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Staying One Step Ahead: Recognizing and Responding to Surveillance Threats

One of the realities of being the victim of any crime is that you are always one step behind the assailant. They always have the initiative. They choose the place and the time, and they make the first move. All you can do is react. That makes it critically important to take advantage of whatever opportunities you can to be proactive.

Is Worrying About Surveillance Paranoia?

USACarry recently ran an excellent article discussing the Pre-Attack Behavior of Active Killers. In the article, the author pointed out that people intending to carry out an attack often exhibit similar behaviors that could provide an early warning. The same is often true of anyone looking for a target for their next crime.

In my career, I have conducted training and counter-surveillance for business executives, leaders of civil rights organizations, international contractors, and aid workers operating in high-risk regions. Although you may not consider yourself a high-value target to criminals and terrorists, recognizing that you, your home, or your workplace might be under surveillance could give you advance warning that a problem is brewing. If that sounds like paranoia, then you should probably consider a few things.

Criminals generally observe a business before robbing it. They may also go in to check out the layout. Likewise, criminals intent on targeting a house will often observe it to determine how many people live there, what their patterns are, and the best time to commit a burglary or home invasion. They may also watch for indicators like boxes from expensive items like big-screen televisions being left for the trash collector.

Victims of assaults, abductions, and rapes are frequently assaulted when they participate in regular activities. Things like jogging and walking the dog often follow a pattern of time and routes. Someone intending an attack may watch their target to plan their assault.

Active shooters are generally familiar with the venue in which they intend to carry out their attack. They may have worked or gone to school there or still do. If it is a recreational venue like a club, cinema, or restaurant, they will often go there to determine the best way to enter and carry out their act of violence.

Exes frequently stalk and surveil their former partners before taking violent action. My son’s girlfriend was murdered by her ex after she had divorced him. He had observed her in enough detail to know her patterns, where her apartment was, and where she normally parked. When she came home one evening, he was waiting and shot her eight times before she could get out of the car. She was on the phone with my son when it happened. The protective order that was in effect was not a deterrent.

The chances of being the victim of a crime are reasonably low, depending on where you live. But they are not zero. It’s not paranoia if there really is a chance of being victimized. It’s better not to be taken unaware.

The Who and Why of Surveillance

Unless you are a public figure, a wealthy business executive, or have a vengeful ex, it may be tempting to ask why anyone would bother watching you. You must realize they may not be surveilling you as a specific individual; they are more likely watching you as a potential victim or your home or business as a possible target. Being concerned about surveillance and taking precautions has no downside, but ignoring it if it happens could have devastating repercussions. Better safe than sorry.

Who Carries Out Surveillance?

The environment in the United States is safer than most other parts of the world where I have provided security services, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any risks. Many petty criminals are opportunists, selecting victims based on whatever opportunities present themselves. However, there are other bad actors out there who take a more organized approach to selecting victims and locations for crimes. These include:

  • Criminals intent on property crimes like burglary or home invasions.
  • Kidnappers and sex offenders, particularly those who target children.
  • Persons casing businesses for robberies or burglaries.
  • Persons planning an active shooter attack.
  • Terrorists planning an attack (I’m grouping persons planning hate crimes in this category).
  • Hostile ex-partners and stalkers.

Any of the people in these categories may surveil potential victims or locations for hours or days before acting. Surveillance has distinct patterns.

Things to Look For

We, as human beings, see a lot more than we realize. Your eyes take in everything they pass over when looking in any given direction. The trick is to take notice of what you’re seeing so that it registers in your brain. This requires awareness, something that is often in short supply. Be observant and take notice of your surroundings. Things to look for include:

People you seem to keep running into or who look familiar even though you know you’ve never met them. This is important when you’re walking around as it could indicate someone who has been following you or keeping track of your location.

When at work or home try to make opportunities to look out the windows. Pay attention to what is going on and if anyone is hanging around outside.

Unfamiliar vehicles parked nearby or repeatedly passing by your home or place of business. Watch especially for vehicles that seem to come and go for no apparent reason or that seem to pass back and forth several times a day or across the span of several days. Also, watch for parked vehicles with people sitting in them.

When at work, watch for people entering who don’t seem to be there to do business of any kind. People who claim they wandered into the wrong place or who ask random questions or ask for directions may be gathering information.

When at home, be wary of people who come to the door claiming to be looking for an address or who try to pass themselves off as being from a delivery or utility company. They may also claim to be salespeople. Knocking on a door is a good way to determine who is home at the moment if anyone is.

Searching through trash is not as common when an individual or business is being surveilled by criminals as it is when in some other types of surveillance, but it is an effective way for someone to know if you have made expensive purchases lately. Watch for any indications that someone has been looking through your trash bin.

Social Media

Social media is one of the easiest and most effective means of tracking people or businesses there is. People post way too much information on social media. They reveal travel plansdaily routines, and post pictures of themselves and their homes. They even brag about their latest purchases complete with photos. 

A Facebook page or an Instagram account is a rich source of information for anyone conducting surveillance or sizing up their next target. Decide if you really want the world to know something before posting anything that might provide valuable information to someone you don’t want to have it.

What to do if You Are Being Followed

The kind of surveillance being carried out will match what you are doing at the moment. If you are static or stationary, at home or work, the surveillance will be static as wellBut if you are moving, the surveillance will have to move, too. 

Recognizing static surveillance is mainly a matter of looking for people who are watching you. If someone is watching you and transitions from static to mobile when you do, they may be doing so to keep track of you. If someone is following you when you are in motion, there are more variables to consider and more actions you can take than if they are static.

Being Followed While Walking

If you are being followed while you are walking, there are two things you need to do. The first is to verify if you are actually being followed. The second is to ensure you don’t end up in a situation where you may be assaulted.

First and foremost, do not panic. If someone is following you, suddenly speeding up or looking around wildly will tip them off that you are aware of them. Panic will also cloud your judgment and impair clear thinking. Remain calm and think rationally.

Find ways to subtly look around behind you on both sides of the street. Use your peripheral vision. Feign interest in a nice car or something in a store window. Be natural.

Use common reasons to stop and look around. Crosswalks and traffic lights give you an excuse to stop and glance around naturally. Look for someone who abruptly stops when you do.

Cross the street, but make it look legitimate. Look in a store window after you cross or perform some other action to make it look like you had a reason to cross. The act of turning to cross the street will allow you to look back the way you came and see if someone is following you. If you spot someone, avoid making eye contact.

Step into a store and look out the front window or door to see if anyone on the street stops walking. Also, look for anyone walking by after you who looks into the store where you are.

Fake them out. Walk a little way past a store, then suddenly stop, turn around, and go in. The object is to do something that takes them by surprise, forcing them to react. This may cause them to suddenly stop, do a doubletake, or shuffle uncertainly.

Use a box pattern. This is done by making a series of right or left turns that will take you in a full circle. No one behind you is going to do that unless they are following you.

If you determine someone is following you, do not try to run from them. Stay somewhere public and keep an eye on them. Call the police and provide a description of the person.

Being Followed While Driving

Determining if you are being followed while driving introduces a whole new set of variables. 

Again, do not panic. Keep a clear head and act rationally. Do not speed up or ignore traffic signals in an attempt to lose someone you think is following you.

Determine for sure if you are being followed. Stop heading directly for your original destination and make a few random turns or a U-turn. Use the box pattern to make several left or right-hand turns. If the car behind you follows you through one turn, it means nothing. If it follows you through two turns, it could still be a coincidence. If it follows you through three turns, you are being followed.

You can also try slowing down to see if they slow down too or go around you. However, do not do this in an isolated area, as you may allow them to crowd you off the road if that is their goal.

Do not let them know you are aware they are following you. That could precipitate some hostile action on their part. Continue to drive normally

Do not drive home. That will only lead them to someplace you don’t want them to be.

Call the police and explain what is happening. They may send a car to check out the situation or get your location and send a car to meet you. Alternatively, if there is a police station close by, drive there.

If there are no police close by, then drive to a busy public location. Stay in your car and see what the following car does. I would not recommend getting out to confront them if they follow you, even if you are armed. 

What to Do If You Are Being Surveilled

Unlike if someone is actively following you, your response is less clear-cut if you believe someone is watching you, your home, or your business. If you have a positive description of the person who has been watching you, you can provide it to the police. If it is an ex, you will recognize them and know who they are.

However, unless the police can arrest the person, for example, if there is a protective order or they are wanted on some other charge, there may be nothing they can or will do. In that case, it is up to you to increase your vigilance and be prepared for anything. At least knowing for sure that you are being watched will give you a head start on taking extra precautions.

At a very minimum, ensure your family members or coworkers are aware of the situation and the people you believe are watching you. Discuss in advance what actions they should take if they see the same person or persons.

Awareness is Not Paranoia

Being aware of your surroundings and taking reasonable precautions is not paranoia. Unless a person conducting surveillance is a highly skilled professional, they will do things that will tip you off that they are watching you, your home, or your business. Paying attention to those hints could mean the difference between being prepared and being taken by surprise.

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