Counter-Surveillance: Learn to Identify When You are Being Watched

The 21st-century survivalist needs to recognize that other people can pose as large a threat to their well-being as any environmental or circumstantial scenario. In times of chaos, simply being prepared can make you a target for  those who failed to secure their own means of survival. Whether protecting your preps and homestead from bandits in a post-collapse situation or defending your family from vicious criminals tomorrow, awareness will be the key to your victory—and ultimately, your survival.

Beware, however, because awareness is the first step in a bad guy’s victim selection process that can make you a target. Like a double-edged sword, awareness can cut in both directions, so we must take the initiative to gain control and use it to our advantage.

So much crime and adverse action are preceded by surveillance, so you need to learn how to recognize it in  order to stop it. Fortunately, there are ways to identify whether you are in danger of becoming a victim.

Make no mistake about it: If you are not aware of a problem, you cannot solve it. The lessons here are a critical prerequisite to active counter-surveillance.


You arrive at home from work and immediately notice tire tracks on your front lawn. A neighbor is getting his mail, so you walk over to see whether he knows what caused the muddy ruts. Instead, he says he is surprised to hear about your work transfer to another state. When you ask what he is referring to he informs you that you just missed the moving company that left minutes ago. You realize you’ve been robbed in broad daylight.

You think back through the events of the day and in hindsight, the warning signs were so clear. What you thought was paranoia was actually someone surveilling you — this day has just turned into a nightmare. The bad guys do not need to learn about counter surveillance because they are already good at defeating it. They’ve learned through “on the job” training from others more skilled than they are. They are already out there casing houses for their next B&E, or auditing public targets for their next big attack. They’ve taken the lessons learned from being surveillance subjects and evolved to using surveillance to enhance their own target awareness.

Suspicious van. Fully tinted windows, no markings, windshield covered, isolated in parking lot.

Before someone becomes a victim, a criminal must target them. By collecting more details and expanding their awareness of their potential prey, they are able to strike when the victim is most vulnerable. In fact, you should be aware that any premeditated crime was likely preceded by some form of reconnaissance. This is why you must learn to recognize and defeat unlawful and malicious infringements of your privacy. You must take away their initiative by being equally (or more) aware of them. “I have nothing to hide; people can watch me all they want.” This is a common dismissive statement I hear from people who just do not get it. This is the statement a victim makes some time before the inevitable, “They came out of nowhere — it was just too late to act,” report.

People who think in this manner are at a major disadvantage as they have a mindset flaw with potentially lethal consequences. Predators are specifically seeking people who are unaware. They will always have prey as so many willfully choose to be blind to their surroundings.

Criminals want victims who cannot, or will not, be able to put up an effective fight. This is part of a subconscious risk-versus-reward cycle that loops in the predator’s brain.

A person equipped with lock picks will leave very little, if any, sign of entering a residence or building. This will make anomaly detection difficult.

By simply being alert and aware, the potential victim raises the risk level for the bad guy, which in some cases, is enough to make them seek other opportunities. Take a moment to picture in your mind the types of people you think would be the typical subject of an investigation. Of course, all the usual suspects come to mind. You are likely envisioning cheating spouses, gangsters, the rich and famous, criminals and terrorists.

The little-known truth is that anyone can become the subject of such activities for any reason at any time. This, of course, includes you! Understand that some surveillance is for the common good (e.g., anti-crime), some is for specific gain (e.g., domestic) and some is for nefarious purposes (e.g., pre-crime).


Regardless of the purpose of their surveillance, the surveyors count on you to not detect them or their mission might fail. Before you can employ active countermeasures to defeat surveillance you need to be aware that something isn’t right. In the trade, this is known as surveillance detection.

There are many things that can alert you to potential problems, but for now, we will look at one of the most important categories that feed your awareness. We must consciously make an effort to scan our surroundings for anomalies. Anomalies are the red flags that trigger your brain to pay closer attention.

“Before you can employ active countermeasures to defeat a surveillance you need to be aware that something isn’t right.”

Learning to recognize anomalies is the fast track to securing your life. They are often the first warning signal telling you something is wrong. Anomalies are breaks in an established or expected baseline. For example, you know what is normal for your neighborhood at any particular time. When something deviates from the normal pattern it can stand out and draw your attention.

In surveillance detection, it is often the small details that betray the cover of an operator. The more professional a team is, the fewer anomalies they will create to alert you, so attention to detail is the key.

There are three categories of anomalies which will help us spot potential trouble in a wide variety of scenarios.

By looking for 1) people, 2) objects, and 3) behavior that deviates from what you expect to be normal for that time and location, you will be able to squirrel out much more than just surveillance.



  • People that appear to be out of place
  • The same person observed in multiple places and over a period of time
  • People present in places not normally occupied for any period of time
  • People not dressed appropriately for a situation
  • A lack of people who should be present
  • TEDD: Government method of recognizing surveillance. When you see someone over TIME, in multiple ENVIROMENTS, through DISTANCE or displaying unusual DEMEANOR


  • Paying too much or too little attention to you
  • Lurking, lingering, looking
  • Pretext stories and social engineering
  • Following (changing lanes with you, exiting with you, running red traffic lights to stay with you)
  • Keeping hands hidden (pre-assault behavior)
  • Attempting to look preoccupied but still displaying interest in you
  • Sitting in vehicles for extended periods of time
  • Making communications as you depart or arrive


  • Vehicles (out of place, seen repeatedly, too nice/too beat up for location)
  • Tracks and prints
  • Open mailboxes, disturbed trashcans, items out of place
  • Reflections or lights (potential camera indicators)
  • Unusual vehicle attachments (GPS units on your vehicle or cameras mounted on other vehicles)
  • Piles of cigarettes on the ground outside of a vehicle window
  • Unusual or out of place objects (hidden cameras)


Lunch break finally rolls around and you walk into town to go to the bank and get some food. As you are walking up the city street you notice the same man a couple of times. He is just hanging out in front of a business when you walk by, and then later when you exit the café he is lingering across the street. He stands out to you because he is wearing baggy street clothes, but everyone in this part of town at this time of day is wearing business clothes. Now you are leaving the bank and walking back to work when you notice his reflection in a shop window. He is right behind you. The lunch crowds have thinned out and you are approaching a more industrial side of town. You turn to look over your shoulder and he acts noticeably startled by your eye contact.

“By simply being alert and aware, the potential victim raises the risk level for the bad guy, which in some cases, is enough to make them seek other opportunities.”


It is your day off and you have lots of errands to run. You have no set schedule and have not communicated your plan for the day with anyone. As you are exiting the building at one of your stops, you notice a vehicle parked near yours that you recognize from the last stop. In fact, a unique deep scratch in the paint of the strange vehicle is what caught your attention the first time, and this is certainly the same vehicle. You can’t see into the vehicle because the windows are very dark. As you walk by the vehicle, you can hear the pinging of an engine that is cooling down. Concerned, you watch your mirrors as you leave the parking lot and the vehicle doesn’t follow you. In fact, you are sure no one followed you down the small country roads to your next stop. You finish lunch and come back to your vehicle and to your dismay the same vehicle is present again!

It’s parked the same distance from your car as the other two times. Once again, no one follows you to your last destination where you are going to get your oil changed. The mechanic puts the car on the lift and comes back after a few minutes with a plastic box with strong magnets attached. He asks if you knew this object was installed under your car. You look out the window and see the surveillant (strange van) parked across the street in another lot.


You’ve just turned down a narrow side street. There is a person blocking the road with a vehicle for no apparent reason. A passenger exits the vehicle behind you and starts approaching your driver’s door with one hand inside the zipper of his coat.

You recognize the person approaching the door from the greasy diner you visited earlier in the day. In retrospect, you recall this car has been behind you since you left there. In each one of these  scenarios, there was something unusual to tip you off that something was wrong. All of these scenarios could have been detected much earlier before they escalated and appropriate counter measures could have stopped each situation in its tracks. I will leave you with this last scenario to assess if you have internalized these lessons. As you read through this, put yourself in the scenario. Visualize each anomaly you recognize, whether it is people, behavior or objects.

Attempting to show group awareness.



It is incredibly easy to become the target of a physical surveillance. There are entire private industries built around obtaining information about people. In addition to these industries, there is the criminal element and countless government agencies. Each with its own agenda, they are all essentially in the information business. Without surveillance, to collect information, the framework of their business models would not keep them afloat. Appearing distracted, unaware or weak will make you susceptible to becoming a target of predators. Awareness alone goes a long way to make you a harder target. Relationship insecurities can bring you unwanted attention from the private industry. These insecurities can be born from romantic, casual, or even business relationships. The most obvious example would be that of the cheating spouse, but private investigators get hired for a wide variety of other types of cases. Possible violations of non-compete agreements in business  relationships can spark investigations. A business with fierce competition is also at risk for surveillance from their competitors. As such, any employee of said companies could also be a possible target. Workers’ compensation cases frequently lead to surveillance. In fact, any time you are involved in an accident your privacy is endangered.

Surveillance and investigations can spread like a virus. If you are seen interacting with someone or spending time in a location that is being watched, you can get infected. By being in the wrong place and time and mingling with the wrong people, you become a potential lead to follow. A surveillant always has questions which they attempt to answer by watching you.

The information they seek will fall under the five W’s: Who are you? Who do you know? Who do you interact with? What do you have? What are your patterns? What are your vulnerabilities? Where are you going? Where are your valuables? Where are your weaknesses? When are you vulnerable? When do you leave home? When are you distracted? Why do you have patterns? Why do you make certain decisions? Simply put, questions that need to be answered are the root cause of all surveillance activity. You are likely to be monitored if someone doesn’t know who you are but wants to, or if they feel that they do not know enough about you. Any time someone wants to know what you have or what you know, you are in danger. Does this sound like it could apply to you?


The sun has not even begun its climb this early in the morning and you are leaving home to go to work. The neighborhood is quiet, aside from a barking dog making a racket at one of the neighbor’s houses. As you are pulling out of your driveway, you notice a car parked on the side of the street. When your headlights briefly illuminate the vehicle you think you see movement in it as well as a faint glow. The glow could be that of a phone screen. You do not recognize the vehicle and no one in your neighborhood parks on your narrow street. Perhaps one of the neighbors is getting picked up for work? Hours later, you are on your way home from work and stop to get gas. As you are filling your tank, you notice what could be the same vehicle across the parking lot.

It is backed into a parking spot very close to the exit. It is straddling the parking spot lines as if they had to back in quickly. The front end of the car is directly facing you and person in the driver’s seat appears to be preoccupied with something. As you watch them, you notice every so often the driver glances in your direction and even seems to make accidental eye contact with you. You start to think you are being followed so you watch your mirror like a hawk as you pull out into the street. Fortunately, the car remains parked and you can see the driver put a phone to his ear. Relieved, you continue on your way. As you arrive at home, you notice muddy tire tracks on your nicely manicured lawn. What were the anomalies that tipped you off that something was wrong? What was the first red flag that really made you want to act? You know, that point in the story that made you stop and think, “DO SOMETHING!” How many opportunities did you have to stop or prevent the robbery?

The signs were there that someone was watching you as another person or group of persons broke into your house. If you have identified the opportunity, then you understand the crucial role that awareness plays in detecting surveillance. What could you have done to actively stop this situation? If you have passed this self-assessment quiz, you are ready to learn active counter-surveillance techniques.

Recognizing that the bad guys are present is the first step of the battle. Now it is time to learn how to stop them in their tracks, foil their plans, and be a ghost they can’t follow.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the How-To print issue of American Survival Guide.