In an increasingly dangerous world, counter surveillance and situational awareness are skills everyone should learn and practice in their everyday lives.
Actual surveillance photo (Above) from many years ago that I took while on surveillance during a large drug transaction. This couple was attempting counter surveillance prior to the “meet” with their supplier.
Of my combined twenty-five years in law enforcement, fifteen years of that was working in a position where I conducted surveillance and counter surveillance operations almost every day. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the best in the business.
Types Of Surveillance
There are many types of surveillance used by law enforcement agencies. However, we will only discuss basic surveillance techniques used by common criminals. To understand counter surveillance, you need to understand the many facets of surveillance.
- Pre-Operational Surveillance
- Fixed Surveillance
- Mobile Surveillance
- Probing Surveillance
The purpose of this article is NOT to educate crooks. I will not discuss sources or methods used by law enforcement. It is also not my intention to make folks paranoid.
The purpose of this article is simply to share tips I’ve accumulated over the years and offer techniques everyone should learn and use in their everyday life that may keep them from becoming a victim of a crime or worse.
Pre-Operational surveillance is usually conducted to some degree by bad guys ranging from mere purse snatchers to terrorists. This type of surveillance commonly known as “Casing” a target and could involve seconds, minutes, hours or days, depending on the intent and the sophistication of the bad guys.
During the pre-operational phase, the bad guys will be attempting to determine the intended target’s strengths and weaknesses. The bad guys are also most exposed and vulnerable during this phase.
In the case of a purse snatcher, he or she is likely watching to see who is paying attention to their surroundings and who is distracted by kids, their phone, or who has earphones in as they walk down a street, jogging path, or through a parking lot.
Parking Lots, For Example
Unfortunately, a great number of robberies, theft from person crimes, kidnappings, etc, occur in a shopping center or apartment parking lots where the victim feels comfortable and becomes complacent. It’s best not to draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy jewelry, expensive purse, flashy car, etc. It’s sad that it’s come to that, but your chances of becoming a target goes up if you advertise you have money.
When attempting to pick off criminal surveillance, keep in mind that gender, skin color, or manner of dress is not necessarily an indicator. Bad guys and girls come in all shapes and sizes. At the same time, do not allow political correctness to turn you into a victim. Nine out of ten times, their body language and their eyes will give them away.
If you’ve ever been in a parking lot and had someone approach you asking for money, directions, or simply making odd comments about your appearance or possessions that are visible, chances are you were being probed. Chances are, if they are preparing to attack, they will be looking around to evaluate potential witnesses.
While the eyes are the window to the soul, it’s their hands that will hurt you so watch their hands. One hand in a pocket or otherwise hidden can be a danger sign, but keep in mind they may feel that they do not need a weapon to take what you have.
Probing surveillance can quickly turn into an attack. For instance, if you pull cash out to peel off a dollar, but you have more money visible, the chances of becoming a victim just sky-rocketed.
Probing surveillance at your home or apartment will often consist of one or more subjects knocking on your door either asking for someone you won’t know or help of some sort (car ran out of gas or some other reason they need to use your phone). Most of the time, the would-be crooks are just checking to see if anyone is home and will quickly leave, however, some crooks will force their way into your home if you open the door.
If you do not open the door and lead them to believe that no one is home, they may break into your home thinking no one is there.
It’s best to call 911 in these cases, because at the very least, they may be questioned and identified as suspects in other such crimes in the area. This would be a good time to arm yourself. Advise 911 that you are armed so the responding officers will be sure to announce themselves.
In my state (Texas), once a bad guy forces entry into your home, they are fair game. Obviously, that is something you will have to research pertaining to the laws of your state. Unfortunately, these days, you could still suffer civil penalties not to mention the trauma of such an event.
Try this exercise the next time you go to the grocery store. Think of yourself as entering the “danger zone” as soon as you pull into the parking lot. Most people will simply be looking for the best parking space possible and will often miss potential danger signs such as subjects sitting in vehicles who are watching who is coming and going from the store.
An occupied vehicle that is backed into a parking space could possibly indicate that the occupant(s) may be prepared for a quick getaway. You could very well be witnessing what’s called “Fixed Surveillance.” Take the time to look around the parking lot for such activity. You will be practicing counter surveillance.
If you do see people sitting in vehicles, 99% of the time, they will simply be waiting on someone that in the store. If you can see them well enough, attempt to observe if they appear to be watching random people walking through the parking lot. Either way, make a mental note of the vehicle and occupants and park well away from them if you feel they are suspicious.
Keep in mind that you are most likely safe until the moment you park and open your door to exit your vehicle. Once you exit your vehicle, before closing the door (in case you need to retreat back into your vehicle from a threat), take a moment to scan the parking lot as best you can for anyone that may be looking directly at you in a suspicious manner. A vehicle that is parked, but then moves closer to where you parked could also a danger sign.
You may be surprised to notice things such as a woman leaving her purse in the shopping cart as she loads up her car with kids or groceries. That’s just asking for trouble. I would put the purse in the car while putting the kids in the car and then take another moment to look around to see if you are being watched or approached. Do this every time you’ve taken your eyes off of your surroundings.
Before leaving the safety of the store, take a moment or two to scan the parking lot and evaluating potential threats. Look for anyone that is paying just a little too much attention to you. If a crook is planning to do something bad, he or she will immediately look away after locking eyes. Chances are, if he or she is too far away to go through with their plan, they will likely choose a target that is not paying attention to their surroundings. Most crooks are looking for someone that they can approach without being detected until it’s too late.
Self Defense In These Situations
Personally, I feel like every law abiding citizen should have the means to protect themselves. If you do carry a weapon such as a pistol, always have it where you can get to it. Without A LOT of practice, good luck getting to your ankle holster if someone surprises you.
If you carry a purse, have the pistol in your hand inside the purse as you walk to your car. At close range, you shouldn’t need to remove the handgun from your purse to be accurate at close range. Sorry about your purse.
Simply do what’s called “Point Shooting” meaning you’re simply using hand-eye coordination to shoot without using your sights. It’s a good idea to practice and learn this skill.
Rolling Or Mobile Counter Surveillance
While I believe shopping center or apartment parking lots are far more dangerous, it’s always possible some nut or crook could key in on you on the roadway and decide to follow you home.
Rolling or mobile surveillance can be challenging to even a full team seasoned professionals. One person attempting to “tail” you should be easy to pick off if you are paying attention to your surroundings.
Chances are, such an incident will stem from some sort of road rage incident so you will know which car to watch. DO NOT GO HOME. If you do believe you’re being followed, call 911 and drive to the nearest police or fire station. You can also coordinate with 911 a public place where you and the police officers could meet to hopefully prevent the event from escalating.
Stalkers, Known Or Unknown
If you believe you are being stalked, you are probably already on heightened alert. Whether the stalker is an estranged ex or simply an acquaintance, you probably know the stalker even if you don’t know exactly who it is that’s stalking you. Unfortunately, in most states, it’s a very difficult crime to prosecute and will take multiple reports to satisfy most prosecutors.
Simple counter surveillance techniques that will assist you in proving or disproving whether or not you are in fact being followed are called “heat checks.” A heat check is an action that you take to provoke a reaction from the person you believe may be following you.
If you are on say a three lane highway, move to the far inside lane. Inexperienced people attempting surveillance will often attempt to stay close to their target and will often change lanes with their target. If traffic is clear enough, when approaching an exit, pull all the way across all three lanes and take the exit. The person following you will have no choice but to continue on or follow you across the lanes and thus, exposing himself and his activities.
On surface streets, if you believe you are being followed, attempt to be “number one” or first at a stop light. Once it’s clear, run the light. Obviously, this is dangerous and illegal, but again, it will force the person following you to either wait for the light and hope he can catch up to you once the light changes or he will run the light and expose him and his activities. In a perfect scenario, there will be at least one car behind you and in front of the bad guy and he won’t be able to run the light to follow you even if he or she wants to do so.
Another risky, but effective technique is to make an abrupt U-turn. Again, you are attempting to provoke a reaction from the person you believe may be attempting to follow you.
Dead-end streets are good for picking off surveillance. However, it can also quickly turn into a trap if your car is blocked. Once your car is stopped or blocked in, you could be in serious danger.
What If I’m Not Sure?
In the event you’re not sure enough to call 911 or commit traffic violations, a good technique to practice is surface street heat checks. Imagine you are driving home after work, and you notice a vehicle that keeps changing lanes with you on the highway and then takes the same exit off of the highway.
Obviously, this happens every day out of sheer coincidence. As you drive through your neighborhood, observe if the same vehicle keeps turning with you. As you get close to your street, drive around a block or two making multiple turns to see if the vehicle attempts to stay with you. If it does, lead them away from your home and call 911.
It’s also not a bad idea to know or even utilize alternate routes on a regular basis. This could come in handy in many different situations.