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How To Tell If You Have A Tail: The Art Of Counter Surveillance By Derek Smith

When I attended the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Academy, one important technique we learned was how to conduct foot surveillance and how to tell if we were being surveilled. For those of you who may not know what I mean, it is basically how to follow someone and tell when you are being followed. For a civilian, it is more important to determine if you are being followed, so that is what I will concentrate on in this article.

The way we were trained was to learn how to detect surveillance during classroom session and then we were taken to a local shopping mall and other agents that we did not know where brought in to follow us.

We had to use the techniques we were taught to determine who was following us and then prepare a report when we returned to the academy. The agents never revealed themselves to us, so it was very funny when agents gave reports of someone they THOUGHT was following them because the saw that person 3-4 times in the mall, but these people were not the agents assigned to the exercise.

Later I became an instructor and used these same training strategies for my student agents. I also taught these skills to Defense Intelligence Agency protective service officers when I was the National Training Officer there, so I know them well.

For most people, the person or people following you probably won’t be a well-organized group of terrorists, but instead a common burglar or robber, or an individual looking to generally harm you.

Just so you know, if I was referring to these terrorists or other organized criminals, they would use a planning process where they have already assessed your physical security and routines over a period of time and know exactly how and where to attack you.

In my industry, surveillance detection is using countermeasures to deny bad guys information about you when they are going through their target selection and collection phases. You goal is to appear as what we call a “hard target,” so they would move on to someone else who is easier to get to. You will use similar principles for your personal defense.

In order to learn how to detect if you are being tailed you should understand that there is a common sequence of events that takes place during surveillance:

  1. First, attackers select a potential victim and begin collecting information.
  2. Surveillance continues as the attack is planned and practiced.
  3. Attackers deploy according to the information received.

This does not change, even if the attacker is simply someone who wants to rob or rape you and they are doing these three things in a short period of time. I am going to provide you with some of the techniques you can use to detect and avoid surveillance. These are some of the same types of techniques I gave to military personnel when I ran protection details in Turkey for two years and DIA agents.

Detection Techniques:

On Foot:

Be alert and keep your head moving. Even the appearance that you are alert and on the lookout for trouble can be helpful. Looking around may make the person watching you think you are looking right at them.

During exercises with my special agent students, they would often think they were “burned” because a person looked in their direction. When I questioned my agent acting as the one being tailed, he or she would say they never even saw my student. However, for the bad guy following you, there is nothing worse than feeling like you are on to them and this may stop their attack.

Another tactic we taught was to quickly change direction or turn around and walk back the way you came. If you are being followed you will probably see the “tail” quickly change direction to follow you, or stop abruptly because you surprised them by quickly turning and walking in their direction.

If you are outside or in a mall and there are store windows, or directories or anything else that can give a reflection, stop and pretend that you are looking at items in the window or searching for something on the directory. Instead however, you should actually check behind you to see if anyone is watching you.

While driving:

If you think you are being followed while driving I have a few techniques that will work for you.

Speeding up, slowing down, making three right turns, stalling at a green light, taking a one-way street and making a dead stop are a few some of the techniques we taught to our special agents. Your job is to pay close attention to what is going on around you and how people or vehicles are reacting to what you are doing.

One technique that I have used often in the field is to drive to a residential area that I was familiar with and drive into a cul-de-sac. The best end location would be a cul-de-sac that has a sharp or continuous turn, the kind that surprise you when you drive into it.

Once I entered the cul-de-sac I would get in a position to exit quickly if I was being followed. As a tip for you, if someone does follow you, make sure you write down the description of the vehicle and the people in it for the police later.

If you think a car is following you, note whether the vehicle moves when you move. If the car is parked does it leave the area in the opposite direction each time you pass? Multiple sightings of the same person, vehicle, or activity may confirm you’re being followed or watched.

At Your Residence:

If someone is watching you coming and going and know where you live or work, this is the hardest place to protect.

In the business we call this the “choke point.” No matter how much you are able to ditch the person surveilling you, you eventually have to end up at work or home. If the attacker knows this he can just wait for you at either of these spots because he knows you are coming eventually.

That is one of the golden rules of surveillance; if you lose your target go to where you know he will show up and just wait for him. In this case it’s your home or work address.

To avoid this person, I advise that you switch up your parking spots and take different entrances into the parking area if you can. Try to find a spot that will make it hard for the attacker to see your vehicle and know you are there.

These are just a few of the techniques you can use. My goal is to give you a few alternatives to avoid a bad guy trying to get to you. If you can deny information gathering and show yourself as a hard target you will force the attackers to make a couple of choices.

  1. They will either move on to an easier target, or…
  2. They will be forced to choose attack sites that are in your favor and give you the tactical advantage (make sure you check out my self-defense courses to learn how to protect yourself if forced to fight.) Even if they pick out the first and last choke point in your route, you will be ready and have a plan in place if an attack occurs.

My main message to you is that if you suspect you are being surveilled you should do all you can to alter your route and times to avoid a possible attack.

This will cause what we termed as unpredictability and confuse your potential attackers. You should also take notes of suspicious activity, vehicles and persons. If the situation warrants, contact the police and report the suspicious activities or walk over to a security guard or police officer if you see one.

Don’t think you are paranoid and just let it go. Go with your gut and stay safe.

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26 thoughts on “How To Tell If You Have A Tail: The Art Of Counter Surveillance By Derek Smith”

  1. Laura Brunner your story is why I read these blogs. People believe these kinds of things I write about cannot happen to them. But as you know this is real life and it can happen to anyone. Keep reading for more tips to come.


  2. On the street. Stop, turn around, do a slow panorama movie with your mobile device. Smile smugly and continue about your business. Cameras are a great deterrent.

  3. Bob Shapiro / Derek Smith, These are all good tips, Years ago I had ” strangers following” incidents. I went for a walk @ night and a tall naked man with erratic like body language, cross between darting and quick short spurts of running . On foot @ night I hid in a shrub, watched the creep come back with his car and peeked from shrub, watched him circle the block several times, my intuition told me to stay hidden It was scary, about 2 blocks from what was our home. I was a a minor and terrified but God had my back. I say to the blind senior, trust your intuition. I got back home. I decided not to walk @ night alone . There are times when I have to . Thats what I am working on currently. I have in another city had to drive with my headlights off @ night to loose a random truck tailing me. In this city we can’t shoot guns at cans for practice, we have to go to a gun range. Thanks for the positive support and tips. Laura

  4. Great advice. The way things are in the world today, you can never be too safe. Anyone can be a target today for any reason.

  5. I have two large cane corsa hybridized mastiffs ,who are my constant companions ,I carry an fn x .45 that holds 15 rounds in a mag,i also carry a colt expanse sbr in .556 with a sure fire 60 round magazine and a sharp san mai 17 inch kubotan knife/sword I’m pretty well protected ,oh and I retired from 5th special forces and delta a shooters group.

  6. Thank You Derek for taking the time to share your experience and expertise! “A wise man listens to wise counsel and becomes wiser”

  7. 1. Know what is going on around you at all times.
    2. Do not count on the police. They come after the fact.
    3. Arm yourself. Know how to use what you have.
    4. If you ever need to shoot someone to protect yourself/Family.
    NEVER, NEVER talk to the police with out a lawyer with you.
    Just give your name & ask for a lawyer. Then shut the hell up until you have one with you.
    Know your right & use them. The police come after the fact. you are on your own.
    Just the honest truth.

  8. Very good advise, do you have anything on how people spy on others in apartments and hotels like from attics ?

  9. Sometimes I wonder, but you actually have some great lessons for people to learn about. I have worked undercover investigations and I have been refreshed from some of your courses. A person can always learn new skills and those that believe that they know it all together,well I feel sorry for them because they will be the first to get got.. Keep up the great courses you are saving people from serious situations that they just may survive..

  10. To Daniel–
    Are you familiar with human echolocation? From what I know, it can be learned within a week or so, and can be fairly accurate… And of course, there’s always “Speak softly and carry a big dog…”

  11. Hello. Thank you for standing up for America and for families.
    I have a concern.
    I am totally blind, and have been so since birth.
    I am up in years.
    Never have I had to fight anyone.
    I hope I never will.
    Might there be ways of defending myself and learning these things even without sight?