How to Disappear Forever (without dying)
Want to Disappear Forever, or The Marvellous Art of Vanishing Completely
I’m kind of into disappearances at the moment: vanishings, exits, and evaporations.
I found a book on how to be invisible
Take a pinch of keyhole
And fold yourself up
You cut along a dotted line
You think inside out
And you’re invisible
Kate Bush, How to Be Invisible
I just read
Renee Rose’s story about The Mysterious Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde, and not long ago I wrote a story about a whole bunch of vanishings:
So, that got me to thinking: why would anyone want to vanish from the face of the earth? Why would anyone want to disappear so successfully that no one found them again, not their lovers, not their kids, not their old ma? Why?
And that made me think, but wouldn’t it be kind of cool though? Not to be snatched or murdered or anything, but to make the deliberate choice to go off-grid.
I googled it. It turns out that lots of people vanish every day.
Me, I’ve got no real reason to go incognito. I’ve got nothing to hide and nothing to run from particularly. Nothing major anyway, but some of you — let’s say I can imagine that some people reading this will have major reasons to do a flit.
Just for information, let me share what I’ve learned.
Jouhatsu in Japan
The Japanese have a specific word for those who choose to disappear: Jouhatsu. If you are Japanese, you will know this already.
I remember being in Tokyo, and in this particular place, there were lots of tents. We saw it from the river. Our guide explained that the concept of ‘shame’ or haji, meant that Japanese people who felt, rightly or wrongly, they had failed and disgraced their family, would withdraw themselves from society and come and live a new, fairly grim life in these tents.
I think this was Sanya. Sanya is built on the site of a seventeenth-century execution ground.
A Time Magazine journalist called Joseph Hincks wrote a piece about the vanished people. He recalled a man named Norihiro, who got fired.
Shame wouldn’t allow Norihiro to admit this to anyone, so he would dress as if he was going to work and drive off, even coming home late sometimes to pretend he’d been drinking with colleagues, as would be the norm.
He eventually disappeared to Sanya to live in a tent and became one of the nameless.
Often people disappear to Yakuza controlled areas where no identity documents are needed, and all transactions are done in cash.
There are actually companies whose business model is catering to those who want to disappear. These are called yonige-ya, or “fly-by-night shops.” They even sell themselves as alternatives to suicide. Don’t kill yourself, vanish instead. We can help — only several thousand yen.
For interest, a Yonige-Ya company will charge you between $450 and $2600 to disappear you. They will take out dummy cellphone contracts for you and use cut-outs (an old spying term) to get your mail. The whole point is to confuse pursuers, create trapdoors and deadends in any search, and to lay a false trail.
And, if there are companies that help you disappear, there are also companies that specialize in finding you for other people. Japan has five and a half thousand private detective agencies, and some of them have over a hundred detectives working for them. Not all of this work is finding people who have decided to go off the grid, but some of it is.
I’m not sure what it costs for someone to find you, but I see that British private detective companies are offering ‘No Find, No Fee’ deals. I think technology has tipped the balance and now it is probably easier to find someone than to disappear.
There is a book by a French Journalist called Lena Mauger called The Vanished: The Evaporated People of Japan. Some internet commentator claims her book is all lies, but let’s face it: this whole concept is full of mysteries, shadows, and misunderstandings. It’s a world of ghosts.
Two American Tales On How To Disappear Forever
Journalist Isabelle Kohn writes about Keith, a guy who got into debt and decided to fake his death in a kayaking accident in Mexico. He had not too long previously taken out a huge life insurance policy. His wife and kids were in on the scam and once Keith had ‘died’, he went to France to assume a new identity.
The plan was that family would come and join him and they would share the cash on their new olive farm in Provence. I’m not sure exactly where his farm was going to be.
The trouble is this scam is pretty standard, and investigators are wise to it. People even procure corpses to get cremated in their place. But even after cremation, it’s not too late for investigators to prove it was the wrong body. You can’t claim the insurance on ashes.
Matthew Alan Sheppard was 42 years old and living in Arkansas when his debts got so high that he decided to fake his death. His plan was more elaborate than the previous one, and he set it up by driving out into the Ozarks to a rented cabin with his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law so he’d have plenty of witnesses.
He took his black labrador and threw it into the Red River. Some accounts say he ‘helped’ it into the water, but the river was apparently in full torrent, so it would be a dumb dog that would jump in that, even if ‘helped’. I think he hurled it.
Sheppard heroically leaped into the water and thankfully rescued the dog, but then, in sight of his family, his head went under, and he was gone.
No body was recovered, and pretty soon afterward, it transpired that Sheppard had been hammering his company credit card. Instead of tragedy, it began to look like a fraud. Then the hunt was afoot.
Sheppard had a ‘go-bag’ stashed handily downstream with $1500 in cash. He’d arranged a friend would meet him and drive him down to Mexico. Very cleverly, he left his phone unlocked at a gas station, and when that got stolen, it created a false trail that kept the cops busy.
Sheppard lived for months in Mexico washing dishes at a local cafe. This was probably not the paradise he was dreaming of when he jumped in the river.
Then he got a fake Iowa driver’s license and a Social Security number in the name of John P. Howard. He created his own work resume and posed as HR representatives to verify his made-up employment history.
He finally made contact with his wife, who knew nothing, and thought he was really dead. Though she was hysterical, she soon fell in line with the cunning plan and he planned to meet her in Iowa. He bought a ‘burner’ phone and contacted her on this.
Sheppard’s wife conspired with him to live a new life, and they moved house to South Dakota. His wife and daughter left Arkansas without leaving a forwarding address, but the investigators put a trace on his daughter for when she got enrolled at a new school.
The insurance company wouldn’t pay out, and Sheppard got so paranoid that he got his wife to start calling him his false name all the time. He began to suspect he saw investigators staking him out.
His problem was that he hadn’t switched the identity of his whole family, and when his daughter started elementary school in South Dakota, alarms went off. Investigators pieced together the puzzle, hustled over there, and arrested Matthew Sheppard, or John P. Howard.
The Best Way to Disappear is To Do It Slowly
Some of this is illegal, so I’m not encouraging you to do it.
But if you do want to do a flit, plan your disappearance months if not years in advance.
Slowly withdraw from your family and friends. Make excuses not to go to birthdays or weddings. Avoid your old mates, and pretty soon they will stop asking you along.
Do this over some time.
Come off social media. Don’t close your accounts; that looks suspicious, but don’t post anything. Don’t read anything. Don’t comment on anything. If you can delete things, do it, especially photographs.
Avoid being photographed at all costs. Modern surveillance methods rely on algorithms that detect human faces or even the gait of a person.
You might want to put on weight or lose weight. Grow a beard, shave a beard. Grow your hair. Get some glasses. Get laser eye surgery (but pay cash).
Dye is your friend. Maybe dye your hair lots of different, boring colors. Change your hair color each month. Dress drab. Become grey. If you’re grey already, go brunette.
Save money. Save as much as you can, but convert it all into cash. It depends where you’re going, but maybe put some into gold.
Get one of those belts that hold gold coins or even special shoes where you can stash gold in the heels, but order the items in a false name. The people who make such things expect that. They won’t ask questions.
Create a stash for your cash and gold, maybe under a floorboard, or behind a loose brick in a wall, but for safety’s sake put a bookcase in front of the loose brick, or if you don’t have any books, a wardrobe.
Make sure the wardrobe is heavy and don’t leave any marks on the floor when you move it. We’ve all seen those movies where that’s the giveaway.
To get new documents, they used to say that you should walk around graveyards looking for babies who were born the same day as you but who died.
Then you were supposed to apply for a birth certificate in their name. Now, if you’re 59, the authorities might legitimately ask why the hell you didn’t need one up until now.
If you’re 12, you can probably get away with it, but don’t disappear without your parents’ permission.
I also think finding a deceased person who was born the exact same day as you is going to take a lot of walking around graveyards and, even looking drab, somebody’s going to comment if you’re there every day for a month. You might even get recorded on security cameras.
This whole concept is an old-fashioned idea that John Le Carre dreamed up. It might have been possible in 1952, but not now.
Instead, get a “Death Kit”.
A Death Kit. Is That A Thing?
Sure. You can get hold of a death kit from the Philippines, or India, and it turns out you can buy the components of a Death Kit in Mexico, but you’ll have to put them together yourself. The Filipino one comes as a package.
So what’s in a Death Kit? Be assured it will contain a new birth certificate, identity documents, and even a death certificate, presumably for your old rather than your new identity. Or you could just be planning ahead.
The Death Kit may include a new driver’s license, which is going to be a problem for other road users if you’ve never learned to drive.
As for your old documents, your birth certificate, driver’s license, social security card, leave them all behind. You can maybe have a little bonfire, but don’t get seen doing it. Especially don’t be photographed at the bonfire. Stir the cold ashes too.
Like Matt Sheppard (see above), take your phone somewhere it can get stolen, somewhere not nice that has criminals.
Don’t drop it in a polite neighborhood because otherwise, a kind passer-by is going to put a lot of work trying to find you and return you your valuable phone.
So, plan, fade, grow a mustache, stash $5000 in a “go bag” hidden under the floorboards. Get a “burner phone”. Arrange a friend who can drive you to Mexico. If you live in England, this will be a lengthy and wet journey.
But don’t stay in Mexico, it’s too dangerous. Maybe go to France, though France is quite expensive, so maybe Turkey? Vietnam?
One last idea: you could join the French Foreign Legion. They used to give out French Passports to foreign legionnaires, no questions asked. You could give them any name you like. You might have to do a few combat tours, though, first.
There is also the faint possibility that when you’re preparing your new identity the government might think you’re a terrorist and, before you’ve faded out properly, shoot you.
All these things into position
All these things we’ll one day swallow whole
Fade out again
Fade out again
Radiohead, Street Spirit
Conclusion: Can You Disappear Forever?
Yes, you can.
But it’s probably better to stay put and try to work things out.