I’ve had the pleasure of teaching surveillance and counter-surveillance to many federal agents, intelligence agents, and Special Forces Soldiers in my years. I’ve also had the unfortunate privilege of having to use these techniques in real life. I thought I’d give you some hints that I’ve learned and taught over the years.
So why would you really need to know something like this? I’m not coming at this from the viewpoint of you actually needing to hide from surveillance. That would actually require some hands-on training, not to mention a security clearance. However, some of the basics that protect covert and clandestine agents can be useful in keeping you from standing out in a crowd.
Keeping a low profile helps keep you from being singled out by criminals when traveling into bad neighborhoods or overseas. Bad guys will sometimes act on instinct and just like animal predators, will pick out the one in the herd that stands out from the rest. Same goes for getting your way through and out of a riot or just a bunch of hooligans who are looking to have some fun with an unsuspecting target. The stealthier you act and look, the safer you’ll be.
So let’s look at some key secrets that can keep you from being singled out in a crowd.
1) Go with the flow
If you’re watching a crowd of people walk through a park and everyone’s walking down a path in one direction but you’re walking the wrong way, you look different. Even worse if you’re just standing there while others are walking around.
Same thing goes for where you park your car. You may think that your car is safer if you park it out in the open but thatís actually not true in a lot of cases. Your car stands out from the rest, so if it has any other tells on it like expensive 20″ rims, someoneís going to take notice.
Essentially, when you’re in an area, or just passing through, take a moment to get a feel for what the majority of people are doing and then do the same thing.
2) Pay attention to your gut
Ever had the feeling you were being watched? Your subconscious will notice someone’s gaze or actions even if you don’t realize it. Sometimes your body will react.
The most obvious reaction you might have is just a general sense that something’s wrong. You can’t explain it. When you get this feeling, you should assume that the feeling is real and take action. It may be the hair standing up on the back of your neck, butterflies in your stomach, or just some unidentifiable reaction. You may have just stumbled into an area where someone’s looking for an easy target.
If this happens, just calmly get yourself out of the area. Don’t spend too much energy trying to figure out what’s causing the feeling. If you start looking around to find the source, you’ll stand out and may then become a target where you weren’t before or cause them to take action before you can get to safety. Just move out like nothing’s wrong.
The reason this helps you be stealthy is that a potential adversary won’t know that you have that feeling but that feeling can give you a silent clue that you need to quietly take action. If you react outwardly, you’ll stand out.
3) Look for your tells
This is similar to above but sometimes you may not even have a bad feeling that you’ll notice when your subconscious sees something threatening. Sometimes you’ll just have an urge to move a certain way or cover up part of your body, just like poker players do when they have a good or bad hand. These are called tells.
One common reaction that a lot of people exhibit when they feel threatened is to protect the neck and throat. This is a pacifying action that helps relieve the stress of some threat. Some may reach back and grab or absent-mindedly massage the back of their neck and some may put their hand in front to cover their suprasternal notch (the dimple under your throat). Some will stroke or even gently pull on the fleshy area above the Adam’s apple or start playing with a necklace. Women will typically use their fingers to cover an area and men will typically use their full hand, but those are generalities.
This is an important thing to pay attention to because not only will it give you a clue that you’ve noticed something that makes you uncomfortable, it can also give that clue to others. If no one around is acting uncomfortable and you start, you’ll stand out. They may be looking for tells.
Start paying attention to what you subconsciously do when you feel uncomfortable or threatened and if you find yourself doing that somewhere, just start heading for a safe area without giving away the fact that youíre uncomfortable.
4) Act “normal”
If you’ve watched cop/criminal shows or any espionage-related ones, you’ve inevitably seen a guy look around sneakily before passing a note. That really stands out. People don’t normally act that way. Normal is what everyone else is doing.
If you’re traveling through an area in another country and start to get an uneasy feeling, try to act like the locals as much as possible. You may not be able to help being a foot taller than everyone else or having a different color of skin but outsiders who act like locals are much less likely to be targeted by pickpockets, scammers, or kidnappers.
There are certain actions that tourists do that locals don’t. Locals don’t walk around with a map in their hand or stop on a street corner and pull one out while looking at the street signs. If you have to figure out where youíre at with a map, do it out of view.
Oh, and remember the paying attention to your body thing? If you start getting the sense that you’re being followed or watched, don’t start looking around all nervous. That may trigger the bad guys into action before you can get yourself to a safe area. The “normal” in this case is your normal. If you’ve been acting a certain way, don’t give away the fact that you’re heading toward a safe area or are about to duck into a shop and out another exit. Act like nothing’s changed.
5) Dress “normal”
The key to blending in in a crowd is to go with the flow with your clothes too. If the majority of people are wearing dress clothes, like in a business district, you’d fit in better wearing dress clothes. If they’re all wearing cutoff jeans and a muscle shirt, then you’re really going to stand out wearing dress clothes. The key here is to dress like the natives do.
You may find yourself wearing something that you can’t really change. Sometimes just changing how you wear it can help. If youíre wearing business clothes and find yourself in a non-business area, do what you can to dress down. It may make sense to just wear your t-shirt or to just pull out your shirt and take off your tie like you’ve been working in a different part of town and are now back home after work.
6) Be boring
In most cases, you won’t be able to change what you’re wearing so choose wisely.
Bright clothing and fancy jewelry may make you feel all happy and fashionable but it makes you stand out, which is why people dress that way in the first place. The gray man isn’t just a nebulous figure. Gray is an excellent color because it doesn’t draw attention. It’s the most neutral of neutral colors.
The fewer items on you that a person can notice, the better. If all they see when looking at you through a crowd is a neutral-colored jacket, jeans, and a conservative hairdo/haircut, theyíll most likely look right past you as something else catches their eye.
Try to dress so that nothing on you stands out. Trendy sunglasses, a unique hat, or fancy shoes attract attention. Anything as simple as a watch can get their attention.
The secret to not being noticed isn’t to look different than you normally do, it’s to not give them anything in particular that draws their attention. If you take notice of what you’re doing, what you’re wearing, what you’re feeling, and how you’re acting, you can help ensure that no one else will.
About the Author
Scott Kelley is a combat veteran of the United States Army and former Intelligence Officer. He has operated in several countries throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He has trained and worked with intelligence and Special Forces units in operations such as surveillance/counter-surveillance, HUMINT, and Counter-Terrorism. He operates a website called Graywolf Survival where he uses real-world experience to teach wilderness and disaster survival skills.