This post will be talking about a book, Vanishing Point: How to disappear in America without a trace (freely available online) which is essentially an instruction manual on disappearing. It’s strange to read it after I’ve spoken to so many people who have missing loved ones – the effect of going missing can be devastating for those left behind. Even though there are some very good reasons to go missing, I think in the main, if you must leave you really should tell someone so that they don’t have to live with ambiguous loss for an indefinite period of time – perhaps the rest of their life.
That all said, Vanishing Point is fascinating, not so much for the instructions it provides (although those instructions do go into quite deep detail), but because it realistically points out how difficult it is to actually disappear in a modern society which has a high degree of surveillance. For instance, any previous photographs of you can be used in the effort to find you. If you use credit or bank cards for purchases, this can be used to trace you. Indeed, the author, Fredric L. Rice, writes:
Don’t take cards with you! What you don’t have can’t tempt you to give your location away. When you’re cold and hungry you will be tempted to use any cards you keep so destroy them before that happens.
A person’s car can also be attached to their identity, and likewise using a taxi can be traced (so can public transport with electronic ticketing systems), carrying around your possessions with you can look suspicious to authorities. If you have habits or tendencies, this can also aid in others’ search for you (the book advises smokers to stop smoking in order to be less predictable). Likewise, people who are missing tend to want to go to places they’re familiar with, but to do so, again, would be predictable.
Moreover, people leave physical traces of themselves in spaces they inhabit all the time. Hair folicles, bits of skin, sweat, fingerprints, etc. If you bleed, the traces of blood are very difficult to remove.
Cameras can also be very powerful. As the book says:
If you run to the hills, satellites can see you and identify the type and color of the automobile you’re driving. If you’ve hidden yourself in a cabin, your thermal signature will be seen from satellites. Even if you drive to a road and abandon your vehicle and walk to a cabin 30 miles away, a body heat source in a cabin in the desert or in the woods with no corresponding automobile heat source can signal where you are. It’s suspicious.
America is hardly the only place with advanced surveillance equipment. In 2011, it was reported that the UK has one CCTV camera for every 32 people.
The book also quite rightly points out that not having resources or regular accommodation can put you at risk of being harmed by others. If someone commits a crime against you while you’re missing, reporting it will involve having to tell the authorities who you are.
Next, people who have decided to run away will eventually need a job so that they can earn sufficient money to live. Without a form of ID (and in the US, a social security number), your employment options are very limited. The book suggests some ways around it, but it probably involves menial labour, or fraud.
On ID, there are many, many situations where you might be required to provide it. For instance, for driver sobriety tests. Again, this is a way people can potentially be found out.
Moreover, simply reading resources about wanting to disappear before you do so can be suspicious. As Rice explains:
Most people are now aware that every time they visit a web site, send or receive an email, or do anything else online, an electric record of their activity is made and such information is easily retrieved by law enforcement agencies, often without a subpoena, court order, or warrant. When you do research online prior to attempting to disappear, you leave behind records which can be used to not only track you down but to indict you if you’re doing research prior to or after the commission of a crime… The point about this section is that there should be no expectation that any of the research that people do on line is private. Even erasing your hard disk drive’s web browser’s cache, even running wipe software to fill erased disk sectors with zeros, even doing your best to eradicate records that you have control over isn’t sufficient to erase all tracks, your Internet Service Provider, your cable company, your email host, the web site servers that you visit, every router, bridge, or hub that retains records may contain traces of your research activities, all of which are easily obtained by law enforcement – or by private investigators who commit crimes by colluding with police to illegally seize such records.
As I’ve mentioned before, most people who go missing aren’t gone very long at all. And in my research, vanishing in order to completely reinvent yourself/start a new life is rare. Nonetheless, these considerations make it difficult to see how people stay missing for very long periods of time.
Of course, all this information about authorities tracking you is nullified given that under most circumstances, people have the right to go missing. Unless you’re on the run from the law or from involuntary mental health care, if there’s evidence that you’ve left on your own accord, there may be very limited effort going towards finding you. However, those left behind could request the services of a private investigator (though that’s really a topic for another post) or, search for you themselves.