How to Tell If You Are Being Followed -- And What to Do About It
Usually, gaining followers is a good thing, but in the world of former Green Beret Sergeant Major (retired) Karl Erickson, it takes on a much darker -- and sometimes deadly -- meaning. As a member of Special Forces and later as a contractor, Erickson has been to many places in the world where Americans routinely get kidnapped for financial and political gain.
If you are planning on traveling in high-risk areas (Mexico still tops the list for abductions) or just walking through a sketchy part of town, here are some methods Erickson suggests to determine if you have a tail and what to do about it.
Related: How to Tell if Someone Is Lying
Don't be so predictable.
“You need to understand that ‘random acts of violence’ usually aren’t random at all. People who kidnap Americans overseas don’t just wake up and say, ‘Let’s grab someone today.’ They do a lot of surveillance," Erickson says. "They look for travel patterns of Americans in hotels. What time do you leave? Where do you go? Is there anything predictable about your movements? So job one is to make your movements as unpredictable as possible. Sometimes take the stairs, sometimes take the elevator. Leave and return at varying times. Don’t always follow the same path out on the streets.”
Recognize the signs that you have an unwanted admirer.
According to Erickson, there are many things you can look for, and a lot of them you’ve seen in the movies:
- Multiple sightings of the same person or vehicle over the course of a day
- Travelers who get on and off public transportation with you
- Diners in restaurants who get up and leave after you without eating their food
- People sitting in a restaurant who aren’t eating at all
- A jogger who is standing near you, stretching for what feels like too much time
- Gut feeling -- always trust your gut
Confirm that you're not just being paranoid.
Erickson is a big believer in listening to those "not-so-warm-and-fuzzy feelings" you sometimes get for no reason. But for sanity's sake, here are some simple ways to prove your spidey senses are correct.
- Use mirrors or windows to watch people behind you.
- Make unexpected stops, go places you wouldn’t normally go, change your pace or your route. Is someone who walks your normal path suddenly also at these random locations, too?
- Jump in a taxi and take it one block and get back out. Did someone do the same thing behind you?
- Walk your normal path, then make a show of “forgot my keys” and turn around and go back the other way. Did they start going the other way, too? This method also gives you a good excuse to get a good look at the face of the guy you think is following you so you can give a description.
- If you’re in a car, get in a traffic circle and go all the way around and pop out on the road you were just on. Did someone stay with you?
- Flip on your turn signal. See if they do, too. Then just continue driving straight. Did they continue straight as well?
Report what you've seen.
If you suspect you are being followed, report it immediately, Erickson advises. "Don’t wait until you get home, because you’ll talk yourself out of it, convince yourself that you’re being silly." And don't confront your suspected followers. "This may only accelerate the violence," he warns.
Erickson says it is vital to know the local versions of 911 and notes that every U.S. embassy has an RSO (Regional Security Officer) whose sole responsibility is the welfare of American citizens. "You call the RSO and tell them what you suspect," he says. "I had this happen to me, so I called the RSO. Two days later, they contacted me and confirmed that not only did I have one set of people following me, but there were two separate groups. One of them was the intelligence agency of the host country I was in, and the other was a group from a nearby nation. I was in this country on government business, so I was just being surveilled, but it could have just as easily been a terrorist organization."
"More is more" when it comes to reporting who you think is following you. Every detail, no matter how small, can be extremely helpful in making an identification. "You can’t just say, 'A big scary guy was following me.' You need to do better than that," Erickson says. Here are some details to make a mental note of:
- Don’t concentrate too much on the clothes.
- Hair color
- Eye color
- Height (Erickson notes: "A good method of gauging height is comparing them to you. If you looked at his face, were his eyes above yours or below yours? Take note of where their head lined up with any shelves or architecture or roof of a car they were standing near.")
- Distinguishing scars or limp
- Clean or dirty
- Language spoken
Even better than your brain's memory is your phone's memory. Here's a simple tech tactic Erickson likes to use:
"I put my phone on video and hit record, and then I hold it up like I’m talking on it. And I’ll narrate anything I can remember about the person while I’m pointing the camera at him. So I’m recording my notes and also making a historical document that will hold up in court. Or, if nothing else, will hold up on CNN."
If they make a move, step on the gas.
"If they start to get aggressive and you are forced into a situation where you need to elude capture, this is where you want some Jason Bourne driving skills," Erickson says. "I do encourage people to take high-risk travel driving courses. But if you don’t know how to do crazy stuff, there are some less sexy -- but important -- things you can do.
"A lot of kidnappings happen at intersections or in parking lots. They’ll box you in and next thing you know, you’re being pulled out of the vehicle with a gun to your head. Leave yourself an out. When you pull up to that red light, don’t pull all the way up to the bumper of the vehicle in front of you. Leave enough room so that you can see the bottom of their wheels. That allows you the ability to pull the wheel hard left or hard right and floor it if someone approaches. Drive to a high-density area to gain as many witnesses as possible and decrease the chances of them carrying out the attack."