STREET SMARTS: Countersurveillance Techniques

“Are ‘they’ watching you?”

This is one of the first questions used to determine if you are in need of commitment to an in-patient facility, but it is also a question that you should ask yourself while conducting the business of daily life. The “they” in question are not the Boogeyman, the Tri-Lateral Commission, or even the Methodists, but rather those common criminal folks who mean you harm.

Just as terrorists conduct surveillance before hitting a target, it is common for the crooks of the world to carry out “intelligence gathering” (very much an ironic term in this instance) prior to striking, regardless if the goal is kidnapping, robbery, assault, or simple burglary. While a discussion of “counter-surveillance measures” might seem like giving too much credit where it isn’t due, the principles are very much the same.

Most folks are incredulous if they find out someone has been watching their activities, but burglars and kidnappers having been doing it for years. In fact, any criminal worth his stolen credit card will conduct a bit of surveillance to determine when you are at work, arrive home, check the mail, or other such routine activities.

Regardless of your relative importance or anonymity in the grand scheme of things, the odds are good that even little old you could become the subject of a tail or “shadow.”

I once had an experience wherein I discovered two of the local criminal class digging through my trash early one morning. I quickly sent the pair packing with a stern and vivid warning, but something didn’t feel right, so I did some further checking.

I soon learned that another officer on my department had likewise recently caught a known associate of my two visitors going through his trash. Though only two incidents, the possibility of a coincidence had grown thinner, and I alerted other officers that there might be intel-gathering efforts targeting area cops.

Some co-workers were dubious that the local talent could put together such a coherent strategy, but most took the concern seriously and kept a little closer watch around their own homes. As it turned out, the narcotics unit later discovered an organized effort to keep tabs on local officers by a group of drug dealers.

The defense against such surveillance is twofold and fairly simple, spy novels notwithstanding. First, we’ll trot out our monthly reminder of “situational awareness.” If you are constantly aware of your general surroundings, you will realize if you have seen the same person too frequently or in multiple suspicious circumstances. This should send up a big red flag.

The prime example is: How often do you monitor your car’s rearview mirror? From my own experiences tailing people, it is apparent that the vast majority of folks don’t ever look in the rearview mirror except to pick their teeth at a stoplight. They never saw me, even when directly behind them, sometimes in a marked police car!

Once you are watching your back (and everything else) with regularity, another general concept makes it exceedingly difficult for someone to gather information on you: randomness. This idea is so very simple but needs to be applied whenever possible to travel routes, daily routine, and many other facets of your life.

The point: Within the parameters of normal living, if you can vary your activities even to a small degree, it will be much more difficult to set you up for a crime. Unfortunately, you and I are all very much creatures of habit. For instance, consider my on-duty drinking habits. I’m not referring to that fine Kentucky Holy Water but rather the 98-ounce SuperGulp soft drink that many cops habitually grab when starting a shift.

Often during my career, I realized I had fallen into the habit of stopping at the same gas station at approximately the same time every day. Getting stuck in such a pattern is merely laying a trap for yourself.

Another more common example is the managers of retail establishments who make their daily bank deposit at the same time and place every day. Such routine merely tells even the most opiate-addled junkie where he can wait with a kitchen knife to grab a bag full of cash. I’ve handled that particular robbery several times.

When people such as bank workers or diplomats are given anti-kidnap training, they are constantly told to avoid routine, especially in times and routes of travel. Unfortunately, most of these people think such precautions are simply melodramatic rubbish spouted by paranoid security people, at least until after a kidnapping or assault. Then everybody is gung-ho, even though the proverbial horse has left the barn and run over the horizon.

Even home security is enhanced by randomness. Vary the number and location of lights left on inside when you go away overnight, because that solitary living-room light on a standard timer fools no one. If you can have someone periodically change the position of draperies, vehicles in the driveway, or even outside furniture, potential burglars will think twice before hitting what they thought was an empty house.

There are approximately a billion more examples of this concept, but hopefully you have understood the gist of our discussion.

If a criminal can reasonably predict where you will be tomorrow at this time, he can set up a huge surprise party—and it certainly won’t involve birthday cake!

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