Find yourself first if you want to lose yourself and disappear completely.
In order to completely disappear you have to be smart. Step outside of yourself and look at the life you’re leaving behind and the things that will lead pursuers to you.
What did you look for on the web six months ago? What kind of habits do you have? Change anything about yourself that might make people interested in you. Don’t act like you’re from Miami even though you’re in the west of Ireland. And if you’re in a loud bar, don’t be a wallflower; be loud.”
“Change anything that might get people interested in you.”
“Don’t bring all your tools with you, because what if you lose them?” A prepaid phone, prepaid debit card, and a valid ID are the most important things. You can buy things to wear. If you have a passport and a driver’s license, you should keep one with you and send the other. If you’re not running away from the government, you don’t need a new name. You are pulled over with a fake ID, a lot of cash, or 75 prepaid debit cards, the police will think that is strange.”
Breadcrumbs are a good way to do this.
Disinformation is the art of going missing. It doesn’t have to be true, but it does have to be easy to find. In one case, the bad guy was the husband of my client. I put euros in her wallet and left it in a Paris hotel, knowing that someone would turn it in. Bingo! Her husband is looking for her in Paris, while she is hiding out in Lisbon. Keep them busy with fake news, or they’ll find out what’s really going on.”
Leave as little as possible. “Everywhere you go, you’ll leave a mark. The key is to leave as few marks as possible and break the link between each step. Don’t walk in Times Square. Take a taxi instead, and fewer people will be able to see you. If you see someone you know, tell them you’re going to Belgium in two days. If they post it on Facebook, you’re spreading more false information.”
Get money from other people.
“You still have to live in the world, but how you take advantage of situations matters. People think that pay-as-you-go phones can’t be tracked, but they can. When you go into a store, a camera records what you buy. Find a homeless person and tell him, “Here’s $100, buy me a prepaid phone.” They do the deal in person, their picture is on the camera, and you can’t reach them by phone.”
The Bernie Madoffs of the world—not just the Ponzi schemer himself, but also the rogue accountants, lawyers, and hedge funders—walk meekly into federal courts with creased faces and pale skin, expecting long prison sentences, and a bystander can’t help but wonder: why don’t they just disappear completely.
Why not just take the money you stole and leave?
With a little plastic surgery and a quiet payment could buy a sun-kissed life on an Indian Ocean archipelago and disappear completely. Some of those sun-kissed locations don’t have extradition agreements with the US. Even working as an outboard motor operator for a boat full of Somali pirates seems better than spending the rest of your life in a maximum-security federal prison.
Yet, even though more and more rich people are being investigated for crimes, few of them seem willing to leave. Maybe they’ve lost their nerve. Or maybe, in this day and age of Facebook and “America’s Most Wanted,” there aren’t enough safe places around the world for a criminal to hide.
(There is one catch: “comfortably hide” is the key phrase. The law doesn’t reach North Korea, the smaller stands, or the tribal lands of western Pakistan, but the way of life isn’t four-star.)
Vic O’Boyski is a retired supervisory US marshal who calls himself a “flight philosopher.” He’s watched the world get smaller. The F.B.I. has attachés in embassies, law enforcement wizards, people who make computer mock-ups of faces as they age, and forensic accountants who keep track of accounts in foreign countries. He has professional respect for people who are serious about running away and completely disappearing.
“I can’t make phone calls, write letters, use Facebook, or get money. It’s hard,” he says. “If you don’t have a plan to get out, you’re in trouble.”
The life of a fugitive used to be easier. Robert Vesco, a stock scammer who gave illegal campaign donations to President Richard Nixon, went to Costa Rica in 1972, gave $2.1 million to a company that Nixon had started, and then waited until (miracle!) Costa Rica passed a law that stopped him from being sent back to the United States. Today, Costa Rica is a popular vacation spot for people on a budget, but it is not a good place for criminals who are trying to disappear completely and want to avoid being caught.
Back in 1932, when New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was accused of taking bribes, he packed up his large mayor’s salary and moved to the French Riviera. He stayed there until the rumors stopped.
Now the world isn’t as big as it used to be. A report from 2007 said that the United States has extradition agreements with every country in the Western Hemisphere and with most of Europe.
The most successful fugitives are usually high-end career criminals, not financiers. James “Whitey” Bulger Jr., boss of the Winter Hill Gang in Boston, disappeared in 1995 and hasn’t been seen since, though he’s been spotted in places like Taormina, Sicily, and Dublin, Ireland, which is unlikely (much more likely). Mr. O’Boyski says, “He puts on a pea cap and picks up his shillelagh, and he’s just like a thousand other old Irish men.”
Fugitive politicians are hard to catch. They tend to do bad things, like bombings or robbing banks, and then go back to normal life. So, Sara Jane Olson, a former Symbionese Liberation Army bank robber who got out of prison last week after seven years, hid in plain sight as a middle-class mom in Minnesota for 26 years.
Less interesting are white-collar fugitives, who are like sharks in a boardroom but more like pedestrians on the run. When Joe Judge, a retired FBI agent, heard that three wanted people were hiding out at the Breakers, a luxury hotel and spa in Palm Beach, Florida, he couldn’t hide his disgust.
Mr. Judge said, “They can’t do anything.” “They’re not very good at running away.” Many white-collar suspects think they are too smart to be found guilty. They think that if they can just testify, they can convince the jury.
Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at Columbia University, says, “It’s funny how many people don’t understand what their problem is.” “I never could understand why suspects stayed around.”
Some do run. Rudolph W. Giuliani charged commodities trader Marc Rich in 1983 when he was a prosecutor. Rich went to Switzerland to hide from the law. In 2001, Mr. Rich got his miracle when President Bill Clinton pardoned him just hours before he left office. His wife may have helped by giving money to Clinton’s campaign.
Two more people come to mind as examples of wealthy people on the run.
In 2006, an Israeli-American business genius named Jacob (Kobi) Alexander was charged with wire fraud and securities fraud by a federal jury. Mr. Alexander and his family took a plane to Namibia which does not have an extradition agreement with the US.
The person on the run tried to buy Namibia, more or less. He paid for scholarships, built solar-powered buildings for low-income people, and lived in a beautiful house in Windhoek. The Wall Street Journal says that he was sure enough of himself last summer to throw his son a four-day bar mitzvah and hire a jet to bring 200 friends from New York City.
Then there is Sholam Weiss, whose run is like something out of a dream. He was a plumber from Brooklyn who was very good at stealing money. In 1999, while he was on trial in Florida for stealing from a big insurance company, he ran away to Brazil in an attempt to disappear completely, where he met a girl and was once seen having fun with ten prostitutes, five of whom were dressed as Catholic school girls.
The FBI agent, Mr. Judge, was worried that Mr. Weiss was trying to get a Brazilian woman pregnant. Brazil has a law that says a fugitive can’t be sent back to jail if they have a child. “We were not just fighting extradition; we were also fighting ovulation,” he says.
The sad thing is that this story about a fugitive comes with a warning. Mr. Weiss was caught, but only after he had already left Brazil for Austria to disappear. In his absence, an angry federal judge gave Mr. Weiss a harsh sentence, which can be seen in the date he will be freed: November 23, 2754.