Want to break free? Meet Frank M. Ahearn, a real life "Disappear man"
Frank M. Ahearn is more familiar than most with that need to escape. He’s heard it hundreds of times, from hundreds of people with hundreds of different reasons for wanting to go and not come back. “People have what I call ‘The palm tree dream,’” he says, “We all want to disappear, go to the beach and live under a palm tree.” And although he has waved many clients off into this balmy sunset, he always requires the answer to one question: “What are you running from?”
The response varies, Frank explains, but for most it’s a desire to simply live a more discreet existence: people in the public eye, say, a wealthy business person, may want their family life to remain under the radar or an abortion doctor wants to ensure that their home address is private. However, there are others too, running from responsibility, predators and even crime - and he’s had help requests from them all.
Frank started out as a private investigator, became a ‘skip tracer’ (someone who finds people who’ve gone on the run) and later, flipped the knowledge he’d acquired to become an expert in helping people disappear. This occurred thanks to a chance encounter in a bookstore, he was standing in-line behind a man who bought a book on off-shore banking and privacy in Costa Rica, which he paid for with his credit card. Frank struck up a conversation with the man, told him who he was and how easy it would be to find him: he’d use some clever wrangling with the credit card company, find the bookstore, find out that he bought books about Costa Rica then call some airlines and car rental companies and inevitably track him down. It turned out that the man in question was a corporate whistle-blower and later called Frank and asked if he’d help him disappear. Frank agreed and his new line of work was founded. He subsequently became an expert in the art of disappearing and even wrote a successful book, How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish Without a Trace.
So, back to those people who request Frank’s services, “When people contact me there’s always that fork in the road when something catastrophic has happened or is going to happen, you know? Many of us, when shit goes wrong in our lives, we just flee, kind of the natural thing to do. There are times when I talk to people and I say, ‘Look, if you flee now, you’re going to make matters worse. Sometimes you gotta face the music.’” He goes on to tell me, “I had this young kid who was like early 20’s and did something stupid and was facing legal problems, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re 22 years old: you’re going to go on the run, you’ll get busted and you’re going to end up in prison for ten years.’” Frank talked him down, explaining what being on the run would mean, “You can’t get a job – you’re going to have to steal to make a living, then you’ll get arrested for stealing. So now you’re arrested for the crime you committed, being on the run and then a new crime: you’re going to turn six months into six years.” The man faced his crime, was convicted and incarcerated for a few months. Frank is philosophical about this, “A lot of times I sit with people and make them look at what is true freedom. So, that kid gave up his freedom in order to gain a greater sense of freedom for the future.”
Frank considers the subject of freedom, it’s something he think about a lot, particularly as he needs to understand what freedom means to his clients before he helps them disappear. I ask Frank what freedom is to him, “Choice,” he says, “freedom is about mobility.” So, what about the freedom of cutting ties, leaving behind frightening circumstances or running from a life we don’t want to be a part of? “Being on the run is never fun for anybody,” he says. Frank talks about those who feel that their only choice is to run, people who are trying to escape violence or stalkers, explaining that running away will mean that they will always have to, simply because their predator would still be out there. He believes that sometimes we need to face our most terrifying challenges and then we can truly be free. Frank has on occasion given this advice to women desperate to flee violent partners, recommending they seek police help or women’s refuge assistance rather than leaving their entire lives behind.
It seems that as many clients Frank agrees to ‘disappear’, he counsels just as many to the point where they don’t need his help. In his role as advisor, he has developed a theory worth retaining, “When somebody tells me a situation, it’s always best to do the one that’s going to create the least amount of damage in your life,” he says. Furthermore, he encourages his clients to think their whole escape strategy through, recounting the story of a man “[Who has] hundreds of thousands of dollars and wants to disappear ‘cos he hates his world and this and that. I’m like, ‘Ok that’s great but what happens when the money runs out? You can only live so long on a hundred thousand dollars, you know. And you’re living in a foreign country and what you going to do? Teach English and make ten bucks an hour?’”
This ability to counsel his clients with such insight is one of the reasons that Frank has changed-up his services, wise to the fact that helping people disappear would eventually run its course, for him at least. A few months ago, he posted on his website that he’s no longer in the disappearing or digital deception business, writing “My focus is working with individuals who are transitioning from Point A to Point B. Not because they are disappearing from a predator or stalker but looking to create a lifestyle based on freedom.” This approach sees him coaching people how to live with a balance of privacy and freedom –which in the modern world aren’t mutually exclusive. His thinking is, to achieve a certain level of freedom, you often need to lose some privacy, such as share private details and information with banks and businesses so that you can live and operate in a freer way. Perhaps you want to run your business from an exotic country: your life still needs to function; you need Wi-Fi under those palm trees, he explains. “You want to be able to say, live in the Bahamas and have your business out of Hong Kong, but bank out of Lisbon, how do we set this up? You do have to give away a certain amount of freedom. Or a certain amount of information about yourself.”
There were other reasons why Frank altered his services, he tells me, stories of violence from victims were starting to take their toll, plus there was an increase in calls from people wanting him to do illegal things, “the guy who emails me and says, ‘Listen, I’m going to be arrested and I need a new identity,’ and I’m like, ’What do I look like, the identity Amazon?’” However, what eventually tipped the balance was the “crazy stuff”: there were the conspiracy theorists; then people calling to ask if he thought they’d been ‘beamed up’; and someone else wanting him to follow them around New York twenty-four seven to make sure that they weren’t being followed. The crazy requests and Frank’s patience peaked when Frank was “Talking to a client and he says to me he ‘wants to know if Karma is stalking him,’ and it was at that point I was like, ‘I’m not taking this shit anymore, I’m just not doing it.’”
Today, Frank is in the middle of a bit of personal disappearing and making his own A to B transition. He’s thinking about what’s next, currently residing in Spain, notably avoiding ham, (“It’s like the land of ham – God, if you’re a pig in this country you ain’t got a shot in hell”), changed his image from the one you’ll find online, (he’s tired of this “dark sunglasses long hair sort of person”) and he’s also fallen in love. He’s still skip tracing to pay the bills and writes an entertaining blog filled with ex-pat musings, disappearing tips and recent skip trace victories. His skip trace tales make for a great read, occupying your mind like mini-thrillers, as he relates, for example, the tracing of a man dodging a serious lawsuit: he Facebook-friends them, flirts successfully (pretending to be a female), subsequently obtains their email and phone number and then poses as a delivery firm to ascertain their address and when they’ll be home. It’s slick, impressive and you can appreciate why he still does it.
So, in conclusion what about us still looking for some tangible freedom, could he share some sage words of advice for those who feel escape is their only choice? “There’s always an option,” says Frank, “I always point that out to people. You may not like it but sometimes you gotta deal with that option.” But what if we just want to disappear to under a palm tree? Frank tells me a story, “There’s this person who said ‘I need to disappear,’ I said, ’Why?’ and they said, ‘I just want to,’ so I was like, ‘Well, go on vacation.’”
Frank’s blog and links to his services can be found here http://www.frankahearn.com