We have all seen the scenario play out in movies: our protagonist, perhaps an everyman or maybe a trained agent of espionage is walking down a busy street or hanging around in a bar or café. He notices the furtive, sidelong glances being directed his way by someone trying way too hard to be inconspicuous.
Our hero pays his tab and leaves. Later, elsewhere, we see the same guy pass by in a reflection off a window pane as he passes by with another glance. At this point our spy is keen to the game, but an everyman will shrug it off as merely coincidence. Later, on his way home, he sees the same suspicious man waiting to board the train with him. The jig is up: he is being followed!
While this makes for great entertainment, being followed or stalked is no game. Picking up a relentless pursuer is a rarity for most people unless you are in a few select and very interesting lines of work, but it does happen!
Being followed is a scary and unnerving experience for those that are not confident in counter-pursuit techniques, but it does not have to be; thankfully, most techniques are simple, very effective and can be employed without any special training.
In this article we will explore a few techniques to employ if you suspect you are being followed and others to give you options to either shake a pursuer or force them to break off if they wish to remain at arm’s length.
Sounds Cool, But Why Would Someone Be Following Me?
A good question reader. Why would someone follow you? I’m not being pithy, ask yourself. For the average citizen, you’ll pick up a tail one of a couple ways. Typically it will be someone you know, if only in passing. Maybe a jilted ex, a person you unintentionally (or intentionally) pissed off or a relative of one of those people.
Another likely kind of tail is a criminal who has made you as easy or worthwhile prey for whatever reason. They might be following you surreptitiously to close the gap and pounce, coordinate with associates in order to spring an ambush or simply gather intel on you for a heist (don’t lead them home!).
Another possible stalker could be law enforcement personnel or a private detective. Answer honestly: is there any reason at all one of those types could be assigned to you?
Messy divorce, high-caliber job interview process, major falling out with a friend or business partner, perhaps some gray market activity? If the answer to all of those is “no” it is certainly not impossible that a PI or cop is on your case, but probably unlikely.
Lastly, and this is one of the hardest to predict, you might have the misfortune to pick up the attentions or, yish, affections of a bonafide crazy person. Who is now, of course, following you like some kind of creepy bloodhound. Bummer.
No matter who is following you, the following techniques will work if executed properly. Assuming you are being trailed by someone, that means they are not blundering in to attack you immediately for whatever reason.
This does not mean no attack is forthcoming; only that recognizing this fact will give you some time to rally your thoughts and formulate a response. Use this!
Confirming You Are Being Followed
Someone may follow you in a vehicle or on foot, often matching your mode of transportation at the time. The single most important thing you can do to confirm the presence of a tail is to pay attention! Good general awareness of your surroundings, who is around you and the tempo of a place will betray most pursuers save for seasoned professionals.
If you start to see the same person nearby or on your periphery, or notice the same vehicle behind you as you move about your day you can assume you are being followed. Also, don’t disregard your intuition.
Your intuition, or instinct, is really a form of subconscious logic. Listen to it. They may be dormant in this era, but humans have the same animal instincts that alert us to danger as other creatures. Accept them for what they are.
Once you are keen to the game, you need to positively confirm your suspicions. If on foot, change pace. Speed up, slow down, stop. A tail will mirror you to maintain their distance and proximity.
Alternately, you can “jink”, an abrupt maneuver that will force your pursuer to mimic it or be left in the dust. This could take the form of a quick dash across the street and then turning down an unexpected street or into a large building, like a mall. If you see someone somewhat agitatedly doing the same, you’ve got them.
Another good technique is to figuratively slam on the brakes. If you stop suddenly and about face to look at your “suspect” watch their reaction closely. An “oh shit” type of response or other awkward behavior will tip their hand. What would a normal person on the street do? Not that, that’s for sure.
They may look away from someone who suddenly turned to look at them but they would not start behaving erratically; they’d keep doing whatever they were doing in the first place.
A variation of this technique that can be done in a crowded public space is to reverse your heading, essentially closing on your pursuer. If you pass them, and check behind you to see them heading your way, you know you have a tail.
If you are in a vehicle, the two most time tested techniques are to make a succession of right or left hand turns (a circle). Any vehicle still in your rearview mirror is following you.
If you are on a high speed thoroughfare like the interstate or highway, simply pull off of an exit , watching for your tail, then pull right back on. A tail will be behind you the whole way. Who exits then immediately reenters the highway?
What if I think I am Being Followed but Cannot Confirm?
Well, there are two possible scenarios. One is you are just paranoid, the other is you are being tracked by professionals. Professionals will be very good at remaining undetected, so as to not raise the hackles of their quarry.
Serious outfits will utilize multiple teams on foot or vehicle borne to rotate through the chase detail. This prevents you from picking up on their presence. Other techniques include following you from the front, by pacing your projected path of travel and sophisticated counter-detection techniques.
If you have the misfortune of being pursued by pros, chances are you will not know they are there until they have closed in on you. And woe betide you!
Procedure for Dealing With a Pursuer
Procedures for ditching or shaking off your tail vary depending if you are on foot or in a vehicle, but there are four rules of prime importance no matter what the situation is:
Rule #1: Be Prepared for Violent Action
The fact that someone is following you is usually a bad omen and precursor of violence. It is called stalking for a reason.
Rule #2: Do Not Lead Them to Your Home or Bug Out Location
Do not assume your pursuer already has this information. You do not want to give it to them and we are all more vulnerable in transitive locations; in and out of the car, up to the house, entering the house, etc. Keep your wits about you and deal with the problem afield.
Rule #3: Stay in as Public and Crowded a Situation as Possible
The fact you are being followed instead of brazenly attacked means the timing is not quite right for your tail to do whatever it is they want to do yet. People mean witnesses.
Avoid isolated backroads, rarely-traveled streets, alleys, and sparsely populated buildings or parking lots where they might spring their trap.
Rule #4: Do Not Allow Yourself to be Boxed-In
If you are cornered with no exit on foot, or hemmed in by being too close to cars around you when driving, you will not be able to attempt any evasive maneuvering but you also may be easy pickings for an attack if that is indeed why your tail is following you in the first place.
Now, with those ground rules in place it is time to get a little frisky and either lose them, force them to abort their surveillance or just call the cavalry.
Call the Cavalry
On foot or in the car, call the police. Give them a description of the car/person and follow their instructions. If you are in a car, drive to the police station and watch your tail disappear like a vampire bat.
If on foot, you can head to a police station if it is in a populated location or head to something like a fire station, EMS depot or similar emergency services provider. Any of them will make great witnesses and be able to summon police rapidly.
Don’t assume you must take matters into your own hands. If you can avoid a risky and possibly expensive altercation or dangerous fight for your life by summoning bigger fish, do it! If police are unavailable or you cannot contact them you’ll need to use the other techniques below.
Give them the Slip
A few ways to accomplish this. On foot, proceed around a hard corner that will break line of sight with your pursuer, then move rapidly to increase distance from them before making another sharp detour or ducking into a building and hiding.
Done correctly, to your pursuer you will appear to have vanished. If they are savvy and speed up to maintain contact, you can repeat this a few times to increase your lead and hopefully get them to give up or allowing you to shake them completely.
In a car, you can do the same thing, as well as take advantage of the many stoplights and intersections in built up places. Getting caught at a light will force a follower to gun it and maneuver hard to catch up or fall behind and perhaps give up the chase. Bear in mind you need to time your passage under the lights to catch them with a hard red light or cross traffic, halting them. Be cautious.
If you have your go-bag handy with a change of clothes, or are near a shop with even a few items of clothing for sale, you can duck into a store or restroom and affect a hasty disguise.
I’m not talking about some Mission: Impossible mask or other wizardry, I’m simply talking about a little visual camo to slip past your pursuer on the way back out. If you have a different shirt, change it. If you are wearing a hat, remove it, or vice versa. Same with sunglasses.
If you have opportunity a change of pants to a different cut or color is good also. Your pursuer has most likely locked onto your attire, your coarse appearance to track you through the crowds and in or out of buildings.
If he is scanning for “red jacket white hat, red jacket white hat” constantly and you pop out wearing a yellow polo, no hat and sunglasses you will likely slip right past them. You can subtly alter your gait (nothing drastic!) to help perpetrate the illusion also.
Note this tactic will be less effective or ineffective in a few circumstances: first, if you are very tall, very big or otherwise your physical profile is distinct, you will have a tough time donning a meaningful disguise.
Second, if your pursuer is bold enough to close in on you when you enter the store it may be tougher to find a place to change without making yourself vulnerable or obvious.
If on foot, you can utilize public transit (bus, train, subway, taxi, Uber) to leave a follower in the dust. Just like the movies, huh? This must be timed so you board at the last minute (train, bus, subway) and your follower gets left behind, or you are able to board and direct the driver to hustle off (taxi, Uber).
Done correctly, they will have no time to react and will on be able to watch your taillights fade into the distance.
This should be your last resort, but if you still have the comparative advantage of a safe(er) public place, you might decide to stand your ground, give your stalker a flinty stare and tell them to take a hike. If you are out of options this is probably better than leading them back to your home. Be ready to react explosively.
If your stalker is a scumbag looking for an easy target, your boldness and confidence may get them to reconsider their priorities. If they turn out to be emotionally compromised a fight will be likely. Someone after you to hurt or kill you may go for it at this time.
Again, this strategy is fraught with peril, and should only be attempted if escape is impossible. But, being able to choose when and where the confrontation will take place counts for something.
Discovering you are being actively followed is a frightening, unnerving experience. But you need not loiter or circle aimlessly waiting for whatever is going to happen to happen. Keep a cool head and these tactics in mind and you can leave your pursuer bamboozled and in the dust.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.