghosting is to simply stop using the Internet or digital technology for anything. Cancel the service if you choose, or you can use it for disinformation if you plan to go to a deeper ghost level. Services to walk away from include:
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Parler, etc. You don’t really need them, and they are a goldmine for anyone who wants to learn all about you.
This is a little tougher, but it’s a fountain of information for anyone who wants to track you down or snoop. You could create a new account with an anonymous name, but why? If you must, use Gmail because it defaults to SSL encryption.
Another tool is Encipher.it. It’s an AES Text encryptor that works with Gmail or any other web-based text. Click the Encipher It bookmark, give the text an encryption key, let it get garbled, and send. The person on the other end will need the key to decipher it. Better yet, just stop emailing.
Websites and Blogs
Cancel them, close them, and shut them down. If you have a business that depends on a website, incorporate and run everything through the corporation. But remember, if you are really trying to disappear, you’ll have to leave your old business behind.
Online Banking and Investments
Stop doing any banking or investments online. And whether you go to an ATM or see a bank teller, you will be videotaped and recorded, and every transaction and your location will be recorded as well.
If you’re just trying to minimize your digital footprint, go to the bank if you must, but here again, if you’re going to dive into a deeper ghost level, you need to stop any transactions that leave a trail of behaviors, your appearance or location.
Stop shopping online. It’s another source of information including your name, address, shopping habits, and credit card information.
If you must, you could always buy online with a prepaid debit card with a new account you create under a fictitious name (not illegal yet) and an address different from your own and hope you can actually retrieve the item. But is it really worth the trouble?
Some could argue that you could have it delivered to a trusted friend, but why not just have them order it and pay them in cash for the item?
Tear them up. Cancel the accounts. That’s probably a good move for many people anyway, but prepaid VISA or American Express cards are the way to go. They can be purchased just about anywhere and can be bought with a straight cash transaction with no ID required, and transactions are untraceable to you.
Digital Toll Payments
Many states in the U.S. have small, wireless digital devices that you attach to your windshield that will automatically pay tolls. They create a record of your travel connected to your license plate and car registration at every toll they are used.
Get rid of them and pay the toll. If you are really trying to avoid any scrutiny at a deeper ghost level, avoid tolls altogether. They often photograph license plates regardless of how you pay.
Wireless Car Security (Onstar)
Many vehicles have digital wireless alarm systems like Onstar. They’re good systems, but they have built-in GPS trackers. If you want to minimize your digital footprint, lose the GPS alarm system.
Insurance Auto Tracking
Some auto insurers like State Farm offer auto insurance discounts based on your driving behavior. To get the discount, you need to agree to have a wireless device in your vehicle that tracks your location, speed, and driving habits.
If you ever had any concerns about Big Brother, you probably wouldn’t agree to this in the first place. Lose it.
This is the big one, and it’s probably the number one giveaway to everything about you from your location to any phone call, text, app, or Internet connection you make. This is especially true if the phone is GPS enabled.
If you don’t want to be tracked or monitored by your cell phone, buy a pre-paid phone. These are sometimes called “burner” phones. Burner phone service providers don’t track personal data during use or at the sale. They can be purchased anywhere from department stores to gas stations.
Be forewarned that even pre-paid phones are traceable through the phone number of the person you are calling. Using a pre-paid phone card adds a little more security.
One recommendation is to give a burner phone to a trusted family member or friend in the event of an emergency, but that’s only if you are going totally off the grid as a ghost and really, really trust them. Even then, the general source of the call location can be traced.
Ghost Level II: Losing your old identity
This is where things start to get serious. You’re going to be making a significant decision that will remove you from the life you’ve known. Here are some things anyone ready to disappear should consider:
Diminish Your Social Interactions
You want people to start getting used to not seeing you, not hearing from you, and not talking to you. This can be difficult with some family members and friends, but over time they’ll drift away, at least a bit.
Pay Off Your Debts
It may be tempting to walk away from money due to anyone, but if you walk out on significant debt, it’s a guarantee that someone will be actively trying to track you down. That’s one reason many people fail when they try to disappear. If at all possible, pay off your debts.
Don’t Ways AWay From Leases And Contracts
Renting? Try to time any departure to the expiration of the lease or contract. It may also give you a cover story for why you no longer live at that address. What’s critical is to once again diminish the number of people who may choose to pursue you for any reason.
Collect Your Legal Documents
This includes birth certificates, wills, passports, insurance policies, driver’s license, social security card, and any other legal documentation. Some recommend you destroy them. That may be a really bad idea if you decide to return to your old life someday. It may be better to keep them with you. Hide them if you’re fearful, but don’t leave them behind.
Start To Research Your New Location
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to try and disappear while living in the same home or apartment. You’re eventually going to need to relocate somewhere. Do your homework.
Here are some considerations from various sources on the subject:
- The farther you move, the better. That will diminish the possibility of running into someone you once knew. Even if they only give you a friendly hello, they’ll most likely return to your hometown and say, “Guess who I ran into?”
- Don’t relocate to a favorite vacation destination or other location you’re known to favor. If someone is actively looking for you, that will quickly be on their radar screen.
- It’s a choice of city, suburbs, or rural, although many opinions state that it’s easier to disappear in a city or rural area than a suburb.
- U.S. or international? Neither destination is easy if you’re trying to disappear. A lot of it has to do with how invisible you plan to be.
If you’re just trying to walk away from a nasty divorce and/or an abusive spouse, grab your passport and find a new job and a new home in New Zealand. There are no easy answers and endless scenarios. Do your homework and figure out what’s best.
Make sure you have some idea of exactly where you’re going to live at your new location, both in the short-term and long-term. Hotel? Rent? Buy? Camp? And then figure out how you’ll pay, what—if any—ID will be required, and a sense for the immediate area and neighborhood.
Got money in the bank? It’s time to start making gradual cash withdrawals. Got investments? Cash them out too. If taxes are due, pay the estimated tax.
It’s the same as paying off debts. You don’t want the IRS looking for you along with angry creditors and landlords. The idea is to convert your assets to cash. Cash is untraceable in almost every transaction. So are pre-paid credit cards.
Think About Your Future Occupation
Most people have to work for a living. That can be a challenge for someone trying to stay under the radar. The first thing most employers ask for after your name and address is a social security number.
If you really want to go the ghost route, you’ll probably be working in a gig economy in the trades or service industries. But many of those employers will also ask for a social security number. Make this part of your research.
It’s possible an international destination might offer more invisible employment opportunities. And whatever you do, don’t try to fake a social security number or buy one on the dark web. Your employer will figure out very quickly that it’s a fake, and it’s also a federal crime.
Figure Out What You’ll Tell Your Immediate Family
If you don’t have immediate family or are not close to them, this is less of an issue. But regardless of how you feel, you should at least tell someone something about why you will be so out of touch. If you don’t, there’s a good chance they will alert authorities, fearing foul play. Now you have the police in addition to creditors, the IRS, landlords, and others pursuing you.
The simplest solution is “Make something up.” You got a great job offer in Canada and you can’t wait to start. And then quietly pack your bags for your move to Argentina.
The point is simple. If you have people who care for you in any way, they will not sit idly by if you suddenly disappear. Don’t tell everyone, but at least tell someone something so if your disappearance becomes a concern, someone can clear the air with your “made up” story.
If you have a friend or family member you can really trust, you might tell them exactly what you’re doing and even give them the burner phone we mentioned. That would be up to the person disappearing, but remember the old spy’s adage, “The best way to keep a secret is to not tell anyone.”
The key is to manage your disappearance and avoid drama. The more attention any abrupt departure draws, the more likely it is to fail.
It seems like all of the advice about disappearing says to leave your pets with a neighbor, friend, or shelter. For some reason, no one says why you shouldn’t take your pets with you. Maybe it’s because there may be an old picture of you with your dog and, while you’ve changed your appearance, your dog looks the same.
That actually seems absurd if you think about it. The whole pet thing is up to the person disappearing. Considering how lonely they’ll be when they walk away from their life, they may really miss that dog.
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Before You Go…
As the day approaches for someone to make the big move to a new life, there are some last-minute details worth thinking about.
The Disinformation Game
This is all about misdirection. Using a combination of conversations, letters, and even a renewal of social media like Facebook, you fill everyone’s eyes and ears with disinformation and misdirection.
- “Can’t wait to start my new job in Mendocino.”
- “Loved Aruba and am thinking of moving there.”
- “Got approved for Officer Candidate School in the Navy.”
None of it is true, but it misdirects people to your ultimate destination and location and begins your cover story for any level or length of disappearance.
Change Your Appearance
This should be a last-minute change. It doesn’t make sense to change your appearance and keep showing up in the same places. It’s also another reason for keeping socially distant, as in not seeing anybody.
- If you have facial hair, lose it.
- If you don’t have facial hair, grow it.
- Dramatically change your hairstyle and hair color.
- If you wear glasses, get contacts.
- If you have contacts or don’t wear glasses, start wearing them.
- This could take some time, but if you’re overweight, lose weight.
- If you’re skinny, gain weight.
- If you have tattoos, keep them hidden or get them removed.
- If you don’t have tattoos, maybe it’s time to get that anchor on your arm.
- If you always have a tan, let it fade.
- If you’ve never had a tan, get one.
- If you always dress a certain way, dress differently.
This isn’t just about coincidentally running into someone you used to know, it’s about the ubiquitous and constant video surveillance that surrounds our lives more and more. You might also think about regular changes to your appearance, whether it’s a different monthly hair color or trimming your beard a variety of different ways over time.
Decide On Your New Name
Don’t get cute. If your name is Thomas Stevens, don’t think changing it to Steven Thomas is a good idea. If you’re moving to an international location, research local names and consider choosing one from that list.
It may also be a good idea to go to a library and use a public access computer to anonymously do your name search, and don’t forget to research your new name. You don’t want to accidentally choose the name of a well-known serial killer in Austria if that’s where you’re moving.
Do not try to get false identification for your new name from a local, state, or federal authority. It’s a crime. The laws vary internationally, but do your homework. You can call yourself anything you want, but fake identification and any efforts to apply for it is against the law in most countries.
And as far as those fake ID’s on the dark web are concerned, they’re worthless. Most are the product of identity theft and a direct red flag to law enforcement, and simply acquiring them is a crime.
Create Your New Life Story
No matter where you end up, you’re eventually going to find yourself in a conversation with someone. You’ll need a story to answer some common and quite courteous questions:
- “So, where you from?”
- “What do you do for a living?”
- “You married? Got kids? Got Grandkids?”
- “How long have you lived here?”
You don’t have to overdo, it but having a clear and believable answer to simple conversational questions will help you fit in. It also helps you keep your old life a thing of the past.
Lose The Car
In most parts of the world, any vehicle requires a license plate or tag, registration, and in the United States, insurance. Many countries also require a driver’s license. You might as well carry your old iPhone with the GPS activated and wear your social security number on your chest.
It’s another good argument for living in a city or rural area. In the city, you don’t need a car, and in a rural environment, you live simply and ride a bike. It all depends on where you end up. Maybe after a while, you figure out a way to get a vehicle again. But in the short-term, it’s not worth the hassle or the risk.
Ghost Level III: Making the move
If you’re at this stage, you’ve done your homework and made all of your preparations and now it’s time to pack and go. Here are some common tips for making the move to a new location and a new life:
- Leave quietly. No going away parties.
- Travel light. You can buy most of what you’ll need at your new destination. Paying cash of course.
- Don’t fly or drive. Planes require too much identification and TSA screening, and driving means you’re in a car with license plates, registration, and a driver’s license, none of which is anonymous.
- Take a bus, train or boat. They’re cheaper, require less or no ID, and no questions for a cash ticket. Stay away from the vacation cruise boats. Some commercial ships will take on passengers. It’s not luxurious, but get used to that.
- The cash conundrum. Think about how to safely and securely hide, stash, and carry your cash: Money belt? Large-denomination bills? Prepaid credit cards?
- Know your destination. Your previous research should have included where you’re going to live short-term and long-term, how you’ll pay for it, and what level of ID they will require.
- Look for work. You may have to start with a menial job until you get a better sense of things. Better yet, have some ideas about how a skill you possess can be marketable in your new area. If you already have a job lined up, all the better.
Ghost Level IV: Maintaining Anonymity
Many people who try to disappear are tracked down. The reasons are fundamental and have been described this way by various private investigators and experts:
Don’t Contact Anyone From Your Previous Life
It seems to be an instinct to let someone know where we are and that we’ve arrived safely whenever we travel. If you’re really trying to disappear, don’t do it. Ever. Investigators and law enforcement have identified it as the number one reason people end up being found.
Learn To Manage Loneliness
Loneliness is the second reason investigators cite for someone being found. Resist the urge to reach out to old friends. Make new friends cautiously. Learn to keep to yourself. Loneliness grows over time. Strive to keep it under control.
Stay Off The Internet
Another big reason people fail at disappearing is they begin to use the Internet again. In spite of all of the encryption tools, incognito choices, and other efforts to stay anonymous on the Internet, there are just as many tools to look for patterns and keywords that could be traced back to a specific person.
About That Burner Phone
The anonymity of a burner phone and pre-paid phone cards is oversold. This is especially true if someone has relocated to an obscure location.
Even if they hit *67 before dialing to obscure their burner phone number while making a call to their sister in Iowa, the sister’s phone records can reveal the source of the call as a cell tower in southern Ukraine. Any investigator would take one look and assume that they could narrow any future search. Stay off the Internet, and stay off the phone.
Remember Your New Life Story
And stay true to it. Suddenly revealing knowledge or experience no one suspected you have could be a giveaway to the fact that you’re hiding something. A lot of people won’t care, but all it takes is one person to get suspicious.
Keep a Low Profile
Success attracts attention. That’s a bad idea. If someone can’t accept a simple quiet life, they either shouldn’t consider disappearing or may ultimately fail.
Be Mindful of Video Surveillance
In some places, video surveillance or CCTV are everywhere. The U.K. seems to have installed video cameras on every street in every city in the nation. The same with Singapore, and the trend is growing.
Wear a hat or hoodie when you go out, remember the sunglasses, and who says you can’t wear a surgical mask these days?
Can You Go Back?
There’s no law against it, assuming you haven’t broken any laws in the process. It’s all a question of whether or not the issues that motivated your disappearance have been resolved.
The simple fact is that the majority of people who disappear do return. For some, it’s the stark realization that their new life is worse than their old one. For others, the loneliness becomes overwhelming and some level of return is worth the risk. For any who choose to disappear, it’s an extreme and desperate decision. In too many instances, it actually seems to create more problems than it solves.
Now that you know a little about how to disappear from the grid, take some time to think about whether it’s worth it or not. If it is, go for it. If not, that’s okay too. Good luck!
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