In Manhattan’s Garment District, the fumes of idling trucks and deliverymen’s cigarettes smudge the edges of everything. The sidewalk reflection in the plateglass window blends into strips of sequins, boxes of Rit, feathers, and cloth swatches on the other side. Here you could design a disguise; here you could be anyone.
A brown skuzzy lobby that smells like a roller rink shares an address with a fabric wholesaler, and upstairs there is a honeycomb of offices belonging to a drag-queen costumer, a modeling agency, a fashion PR company, and Frank Ahearn, a forty-nine-year-old man who helps people disappear. Ahearn resembles a Hells Angel. Faded tattoos spot his thick forearms, and he keeps his long gray hair in a ponytail. The word freedom is tattooed across his broad shoulders, and, with little provocation, he will remove his shirt to flaunt it in TV interviews. In person, he is much more relaxed than in our paranoid exchanges (he blew off interview requests for six months because he thought I was going to serve him papers) and warmer than he looks in the menacing author photo on his book How to Disappear, in which he is lit from the side like an aged Marlon Brando in tinted glasses. Ahearn’s book is a how-to for people who want to “vanish without a trace,” and it bills him as “the world’s top expert” on the subject. Despite the book’s large print and Ahearn’s liberal deployment of the word fuck as noun, adjective, and verb, he has written an exhaustive guide to disappearing in the twenty-first century, and it sells over 150 copies per week online. Disappearing is on the minds of many.
Talk is Ahearn’s gift, and he talks big and fast, in a squeaky voice that belies his hulking size. He is an aesthete in the art of high bullshit. Not the kind of bullshit that is necessarily lying, but the kind involved in knowing how to seduce anyone, anywhere. He endears himself to you by telling a million stories—from growing up on the city’s mean streets to scoring criminal records from a pay phone—and by inserting your name into one of the million hypothetical scenarios he constructs to illustrate his dark work. Ahearn’s speech is prone to Bronx inflection, and he begins many sentences with the phrase It’s fahked up becowse… He uses profanity in a way that borders on Zen poetry: “Some days, life is a shitty piece of shit.” And even though he doesn’t believe in politicians’ platitudes (“I think the government blows, in plain English. They’re a bunch of lying mothafahkas”), his is an American story elevated to mythology, replete with up-by-your-bootstraps redemption, self-made entrepreneurship, and protection of individual privacy. And a little bit of bullshit.
He refined this art over the course of his fifteen-year stint as a skip tracer. A skip tracer, in Ahearn’s words, is “a liar for hire.” Skip tracers locate people and uncover their most private information. The difference between a private investigator and a skip tracer is that a PI must be licensed. When a PI can’t find someone legally, he will subcontract a skip tracer like Frank. Ahearn has tracked down deadbeat dads and subpoenaed witnesses, and accessed the checking accounts of financiers suspected of embezzling money. He worked with tabloids targeting celebrities. One of his main clients was a U.K. tabloid that used Ahearn to locate famous people, and in 1998 it sent him the unknown name Monica Lewinsky. “I had no idea who she was,” he said. He called her home, saying he was from UPS with a water-damaged package for Ms. Lewinsky, and that it would be sent back if the address couldn’t be verified. The housekeeper who answered the phone told him to just leave it on the doorstep. Ahearn broke the story. “My client told me to watch the news that night, and when I did I discovered who she was.” As a practical joke, he would page his friends with celebrities’ phone numbers, having them unwittingly call Britney Spears or Nick Nolte.
Ahearn has obtained criminal, phone, and banking records, and even scored intelligence from the FBI and Scotland Yard. “All a skip tracer needs is charm and a telephone,” he said. Ahearn could access any record by posing as someone else and providing false pretenses (like posing as the UPS man), a routine he dubbed “pretexting.” If a client wanted the phone records of a cheating spouse, for example, Ahearn would simply call the company and say, “How ya doin’? This is so-and-so, and I just want to make sure I’m on the best calling plan.”
At the height of his skip-tracing business, in the ’90s, Ahearn lived in an affluent suburb of New Jersey with his wife, and employed a staff of fifteen who helped him locate people and information. More than any other kind of person, single moms, he claimed, were the best employees, because he allowed a flexible schedule and found them to be quite driven to earn commission on top of their base salary. One could easily earn up to $1,500 per week for telling a few lies on the telephone. “We had a lot of fun. Everyone was dysfunctional,” he recalled. His former employees remember Ahearn as a generous boss who treated them to lunch regularly and brought a cake on their birthday. The staff nabbed records and documents from the financier Conrad Black, who was worth millions and was subsequently imprisoned for fraud, and Ahearn still relishes the fact that his team contributed to Black’s demise, because “the highest level of education in that office was a GED.” One of his employees was in high school.
Eileen Horan stumbled into the profession, and into Ahearn, by answering an ad in a newspaper for a bookkeeper that read “Help Wanted: Sense of humor a must.” Horan said, “I didn’t know what was going on in that office, just that everyone was lying.” Within a year, Horan graduated to pretexting herself, and soon became Ahearn’s business partner, coauthor, fiancée, and ex-fiancée. “We each had a different name and a spiel, and, for that moment, you are that person. I think I could pass a lie-detector test under my [assumed] name.” She learned from the best. “Frank is the king of deception,” Horan said.
Deception has fascinated Ahearn since he was a kid. Frank Sr. ran illegal gambling clubs in the Bronx, and, as a boy, Frank Jr. was impressed with the power of lying. “I must have been six or seven years old, and one of my sisters had her First Communion or something like that, and my father took us out for Chinese food. There was this little lobster fork my dad got with his meal, and my father said to the Chinese waiter, ‘We’re tourists visiting the city. Can I keep this fork?’ We lived a couple blocks away! But the guy said. ‘OK, no problem.’ That story always stuck in my head. I said ‘Wow—if you lie, you get things.’”
Growing up in the ’70s on the tip of upper Manhattan in Inwood, an especially drug-ravaged neighborhood at the time, Ahearn earned his deception training wheels. He started dealing drugs at fourteen by “cracking scrips,” or stealing prescription pads from doctors’ offices, forging prescriptions for Valium, and having them filled at pharmacies while the doctor was at lunch. The downside of this enterprise was that it inflamed a serious prescription-pill addiction throughout his adolescence. His younger brother James recalled, “Frankie was a little wild growing up. I can sum up all of Frankie’s craziness in one word, his nickname: ‘Nut One.’” Nut One OD’d at sixteen and placed himself in rehab at seventeen. But before becoming known for self-destruction, Ahearn went by another nickname. “The kids in grammar school called him ‘Speedy,’” his mother, Ann, said with affection. “Frankie was a very good runner.” But in addition to physical prowess, he also possessed compassion. Frankie was especially moved one Sunday by a story the parish priest told the congregation about a mother and son, for whom they were collecting alms, who had escaped communist East Germany. The next week, he brought all of his toys to church to donate to the boy. Ann, who is a first-generation Irish American, met Ahearn’s father, Frank Sr., at his brother Johnny’s wedding, on Saint Patrick’s Day. “We all went out to a restaurant after the wedding, and Frank took my hair clip out of my hairdo without my knowing it. Then he brought it to my house a week later, saying I had left it,” Ann said. Pretexting runs in the family.
Ahearn earned what he air-quotes as his “entrepreneurial spirit” from Ann, who ran several businesses, including a candy store, a medical billing company, and a maid service. Ann hired other mothers with children to clean houses, and promised them flexible hours and no weekend work, a hiring practice Frank later replicated in his skip-tracing business. A consummate businessman, he could identify a lacuna and fill it. During a coffee shortage in the city, he stole pounds of Folgers from his after-school job at a grocery store and sold them to bodegas at a steep markup. “I was
always looking to make money,” he said. “Working an hourly job was limited.” When the owner of the store caught him stealing (“You shouldn’t steal on Valium,” he admits), Frank punched him in the face and ran out.
Ahearn spent two months in the ninth grade, first at All Hallows High School in the South Bronx and then at John F. Kennedy High School, before he began playing hooky. His parents couldn’t control him. Ahearn said, “What do you do with someone who’s not afraid to be yelled at and punished? I think they just watched me spiral out of control.” After dropping out of school, he worked as a messenger and continued dealing and using drugs. After he was released from Daytop Village rehabilitation center in upstate New York, he worked briefly at a shoe store. He got laid off when the store closed, and bought a typewriter with his first unemployment check. But the job that changed his life was working as an undercover security guard in retail stores, catching people stealing. Investicorp, the company that employed him, also employed a skip tracer. Ahearn wanted the job, but his boss said no. “I said, ‘What if I can get your phone records?’ My boss said, ‘If you can get my phone records, then I’ll fire him.’ So I went to a pay phone, called AT&T, and said I was my boss and that I wanted to upgrade my calling plan and needed to hear my phone record read off because I was turning in my expense report.” He presented the phone record to his boss. He was twenty-two years old.
Skip tracing provided instant gratification, a rush of adrenaline, and more money than Ahearn ever could have imagined. Assuming a new identity for each pretexting phone call allowed him to slip away from himself, a way to disappear for a moment. Lying never bothered him. “If your name came across my desk, you had probably done something wrong,” he rationalized. The part of the lying that did bother him, however, was how easily it came. “The thing that played in my mind was: Why am I so good at this deception thing? Like, why did I grab that bag when I was born? Why didn’t I grab the bag for being good at painting?” he reflected, his hooded blue eyes looking down at his hands.
His inauguration ten years ago as a “privacy consultant,” a person who helps people disappear, occurred not so much by choice as by accident. After 9/11, his business crumbled, along with his life. The IRS caught up with him for unpaid taxes, his wife divorced him, and he realized he had to quit drinking. After he and his wife separated, he slept on a couch at the office and kept all his clothes in the trunk of his car, waking in the early morning to shower in the office bathroom, wiping the water drops off the shower curtain, and slipping out so no one would catch on. “I’d bounce around for a few hours and roll into the office at nine thirty with a coffee. No one knew anything.” He paid his employees a small severance with the money from the sale of his house after the divorce. The day his skip-tracing office closed, he packed up whatever he could stuff into his car, because he couldn’t afford to put down a deposit for a moving van. “I looked back at this vacant office, just a sea of empty desks, and said, ‘There’s my empire.’” He shrugged with resignation.
Newly sober (without the help of AA—one day he quit drinking and hasn’t had a drink since), he attempted to skip trace just for individuals instead of PIs. He placed an ad on the website EscapeArtist.com, a community bulletin board for expats, but soon got an email from the owner saying locating people kind of went against their mission, so why didn’t he write an article about disappearing? And from his “crappy, unedited” article about the mistakes disappearing artists make and the slip-ups that get them caught, he started getting emails and calls from people all over the world requesting his consulting services to help them make their getaway. So he inverted his business model and used his insider knowledge to aid those craving respite from their lives. Because he knew how to find people, he knew how to help them dissolve their identities physically and digitally.
When a person decides to disappear, the stakes are high. Ahearn sorted his clients’ motives into two categories: money and violence. The male clients typically had the money problems (they had come into money or had lost it all), and the female clients had the violence problems—“stawkahs or abusive husbands,” Ahearn explained. “Most of the men were in search of the palm-tree lifestyle,” Ahearn said, referring to middle-aged men who hid out in Belize or Panama, free from “the ex-wife sucking him dry,” or the IRS. Ahearn never helped people with offshore banking, but instead set people up as “virtual entities,” establishing anonymous corporations, funneling funds to pay for everything. Using these anonymous corporations, along with a variety of other untraceable methods, like prepaid cell phones and credit cards, made it possible for Ahearn’s clients to disappear without assuming false identities. “That creates problems. The minute you open up a bank account with a fake identity, you’re violating so many federal laws,” he said. “And how do you know whose identity you’re buying? What if the person is a pedophile?” Good point.
From 2001 to 2010, Ahearn helped around fifty people disappear. He charged up to thirty thousand dollars for his services. More than half of his clients were men, whom he charged the full amount to help underwrite his female clients, most of whom needed to escape “stawkahs.” If the woman contacting Frank was in a desperate situation, he wouldn’t charge her anything.
So how does one with little disposable income escape from someone hot on her trail? “The less money you have, the easier it is to disappear. Give me a waitress who has shitty credit and doesn’t own a house, all I have to do is skip trace her information and see what she needs to do. Piece of cake.” The first step is “misinformation,” which means destroying any information available, from closing bank and phone accounts to removing your name from online databases. Then he creates “disinformation,” or false leads to throw off pursuers. So if the waitress is disappearing to Kansas in February, Ahearn starts diverting traceable information to Chicago in January. She will place calls to realtors, utility companies, and restaurants where she might work in Chicago. “If I’m a stawkah and I hire a skip tracer, the first thing I’m going for is your phone records. Anyone who is looking for you is going to look at that January information.” If she has enough money, she can visit Chicago for the day and meet with realtors to see apartments. If a skip tracer checks the woman’s credit report, he will see an inquiry from a Chicago realtor.
Once Ahearn has sufficiently tinkered with enough false leads and set her up in the next place, he calls the woman to say it’s go time. Disappearing under these conditions means leaving almost everything behind. “If you live with the guy, you just pack that one fahkin’ bag and you go. You don’t risk hiring a moving company.” To escape the stalker, the woman might hire a PI to do surveillance on him to make sure he’s out of the way. And of course, the woman should take an indirect route to Kansas by buying a bus ticket to Chicago with a credit card and buying her Kansas ticket with cash.
Now begins the off-the-grid life. When the woman makes the move to Kansas, she will pay rent on her apartment and bills from an LLC. But how to earn a living? “You can’t be a regular employee or a licensed professional, like an accountant or a nurse,” Frank said. “But you can work off the books—as a waitress, or graphic designer, or house cleaner, and claim the cash you make. I would never tell anyone not to claim their cash,” he added, with a mischievous smile. “That would be un-American.” A Massachusetts lawyer hired Ahearn to help her escape her abusive ex-boyfriend who was stalking her. Since she could no longer practice law (“She’d have to join the Bah in that state, and all the guy would need to do is make fifty phone calls. There are fifty states, right?”), she became a legal consultant in New Hampshire, filing her taxes as an independent contractor.
It is surprising that a woman who felt her life was in danger from a deranged stalker would escape to a state bordering her own. But many of Frank’s disappearees relocated to towns just hours away. Most stayed close because they couldn’t afford a big move, but, as Frank said, “Sometimes disappearing two hours away is better than going cross-country, because you’re hiding in plain sight.” To keep in touch with loved ones left behind, Ahearn devised codes in the form of Craigslist postings. “If Mom wants to find you, all she needs to do is look up ‘1974 Cadillac Seville with whitewalls’ and switch the last two digits of the phone number in the ad to call your prepaid cell phone.” Some of his clients corresponded by using a single email account, each user having the password, and not sending their messages but saving them as drafts, so no electronic trail could be recovered. Other clients did the same with unpublished blogs. “I’m good,” he snorted.
One of Ahearn’s favorite clients was a man named Louie, a gruff older gentleman who had made a small fortune off hot-dog carts and lunch wagons. “He cursed and smoked cigars and had a lawyer son who was a prick and wanted Louie’s money,” Ahearn explained. Louie’s wife had recently died, and Louie began acting like a bachelor, buying sports cars and dating women decades younger. The son thought Louie was being irresponsible, so he filed a petition for power of attorney. “He wanted his son off his back, and he knew the best way to do that would be to disappear. Move to the Caribbean. Enjoy his fortune and a cold Corona next to a bright blue sea,” Ahearn writes in How to Disappear. Louie read an article about Frank and had his lawyer contact him. “The lawyer said, ‘He doesn’t need your help getting from point A to point B; he just wants to make sure no one finds him when he gets to point B. And he wants to create “fuck you” things for the son to find when he goes after him.’” So Frank went to town creating disinformation for the son’s private investigator to find. He hired an expensive escort (“I didn’t want a two-bit hoo-ar!”) to live in a luxury apartment in Louie’s name. The PI staked out the doorman building, and, after days of not seeing Louie, he approached the escort, who handed him an envelope with a phone number. Louie’s son dialed the phone number, but was looped to his own home answering machine, as Frank had set up a call-forwarding service by pretexting the phone company.
Even though Frank got to know the intimate details of his clients’ lives, he never stayed in touch with any of them. “There’s no resolution when you disappear someone,” he said with a bit of sadness. “You just play with their information, you disappear them, and poof! They’re gone. You don’t know if they’re safe, if they got hit by a bus or stabbed in the head.”
The fascination with disappearing, with manipulating the boundaries of mortality and existence, seems to be deeply imprinted on our psyches. It’s a theme that emerges frequently in literature, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story “Wakefield,” about a man who never returns to his London home after a business trip but instead takes an apartment around the corner and watches how life progresses without him, from a ghost’s perspective. Characters who fake their own death animate the most extreme disappearance scenarios. Huck Finn smears pig blood around a cabin and plants clumps of his hair on an ax, orchestrating a hoax to “fix it now so nobody won’t think of following me,” and sets off on the adventure of a lifetime, unencumbered by the adults who beat him, or, worse, want to “sivilize” him. Juliet downs a tincture to make “stiff and stark and cold, appear like death,” to leave her family’s warring tribal politics and live happily ever after with her crush. Characters in crime novels by John Grisham and Tom Clancy regularly disappear or fake their own deaths, like their cultural predecessors in noir detective pulp paperbacks. To become invisible is to cast yourself as both the villain and the hero of your story.
Disappearance stories permeate pop culture at every level, beyond the pretty blonds of the Nancy Grace show who go missing on tropical islands. Audiences hunger for stories of deliberate disappearance. Monica Ali’s new novel, Untold Story, suggests that Princess Diana faked her own death; one of the most popular films on Netflix instant-streaming is a self-produced documentary entitled Alive! Is Michael Jackson Really Dead?; the Discovery Channel debuted a new series in September 2011 called I Faked My Own Death; Don Draper on Mad Men did it in the Korean War; and the character Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad recently considered hiring a consultant, like Ahearn, to deliver his family to a new life off the grid.
This year marks the forty-first anniversary of D. B. Cooper’s fabled “skyjacking,” when he parachuted from a plane into the Pacific Northwest woods with two hundred thousand dollars strapped to his back, never to be heard from again. The case continues to captivate: the FBI still gets tips as to Cooper’s identity, and his caper has inspired TV reenactments, a novel, several nonfiction volumes, and countless articles. He has been elevated from a criminal to a folk hero. Boston organized-crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who is accused of nineteen counts of murder, was apprehended last spring after evading a sixteen-year manhunt. Bulger used a variety of aliases during his life on the lam and stowed almost a million dollars in cash along with a cadre of weapons inside the wall of his Santa Monica apartment. But he hid in plain sight.
What accounts for the uptick in disappearance fascination? The ailing economy is enough to make anyone want to jump ship. Prospects Americans once trusted—home ownership, retirement, hard work leading to a decent life—crumble everyday. The typical college graduate leaves saddled with an average of twenty-four thousand dollars in debt, the average household owes over ten thousand dollars to credit-card companies, and unemployment hovers around 9 percent. Disappearing seems like a logical fantasy to indulge.
The fantasy may also represent a pendulum swing against the hyper-visibility of our technological age. We project pieces of ourselves in status updates, blogs, and tweets. To prove that one exists in real life, one must display it on the internet. Our lives are processed through cables and smartphones and screens. It seems like we are only as clever as the comments we post, as sexy as the photos we tag. And this weighs us down while simultaneously distancing us from face-to-face relationships. A 2010 University of South Carolina study suggests that loneliness increases with time spent on the internet, reinforcing a study published in American Psychologist in 1998 that found digital dependence leads to an increase in depression, loneliness, and neglect of existing relationships. Disappearing appeals to the part of us that still craves authenticity and real-life adventure.
“Disappearing makes you infinite,” Ahearn said. “If you disappear, people will always talk about you.”
But is it possible to disappear in the internet age? Ahearn claims technology has actually made it easier. “Twenty years ago, if you wanted to disappear to Belize, you would have to go to a bookstore and buy a book about Belize. Then you’d have to call the tourist bureau down there, but first you’d have to call directory assistance to get a long-distance line (fourteen dollars later) and then, ‘Hi, I’m looking to move to Belize,’ and they’ll send you a brochure. Then you’d have to call airlines to see who flies to Belize. It would have been a weeks-long project. Today, all you need to do is sit in front of your computer for twenty minutes. You can rent an apartment, buy plane tickets, and you’re gone.”
The problem, though, lies in the fact that it’s also that much easier to get caught. John Darwin, the English prison guard who faked his drowning in 2002, got caught, along with his wife, Anne, when his neighbor typed “John Anne Panama” into a Google Image search to reveal a photo of the smiling couple with a real estate agent, very much alive. “The internet is a double-edged sword,” Ahearn explained. “It’s a question of who’s better at it: the person looking or the person disappearing?”
That’s why Ahearn has set his sights on a new frontier, retooling and revamping his deception business yet again, to help clients obscure negative information available about them on the web. His disappearing clients typically sought him out for reasons of violence or money, but his digital-deception clients’ needs run the gamut. Ahearn illustrated a common scenario: “The problem with information is that it’s starting to affect the average Joe. Say that before you were born, your father had a DUI and killed a kid in Iowa. And now, all of a sudden, this small newspaper in Iowa is putting up all their newspapers online, and all of a sudden there’s this information about your father. I find it fahked up becowse at the end of the day the only reason that newspaper is putting that online is so they can make money on ads.” He deals with people like the hypothetical DUI father who seek to distance themselves from the sins of their past (he clarified: “I’m not talking about a pedophile or someone like that!”), or people who might want to hide only certain parts of their identities, like a world-traveling photographer who is also a multimillionaire, or a prosecutor who has sent murderers to jail and doesn’t want the convicts to know the particulars of her family life and residence.
The notion of making the move from physical to digital disappearance occurred when he was a guest on The Brian Lehrer Show on November 16, 2010. He was asked to speak about disappearing. The other guest was Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, who skyped in from a conference in Washington, D.C. Fertik’s company offers a variety of services, like “helping people establish a positive online presence” and “increase online visibility and combat negative content.” The two guests could not have been more different. Ahearn, wearing sunglasses and a black T-shirt, spoke about his trademark strategy of deviating information to disappear, while Fertik rhapsodized about reinvention as an American ideal, and the internet as the locus of a “collective permanent memory.” Ahearn said plainly, “He was talking about how they manage reputation, using all these huge words, and I was like, ‘What the fahk does this guy do?’ I hate highfalutin individuals. It really drives me fahkin’ nuts.” Ahearn also saw a flaw in Fertik’s methods. “You can’t delete shit online. If you ask a newspaper or blogger to take something down, that can backfire. It can be front-page news the next day. I realized, why not just create deception?” Fertik told me in an interview, “Very emphatically, that [i.e., deleting shit online] is not what we do. We are a globally scalable business with two hundred people who are PhDs in math, computer science, and statistics. Frank is not a technologist,” he said. “He seems like the kind of guy you’d see at the corner bar.”
Ahearn manages his clients’ reputations by essentially creating fake people who make fake websites, all with his clients’ names. For example, if Noah Schwarz made an amateur pornographic film in his college days at the University of San Francisco, Ahearn builds websites for thirty other Noah Schwarzes, buying up every domain name, such as NoahSchawrz.net, NoahSchwarz.uk, NoahScwarz.org. One Noah Schwarz will be a juggler, one Noah Schwarz might be an accountant, but one Noah Schwarz (also fictional, but sharing certain traits with the real Noah Schwarz) will have gone to the University of San Francisco, and will reminisce about his wild fraternity days when he remembers the time he and his buddies produced a porno. The mostly fake Noah Schwarz, however, will live in Austin, while the real Noah Schwarz lives in New York. The mostly fake Noah Schwarz will be an insurance salesman, while the real Noah Schwarz is a professor. Ostensibly, the crime will be assigned to the mostly fake Noah Schwarz. “You can’t rid yourself of the information,” Ahearn said, “but you can use digital information to have somebody else take the glory or take the misery, or just murk it up enough so it doesn’t look like my client did the thing.”
It seems to be effective, but some clients have objected to his method. Ahearn dealt with a wealthy horse trader whose former partner spoke disparagingly about him in a New York Times article. “He wanted me to get it down. He wanted me to pretext the New York Times. I told him, ‘Look, you can’t get rid of it.’” If the article exists on the Times website, it most likely exists on other aggregator sites, and locating every mutation of the article would be like ripping up a sheet of paper into confetti, throwing it into the wind, and trying to recover every bit. Ahearn then gave a quick demo of how he would handle his client’s predicament by building ten fake websites, “with the stupidest stuff in the world,” under the horse trader’s name. When you typed his name into Google, you would find nothing but horses—clowns with horses, cowboys with horses—but nothing directly identifiable to the actual horse trader. Despite the fact that Ahearn managed to bury the negative article, the client was less than pleased. “He got pissed off at me. He was actually insulted.” Ahearn eventually won him over, but explained a common problem: “The problem I face with people is vanity. He didn’t want to be attached to this dumb thing.” I asked whether any of his clients ever question the veracity of the Google results they receive, whether it ever seems fishy to type in the name of a prominent person, and yet the top hits come up as jugglers and clowns. “Clients worry that someone is going to think it’s bullshit,” Ahearn said. “But when’s the last time you said, ‘This Google search is bullshit?’”
Managing personal information highlights the multiple realms of existence we straddle today. Disappearing physically is no longer enough to disappear totally, and obscuring digital information may not sufficiently hide the truth. As Ahearn put it, “You don’t even have to disappear anymore. With digital deception, you can create the illusion of disappearing.” Our selves are fluid, and we shift seamlessly between the physical and the digital. Harmonizing our physical being with its digital shadow—the unseemly events of college days; gossip, true or not—makes deception inevitable, whether you consider withholding information deception at all. When people can live one life but change age and gender online, deception can be called “avatar,” “casual encounter,” or “Facebook profile.” “Technology allows us to be who we want,” Ahearn said, “and it’s not always ourselves.” Paradoxically, maybe deception can be used to reclaim the essence of the truth—or whatever one projects as the truth.
I asked Frank if he had ever considered disappearing himself. “A lot,” he said. “I’ve been arrested, OD’d, broke, bankrupt, divorced, audited twice by the IRS, and homeless. Everything is uphill after that.” Rather than shrugging off, he escapes into books. Dostoyevsky and Bukowski are among his favorites. “I like writers who chose their own directions, those who said, ‘Fahk you.’ Writers speak what it is, and they do it in deception. Look at Oscar Wilde. He’s a guy who blasted society, and he did it with humor.” Despite the fact that Ahearn retired from formal education in the ninth grade, he enjoys laboring over arduous reads like Zola and Of Human Bondage. Writing is where he sees his future, because, he said, “I spent half my life lying and dealing with deception. Now I just want to do something halfway normal with the rest of it.” In addition to How to Disappear, he is working on his second book, How to Deceive, which is slated to come out this year; a young-adult novel called Skeleton Key; and a pilot episode of an hour-long TV drama, which Frank described as a show about five dysfunctional con men, “all based on me.” A disciplined writer, Frank hammers out his two-thousand-word quota every morning after drinking coffee and walking Reggae, a fluffy white Maltese. The typewriter he bought with his first unemployment check returned on the investment.
Ahearn said he is happy with the choices he made reinventing his business when he got bored, or when the jig was up. He seems to possess a sixth sense about how far he can push the limits of deception and the law without getting nabbed. “I got away with things in this business because I wasn’t greedy.” He doesn’t spend money on flashy things, but is saving for a certain apartment in Paris, where he wants to move when he enacts his “exit plan,” as he calls it, “because that sounds less nefarious than ‘disappearing.’” His life today is actually pretty dull. He writes, he orders takeout with his girlfriend in his West End Avenue apartment, he and Reggae spend weekends at his mother’s house outside the city. “I’m missing instant gratification in my life. I loved skip tracing because I loved the rush of finding somebody. There’s no instant gratification in disappearing or digital deception. The writing, the film stuff, the production bullshit… there’s no instant gratification. And I don’t even cheat [romantically speaking] anymore!” He misses drinking, too.
For most of his life, Ahearn was putting out fires—debt, divorce, addiction—working on the fringes of legality, so he became accustomed to fighting for his own survival. Now that his life has calmed down, he seems restless. But instead of gambling or playing golf, he is replacing the instant gratification he craves by placing ascetic demands on himself. For the past few years, he has been cleansing himself of material pleasures and possessions in order to enact the exit plan: “I went through this whole phase where I stopped eating gum. Now I’m changing what I eat. I haven’t had any junk. I went through a minimalist period where I got rid of all my plates and forks and cups. I kept just one, in case I ever had company. I give my books away; no one really gives a shit about Zola. My whole life fits in a bag.” But more than just preparing for his own escape, perhaps Ahearn is responding to the lesson he has learned from his businesses, both finding people and obscuring clients; the one universal feature he saw in all: “People are just people. We all have our wants. Unfortunately, life doesn’t let you have those wants.”