As some of you know, before I was a blogger, I spent many years as a Counterintelligence Agent, training and working with some of the best government agents and Special Forces personnel in the world. Most of that involved either conducting surveillance or counter-surveillance or activities where you had to know how blend in or find people trying to blend in.
Over the years, I saw some pretty common mistakes when it comes to doing things that give you away to someone who may be targeting you in situations that you may actually face someday.
This post won’t make you into a secret agent, but it may be the one thing that saves your life, whether you find yourself in a short-term natural disaster, are traveling through a foreign country with a high kidnapping rate, or even if some worst-case event happens and you find yourself living in a collapsed society like we’ve seen in several countries around the world.
1. Demeanor is your biggest ally and your biggest enemy
The absolute number one way I’ve gotten into places I wasn’t supposed to was by my demeanor. You learn early on in the military, or at least the Army, to “walk with a purpose.” That’s actually the biggest key to looking like you’re supposed to be somewhere and not standing out.
Luckily for security and surveillance personnel, most people get their infiltration and surveillance training from Hollywood – and they suck at it.
If you’re walking through an area and don’t want to be noticed, act like you’re supposed to be there. It helps to look like you’re in the middle of something important so they don’t automatically assume you’re just walking through.
If you’re not walking through and need to hang out for a while, you still need to try to not stand out. If all else fails, do what everyone else is doing. If people are mostly sitting in an area, you should be sitting. If they’re all studying, you should find something to read. You don’t want to be the odd man out.
If all else fails, there are a few tricks you can use.
If you’re a guy walking alone and want to stop in an area to get a good look, find the least-threatening person to sit down and strike up a conversation with as you carefully and naturally scan the grounds while you look like you’re recalling some old memory.
Find an old couple enjoying the view or sit down and watch a game of chess or dominoes. Just be aware that if the other side is familiar with the area, you won’t want to choose someone who they’ll remember like the crazy lady who shows up every day at 4:00 to feed the pigeons and by 4:01 has her own flock.
On the flip side, if you’re in an area where you may be at risk for someone targeting you for something like a kidnapping, unless they’re total noobs at it, they’re going to watch you for a while to get what’s called your “pattern of life.” They’ll watch where you go, when you go there, what routes you take, and what you do there and along the way. That way they can see where you’re most vulnerable as well as whether you’re an easy target.
This is where you’re the one looking for demeanor. Look for someone who doesn’t fit in. Look for the only guy in the park outside a college who isn’t studying or hitting on a co-ed. Look for the one guy sitting by himself trying to look deeply involved in something that he’s not actually doing. Yes, you’re actually looking for what you see in movies and TV here.
When people – even seasoned people – get stressed or really focused on their job, it takes a lot of mental energy. That energy is then put into watching the person instead of watching what they’re doing or how they’re acting. Maintaining body language that isn’t congruent with your intentions is hard work.
A great book to learn about body language is What Every Body Is Saying, written by an ex-FBI agent. The more you understand about body language, the more easily you’ll be able to identify things about people you wouldn’t have noticed before and the easier you’ll be able to not give away your tells.
Now don’t think for a moment that even trained government agents don’t make mistakes. Surveillance and counter-surveillance are definitely skill-based and even if you’ve had a lot of training, if you don’t actually get out there and do it every day, it’s really hard to get right.
One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is people getting tunnel vision with what they’re doing. I’ve seen them standing in the middle of a sidewalk, so transfixed on making sure they don’t lose their target that they don’t realize that they’re the only one not moving – and everyone is staring at them as they walk around them.
I’ve even seen one almost get arrested because he sat down on a bench to watch a guy coming his direction, not realizing that he was looking right through a playground at the approaching guy – through the monkey bars that were crawling with several elementary school girls. Obviously, if he didn’t take into account that it would be strange for a lone man in his thirties to walk up alone to a playground, sit down, and stare intently in the direction of little girls, he’s certainly not focused on his demeanor.
If you take the time to learn and pay attention to what you’re doing – and what everyone else is doing, you can get the upper-hand on even experienced people.
2. Dressing for OPSEC doesn’t mean a disguise
Here’s another one that gives a lot of people away – what you wear. A lot of people think that trying to not be noticed means wearing something. Don’t do that. Whether you’re trying to watch someone and not be noticed or trying to not be picked out of a crowd, the point isn’t to look different, it’s to not be noticed and remembered.
Your goal, whether you’re trying to walk through an area you might not supposed to be in, or you’re trying to not be the one picked out of the crowd to be their next victim, is not to look like someone else – it’s to not be noticed.
It’s also more than just not looking like you’re the one that has a big fat wad in their wallet or an expensive watch, you don’t want to be the one that catches their eye in a crowd so they see if you have a watch on in the first place.
Essentially, this is the same thing as your demeanor. In most cases, you’ll want to dress like others there. If everyone’s dressed in board shorts and t-shirts, you don’t want to be in a long-sleeved dress shirt and khakis. If you’re in the yuppie part of town, you don’t want to be dressed in a sweatsuit.
What you SHOULD shoot for, if the situation allows it, are certain clothes that will allow you to be more inconspicuous.
It may seem cliche but gray is a really good color to wear to not be noticed. Something like a gray hooded sweatshirt or jacket works usually because it’s usually common and can be worn over clothes that may be more obvious.
3. Don’t let your guard down at home
I spent a lot of years as a security advisor to different embassies and agencies around the world. That meant that I had to provide advice and reports of the TTPs (Tactics, Technics, and Procedures) of any threats, and any observed vulnerabilities, to embassy or government personnel living as I was – amongst the population.
One of the things I noticed was that once people got to their home, or hotel, or hut, they let their guard down. Now, granted, staying 100% vigilant at all moments isn’t possible, but there are certain things you can do to help keep your home from catching their notice or giving them info they could use to target you.
Just as with your demeanor and your dress, a key point is to not stand out.
If your neighbors park their car in the garage – you do too. If they have a clean yard – you do too.
Also, if you’re living in a foreign country, don’t have something like a Terrible Towel hanging in your window, or anything else that could give you away as a person not from around there. If anything, pick a local team or the host country’s flag.
Don’t forget some of the general security aspects at home either, that may allow someone to get an easier look to see if there’s something different about you.
Don’t let bushes grow next to your house that would allow someone to hide in them and peek in your windows and don’t forget that people can see in windows at night even when you can’t see out.
Don’t keep your garage door opener in your car if you ever park it outside – or any identifiable information about who you are and where you work. They may break in and grab those things or at least find a reason to target you further and ways to do just that.
4. Don’t give away your capabilities
If you somehow find yourself in a disaster scenario like Katrina or during one of many blackouts you’ll face in a third-world country, be careful if you dig out that loud generator. A quieter one like the Yamaha generator would be a much safer choice (and it’s a really good generator anyway but that’s for another post). If someone hears it going on at night, they’ll know your home is prepared for emergencies and will assume you have food and money as they sneak in and steal your generator after the lights go out.
Speaking of lights, if you’re going to use electricity at night in an area that doesn’t have it for some reason, you should black out your windows so the light doesn’t go out, and hang a blanket in the doorway so they can’t see it when you open the door. If an area’s been without power for a while, they’ll definitely see a bright like flash in the middle of the night.
Watch what you throw in the trash too. If someone’s going to target you for criminal activity or other, one of the things they’ll definitely do is “dumpster-dive” into your trash and see what they find. Do you have receipts for expensive merchandise? Do you have paperwork from your office that they shouldn’t see?
One of the ways I used to find people when I was a private investigator was to go through their trash or their home (in certain cases) and look for receipts. If I saw more than one receipt from a certain grocery store or Starbucks, I knew there was a decent chance they might show up again, because we’re all creatures of habit.
Also, if I saw a couple receipts that were from the same neighborhood across town but different days, I started looking for a person or connection in that area that they’d go to. You’d be surprised just what you can find about people just digging through their trash. Get a shredder and/or burn your papers.
5. If you look vulnerable, you look like a target
This one’s related to all the rest, and has been alluded to already, but it deserves to have its own section.
Whether you’re concerned about being the target of criminal activity or of some enemy force, you have to consider that sometimes you just won’t be able to blend in completely but you can still try not to stand out. There was certainly no way I blended in in the jungles of Africa, for example.
The obvious example is not wearing expensive jewelry or that nice watch I mentioned above, but it’s more than that. Certain things you do or wear can make you more inviting to an enemy that might have otherwise just passed you by.
Did you know that wearing that gray hooded sweater’s hood up can make you a target? Those hoods block your peripheral vision, and not only keep you from seeing behind and to the side – it LOOKS like you can’t see around you. Subconsciously you look more vulnerable even if they don’t realize it.
Same goes for headphones. When people are wearing headphones, they’re usually zoned out. People catch onto that and will assume (again, sometimes unconsciously) that you’re not paying attention – and are more vulnerable. When’s the last time you interrupted someone at a coffee shop or a park who was reading or typing while wearing headphones?
I work a LOT in coffee shops in my job, especially now with my new venture, and I can definitely tell you, I RARELY get interrupted if I’m wearing them. If you look lost in your own world, you look like you’re not paying attention to the world outside – because you probably aren’t.
Here’s one of the biggest things that will make you stand out as a target for those looking for a victim – TEXTING. Just as with headphones, people who are staring into their cell phones, texting away about their day are not paying attention to the world around them – especially if they’re walking. What makes it harder is that if you occasionally look up and around while you’re texting so you don’t look like a target – now you just popped up on their radar if you weren’t previously. People don’t normally do that.
Unless you absolutely have to, lay off the texting if you’re trying to blend in and keep yourself safe. The only real trick I know that works is to be walking with someone else who appears vigilant (but not overly-so) while you tap-tap-tap away on your phone.
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