We’ve all thought about it – disappearing without a trace, starting a new life, and creating a new story and new identity from scratch. It’s a fun thing to think about on Sunday afternoons as the prospect of work in the morning turns like a soul-destroying hamster wheel.
But what if you took those dreams seriously? What would it actually take to disappear completely and vanish without a trace? Do you know how to disappear without a trace?
Back in the old days, this prospect seemed a little easier. When all it took was running away to sea, joining the French Foreign Legion, or striking out as a pioneer into a new frontier, completely disappearing was very doable (and not all that uncommon).
Nowadays, though, if someone goes missing for more than a few hours, chances are the authorities get notified, and within days, people can be trawling through your movements in the real world and online, scouring for traces to find where you are.
With all the data tracking devices, IP addresses, and CCTV cameras in most of our lives, there’s a fair chance most people would be found within 20 minutes once people started looking for them, especially if they tried to disappear without a solid plan. Even before technology was such a big part of our lives, not everybody knew how to disappear. Nowadays, you’d almost have to be a internet privacy expert to know how to disappear digitally given the extent that we rely on technology in our every day lives and the amount of our personal information that’s out there. Digital invisibility is pretty difficult to come by (unless you eschew technology altogether) – that’s why privacy and security experts are in such high demand. Getting rid of all your personal information off the web is a difficult task at best.
Not to mention the fact that most people don’t even try to maintain any semblance of privacy. They’re like herds of cows – happy to be tagged digitally and tracked everywhere they go. This is partially due to normalcy bias, and partially due to an overall lack of awareness about the truth of the world. The fact that you’re even interested in knowing how to “disappear” is a good first step.
Whatever your reason, maybe someone toxic or dangerous is on your tail (crazy ex, stalker, family member), or maybe you just won the lottery or got a huge inheritance, or maybe you owe money to some bad people (that’s a classic one). Maybe the life you have just doesn’t live up to your expectations and you want a fresh start. Regardless of what your reasons are, there’s a huge difference between idly dreaming of disappearing and actually doing it successfully. You also have to take into account the fact that even if the person looking for you isn’t an expert in finding people, they could alert law enforcement or hire a private investigator to look for you. So it’s always possible that you’re up against a professional.
There are some things you need to do. They’ll take time, effort, and commitment. They’re all on this side of the law, so if you’re wondering how to get a fake passport or falsify documents, this isn’t the place, although we will say that there are other, darker places on the web where you can get that info. Here, you’ll find a step-by-step guide for vanishing without a trace, covering everything you need to do to successfully disappear completely.
Step 1: The Set Up
If you’re going to disappear, you have to consider what this actually means. It means never seeing your significant other ever again (if you have one). Maybe this is exactly why you’re trying to disappear – if your partner is abusive either physically or mentally, disappearing into thin air can certainly be an alluring idea. But it also means never seeing your friends, colleagues, neighbors, or even your family ever again – at least if your goal is to minimize the odds of getting caught.
You’re going to have to be brutally honest with yourself if your disappearing act is to be successful. If, a year in, you drunk dial your ex, your plan isn’t going to work. If you’re lonely and you call your best friend – your plan probably isn’t going to work. Severing personal connections is something you’re going to have to get used to, so starting early helps in the long run.
If you’re planning on disappearing in the next year or so, now probably isn’t the right time to be making new friends or getting into a serious relationship. Start winding down your relationships sooner rather than later.
If you suddenly cut all connections with people, they’re going to be suspicious and probably call the cops. If, on the other hand, you’ve been getting progressively more and more distant over the last couple of years, they won’t get suspicious if you don’t return their phone calls for a couple months. After that, you should be long gone.
The same goes for your digital friends and associates. If you’re always posting and commenting on Facebook or you’re on Twitter all the time, then suddenly go quiet, people might start asking questions. Start weaning yourself off of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as soon as possible to give yourself the best chance of disappearing completely. If your goal is to get your privacy back and not be traceable, online social networks are honestly an awful idea anyways, so there’s no reason not to reduce your usage right now.
Once you start unpacking exactly what it will take to disconnect entirely, unplug from your life, and disappear, it’s amazing what you find tying your name to a time and place. Technology is particularly effective at monitoring our movements and activities. Social media is the obvious thing to think about, but that’s not the only thing.
Most people’s digital footprint includes their online activity, almost everything they do on their smartphone, paying for gas or groceries with a credit card, using a driver’s license/passport, running a credit check, using a bank account… the list goes on and on. All these things leave digital breadcrumbs, leading straight to your front door. In fact, you being on this site is probably being tracked by some tech corporation somehow – if you’re logged into your Google account through your browser, they know you’re here. If you’re not using a VPN, your Internet Service Provider knows you’re here. Your digital footprint is the thing most likely to give you away if you’re planning to disappear, you need to start thinking about it and cleaning it up now.
If you’re trying to disappear, there’s a good chance someone’s going to come looking. The fewer breadcrumbs you leave, the more successful you’ll ultimately be. In a world where we’re almost all plugged into our devices all the time, you’ve got to think about things like tracking tools, cookies, and your digital breadcrumbs.
There are plenty of tools for you out there to help disappear online. Use browsers specifically designed to encrypt, delete, and not store your data. Use burner accounts and burner devices. Accept that whatever you put into a device lasts forever and can be used to locate you.
When it comes to erasing your digital footprint, here are the basics. This stuff can get technical, so we’ve kept it as simple as we can – if you want to dive deeper into how to get rid of your digital footprint, there’s a resource below that you can read.
- Minimize internet use if possible
- Stop using social media
- Use a VPN anytime you’re browsing the web
- Don’t stay logged in to anything online
- If possible, don’t use a smartphone (get one of those old school phones that just do calls and texts)
- Switch to a pre-paid phone plan
Here is a very in depth course by the nonprofit Internet Society about your digital footprint.
Step 2: Leaving your Old Life Behind
Are you ready to walk away from your life and completely disappear? Have a run through this list and see how you’d deal with each factor.
Who are you going to tell? This is one of the hardest parts about disappearing. If you don’t tell your mom, there’s a good chance she’ll call the cops when you miss Sunday dinner. Do you want the cops on your tail within a week of staging your disappearance?
If you’ve been a loner for the last ten years and you’re not much for talking to your family, this part might come easy. If you have parents, siblings, or close friends, they might have to be let in on (at least some of) the plan. You don’t need to tell them where you’re going or what you’re doing, but an unexpected vanishing will most likely end in failure unless you’ve got one heck of a plan. The important thing here is you don’t want the government looking for you. The police and the government more generally have access to resources that regular folks don’t – resources that make it much easier to track you down. It might be inevitable that the G-man comes looking, but you want as much of a head start as possible – and if your friends call the cops and file a missing persons report because they’re worried that they can’t locate you, then you’re not getting any head start at all.
If you walk away from a mortgage or car payments, the bank, dealership, or loan agency is going to try to find you. Legally-binding contracts aren’t designed to be ‘disappeared’ from, and if you legally owe money, disappearing is a terrible way to avoid paying it. Again, this is the kind of thing that will eventually end up involving the authorities, and you want as much of a head start on the government as humanly possible. Ideally, the government never comes looking for you.
Interest rates, alimony, and debt don’t forget. Neither do bailiffs, judges, or debt collectors. It serves you to disappear legally and above board as much as you can. Any kind of legal issue will result in someone in an official capacity trying to locate you, and that’s the last thing you want. Trust me; it will make your disappearance a lot easier, less painful, and sustainable.
Money is a big issue when it comes to disappearing. Even if you have plans of living completely off the land in a remote wilderness, the disappearing act itself takes money. Bartering skills and foraging can go a long way, but cold hard cash helps get you out of Dodge like nothing else.
Try to save as much cash as possible on the lead up to your disappearance. You’re going to want to learn how to live predominantly on cash, especially during your first few months of disappearing as you travel to new locations. If you pay for a Greyhound ticket with a credit card, you may as well be posting a Facebook update. If anybody who knows what they’re doing is looking for you, they’ll see the credit card being used and be able to trace the transaction back to you.
Get rid of your credit cards. The microchips in your credit cards map out your movements just like Google Maps on your phone – at least for anybody who spends time locating people as a profession (think cops, private investigators, and so forth). You might also want to look into bitcoin or another digital currency. They’re quickly taking over as the favorite anonymous way to spend and receive money online While bitcoin isn’t truly anonymous, in a lot of cases its good enough. You should also look into Monero, which is close to truly anonymous (and is used for a lot of illegal activity these days).
Basically, cash is king, but if you’re forced to transact online in some way, do it via cryptocurrency if you can. Credit cards are the most easily traceable and should be avoided.
Possessions to get rid of
You’re going to have to ditch some of your favorite possessions when you disappear. If you’re particularly attached to objects for sentimental reasons, disappearing might prove somewhat difficult.
You’re going to have to get rid of your cell phone, your house, and everything in it. You’ll have to ditch everything you can’t fit into a vehicle, INCH bag, or bugout bag. You should know what “disappearing” really means. You’re giving up the place you live, and probably a lot of the things that you like. If you have a classic car or an old guitar that you treasure – well, too bad. Neither of those things are practical for someone trying to disappear.
It takes a balancing act, though, when it comes to getting rid of possessions. The less you take, the more you’ll have to pick up on the way, which means more transactions, more interactions with people, and thus more traceability. So think about where you’re going and what will be available when you get there.
Now comes the brutal part. If you’re serious about disappearing, take all your family photos, all your high school yearbooks, all your graduation certificates, and silver medals from swim meets and throw them away. Burn the photos. Why? If you leave them behind, they could be used against you in some way. A person trying to find you can make connections from your photos and learn more about you from your yearbooks. So you don’t want to leave them behind. Taking them with you is even worse – no better way to blow your cover than to give someone your new name, then have them see your old name in a high school yearbook.
If you don’t want anything to be able to link you to your own life, you’re going to have to be proactive in getting rid of all the evidence – so neither people from your old life or your new life can put the whole picture together.
Possessions to keep
Disappearing might entail leaving the area as quickly as possible. If you have a vehicle, you’re going to have to decide whether or not to keep it. While a vehicle can easily be traced to your identity, they’re also great at getting you out of Dodge fast. To be honest, we’d recommend you get rid of your vehicle and opt for buses and trains, but if speed is of the essence then you might need to drive and think about the issue of the car that’s tied to your name later on.
Once you’ve disappeared for a while, driving your legally-owned and registered car is a great way to get noticed. Your vehicle and license plate are very easily traceable back to you. Just think about all the people that have that information – the insurance company, the dealer you bought your car from, the government, your friends and family… So even if you’re driving away at first, you need to ditch the car once you’ve picked a place to settle.
There is an argument for keeping a PO box going or using a friend’s address. Having a valid proof of address linked to your identity (if you choose to keep it) helps combat identity theft. If you walk away from credit card accounts and owner agreements, it’s perfect territory or identity thieves. That being said, if you’re abandoning your identity entirely then maybe this isn’t a concern. Just keep in mind that not having a proper legal identity (e.g you abandon your social security number) prevents you from doing a whole bunch of things in the USA, so you might be limiting your future options with your new identity if you’re letting go of the old you entirely. As an example, if you don’t have a social security there a a lot of things that you can’t do properly.
To disappear completely and successfully, it might make sense to spend some time off-grid in the wilderness (or close to it). If you want to do that, you’re going to need a decent equipment list of essential survival gear. It boils down to taking care of your most basic needs. You’re going to need food, shelter, and clothing. The rest of the details are up to you. This might not be an option, but rather a necessity for you if you’re short on cash. After all, living in the wilderness can be (mostly) free if you know what you’re doing.
Ideally, combining cash with other self-sustaining practices helps you get the best of both worlds. Sure, try to live off the land and off the grid to the extent that you can. But when the drought hits, a couple weeks of canned goods could mean the difference between life and death.
Other essential supplies for living off grid include First Aid supplies, a multi-tool, a high-quality fixed-blade knife, a Ferro rod for starting fires, a water purifier, toiletries, a compass and map, as well as chargers and any burner devices. A solar-powered generator is a great way to charge batteries when you’re living off-grid.
If you’re not planning to live off grid at all, you should still have some basic supplies. A stash of food and water is a good idea, and having a first aid kit as never hurt anyone. Blankets, towels, toiletries, and a few set of clothes are pretty much absolutely necessary – if you’re living out of your car for a few days or a few weeks, you’ll still want to be clean and presentable, and blankets can keep you warm if you’re dealing with cold weather. Remember, if you’re leaving almost everything behind, then you need to think hard about what you’re taking with you – you won’t have access to a closet or your drawers like you would at home. Think about if you were going on a solo road trip and staying at the worse motels – what would you bring with you to stay sane, clean, and safe? Bring all of that stuff.
Step 3: Change How You Look
If you want to disappear completely, you’re going to have to change your personal appearance at least for a little while. If you happen to bump into your neighbor at the gas station on your way out of town, you want to be able to walk right past without them noticing – in other words, you want to be able to hide in plain sight.
This doesn’t mean putting on a totally ridiculous disguise like Scooby Doo. It means making slight alterations to your wardrobe and physical appearance for an overall unremarkable effect. You want to be the person nobody notices, the person who blends into any crowd and is forgotten as soon as they’re gone. For example – change the type of top and bottoms you wear. If you wear blazers and sports coats, do sweatshirts and hoodies instead (and vice versa). If you’re mostly khakis and black pants, change to jeans or shorts. You get the idea – no outlandish clothing or anything that stands out, but change the “type” of clothes you wear to a different broad style of clothing.
This means plain hair in style and color. People tend to remember if they saw a wild hairstyle. It also wouldn’t hurt to change your hairstyle significantly. The same goes for facial hair – if you’re going to have facial hair, make it unremarkable. No twirly mustaches or braided beards. If you previously had facial hair, now might be a good time to go clean shaven, and vice versa (grow a beard if you didn’t have one). Think of the most boring person you know, and use them as inspiration. You want to be just boring enough to not even register in people’s minds when they see you. Glasses can also make a difference – if you wore glasses in your old life, maybe switch to contacts. If you don’t wear glasses, you might consider getting prescription-less lenses. The goal here is to hide in plain sight – look normal, but a slightly different kind of normal than your previous self.
Tattoos and distinctive piercings can be a real problem if you’re trying to disappear. Think about getting tattoos laser removed or at least cover them up with clothing or makeup when you’re traveling. Identifiable markers are what most people look for if they’re searching for someone.
Step 4: Change How You Travel
Gone are the days when you can hop on a bus, train, or plane. Even many taxis are now fitted with CCTV cameras, and transportation is where disappearing becomes virtually impossible. Imagine trying to get through a major airport anywhere in the world without ever having to admit who you are.
Unless you’re planning on disappearing to another country, you might want to rethink long-distance travel on public transport, particularly planes. This means a car is better than a train or bus, but by foot or bicycle is even better than a car.
Planes and long distance trains are the worst. Short distance trains and subways are next. Then buses. Driving yourself is the best, but dealing with the fact that the car is linked to you in other ways presents its own drawbacks.
The more you change modes of transportation, the harder it will be to track you. So mix it up.
There’s far less likelihood of being caught in a CCTV image if you walk everywhere (wear a hat or hood) or ride your bike. Bicycles are surprisingly effective for long-distance travel, but they do limit the amount of equipment you can carry.
The main takeaway here is do not fly. Flying is the easiest to track method of transportation by a very long shot. Ideally, you’ll also want to avoid longer distance train rides (like Amtrak) because busy train stations and longer distance, faster trains are full of cameras.
Step 5: Settle In
To disappear completely, you’ll either have to live in the wilderness or around people or a little bit of both. Either way, you’re going to have to figure out how to live there long term. Completely disappearing isn’t a two-week vacation from life or even a 6-month sabbatical.
Disappearing completely implies that you’re disappeared forever, so you better have a good idea of how you’re going to survive. If you disappear to the wilderness, you have the advantage of potentially living off the land. Without civilization, though, life is more brutal and harder – plus, living off the land isn’t strictly legal unless you own the land, and ideally you want to avoid the attention of park rangers and rural sheriffs.
If you live in an urban or semi-urban environment, you run a greater risk of being recognized or found, but you’re also within easy access to all the benefits of civilized infrastructure. It’s far easier to get an under-the-table cash only job on a construction site or at a bar in a city than it is alone in the wilderness.
Step 6: Avoid Getting Paranoid
You don’t want to escape your life into one where you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, jumping at every door opening, and freaking out because you thought someone was trailing you down the street.
One of the hardest things about disappearing from your past life, especially if circumstances forced you to, is being paranoid that your old life will eventually catch up. If you make a bad break, leave a bunch of clues, or break the rules over and over, you run the risk of becoming excessively paranoid and ruining your life.
In order to avoid this, all you need to do is factor it into your disappearance plan. While you can’t control whether or not someone comes after you, you can minimize the risk of them being able to find you.
You can also develop your sense of what’s actually happening. Is that someone really following you, or are they just walking to their car as well? In order to improve your sense of reality, it serves you to develop situational awareness. You want to become automatic at reading a situation, seeing threats where they actually exist, and no threat when it’s actually nothing.
Step 7: Misinformation and Disinformation
To stay gone, you’re going to have to learn how to incorporate lies and manipulation into your everyday life. When it comes to disappearing acts, this is often called misinformation and disinformation.
On the one hand, you can avoid leaving breadcrumbs for a potential searcher by leaving a trail of false leads. A wild goose chase where your pursuers follow a false trail will buy you time to put even more distance between you and whoever’s looking for you (ideally nobody is really looking).
You’ll also have to spread some false information about your new self. If you’re trying to disappear and reinvent yourself with a new set of people, you’re going to have to come up with a pretty solid backstory. Come up with details to a previous and fictional life – an entirely new identity.
These can and should include things like where you were born, who and where your family is, what’s your education and work background, as well as a few of your favorite things. If you want to disappear and reappear somewhere else, you should get good at believing your own story.
While you can choose to use a fake name, we don’t necessarily recommend it. Using anything other than your real name can make life extremely difficult very quickly. If you’re far away enough from the place you left, unless your name is very unusual, you’ll probably be fine using your real name.
Step 8: Longevity
Disappearing isn’t something many people can successfully do. Being a part of a witness protection program or living on the run from the law, or even an ex, requires unbelievable amounts of time, energy, resources, and most importantly discipline, often by more people than just yourself.
If you really have no choice but to disappear, then there are ways to do it, but it’s close to impossible for a regular person to disappear in our modern, technologically-driven society. The ways of tracking and tracing are more and more effective and intertwined with our lives and movements throughout the world.
There are CCTV cameras in every bus, and train, and on practically every street corner. Corporations and authorities have greater access to our information and data than ever before. Privacy is virtually non-existent if you use the internet at all unless you really know what you’re doing. The more I think about it, the more it seems like maybe the perfect time to disappear completely…