There's little more frightening than the sneaking suspicion that someone may be following you, whether it's on foot or in a car. Here's how you can tell whether that person behind you is watching you as much as you're watching them.
Why Would Someone Follow Me? I'm Nobody!
It's not just spies that get tailed. Law enforcement doesn't usually waste time and resources following random people, but they're not the only ones interested in the lives of others. Private detectives, angry exes, friends or family of exes, or even that guy you accidentally cut off changing lanes may have been following you this whole time, seething and ready to give you a piece of their mind (or possibly their fists).
Don't underestimate how even small things can set dangerous people off. These are the easiest people to identify and avoid. We're not saying live your life paranoid, and if you can't think of a reason someone would follow you, odds are you're not being followed. We are saying that a little knowledge and awareness of your surroundings at all times goes a very long way.
How to Tell If Someone is Following You
Let's be clear: if the professionals are following you, you probably won't know it. Real spies use a host of tricks to make sure you'll never know you're being followed. Multiple operatives observe you, and switch off at predetermined points while a control operative, in contact with everyone in the field, manages their movements. That means the guy that followed you for the past two blocks will pull off at the next exit or pop into the Starbucks you passed for a coffee, and someone else will take over while you wonder where he went. There are some ways to tell is an amateur, random person or a PI is following you though:
- Stay aware of your surroundings. It's common sense, but you'd be surprised how many people walk around every day staring at their phones or looking at the footpath in front of them, paying no attention to the world around them. Keep your head up, and make note of the people you see and the cars you pass. If you're not aware of your surroundings, the rest of these tips won't help you.
- Don't start looking over your shoulder. Remember, normal people are the ones who do inconspicuous things. Spies and PIs know better than to draw attention to themselves. As soon as you start glancing over your shoulder every three steps, they will know you're suspicious. They will likely drop farther back, or disengage entirely and pick up later.
Start with appearances. Look for a car you've never seen before in your neighbourhood or along your commute, or make note of a vehicle that seems to be taking all the same turns that you're taking. The same applies for people. Here is the catch though: if a road-rager is following you, they will just close, which is easy to spot. If someone is actually trying to follow you, they will probably drive past you occasionally, then change lanes and fall back. On foot, they will walk next to you, or even pass you and take a side street that eventually ends up going the same direction that you're going. Look out for vehicles that make all the same turns that you do. More Intelligent Life suggests you keep an eye on a person's shoes. Coats and hats change easily, but shoes? Not so much when you don't want to lose someone. Photo by Robert Red.
- Slow down. Slow people and vehicles are hard to tail and risk the exposure of the operative, because they now have to stay near the target. Pull into the right lane and drive the speed limit. See what happens. If you're on foot, slow down or stand to the side and fiddle with your phone a bit (while keeping an eye on what's going on around you, of course) and see who slows down with you, or who walks past and then suddenly reappears later. Some people will tell you the opposite: that you should speed up and see if they do too. An amateur would speed up too, but a professional would only speed up if they think you might turn or take an exit, or if you'll leave their line of sight.
The video above, part of a training series by SAFE International, has some more suggestions to help you figure out whether you're being followed, and what you should do if you confirm that someone is trailing you.
What You Should Do If You Think You're Being Followed
- Call the police. Do this first. If you think you're in any kind of real danger, this is the best, first and probably only course of action you should follow. Additionally, if it's local authorities, they'll disengage. If it's another law enforcement agency, they may get pulled over themselves. If it's a PI, or a road-rager, or any other civilian, the police are the best people to handle the situation. If you're on a highway, stay on it. If you do get off a main road, drive to the nearest police station.
- Go somewhere public. Public and with lots of people. Find a crowded restaurant and grab a seat. Order a coffee and read something on your phone. Head into the nearest shopping centre. This gives you two benefits: first, you have the cover of a lot of people (stick close to the crowds). Second, you can observe your observer, get their description and hand it over to the police.
- Don't panic. Don't start speeding or try to make quick turns or duck into alleys. Ducking onto the train before the doors close looks great in the movies, but the smart people already have someone on the train or platform waiting for you. Start speeding, and you'll just drive into the next tail car's territory faster. When professionals follow someone, they don't need to know where you are at all times, they just want to "house" you, or observe your behaviour and patterns. If you're worried it's an angry ex or someone you cut off, stay on main roads. If you have to stop, leave plenty of space between you and the car in front of you, just in case you need room to manoeuvre or drive around it if someone approaches your car.
Change your behaviour to confuse your follower. If you're in a car, take the next exit, then get back on the main road. This isn't something most people would normally do, and if someone follows you off the road and then back onto the highway, you know something is up. Better yet, they should know you're onto them and disengage. Make four right (or left) turns. Few people need to drive or walk in a circle. Image by Oleksiy Mark.
- Change your patterns regularly. Don't go straight home, especially if you're worried the person following you intends to harm you. Take a different route home from work than you did yesterday. Go to a restaurant you've never been to. If you think someone has been following you, they're probably already aware of your patterns, so suddenly taking the freeway home when you normally take side streets may throw them off. Taking the train north when you live west will do the same thing. If you think the person wants to harm you, follow these tips on avoiding an attack, some of which echo points we've made here)
Professionals, like PIs, usually won't interact with you — they just want to know where you will be and when so they can plan for later. They are the people you can throw off with changes to your habits and driving tricks. People who want to hurt you are another matter. Your safety is paramount.
Some people will suggest you follow the follower, but we can't recommend it. If the person following you means you harm, that's a very dangerous game you're playing. You should be focused on getting to a safe place, and keeping your head and wits about you. With luck, you'll never need to worry that someone is following you, but it's important to be able to tell if someone is, why they're following you, and how to avoid, deter or lose them.