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Can You 'Tell' An Attacker? Maybe Not, But You Can Recognize Their Tactics and Behaviours

Through our trainings, I often get asked the question, “how can I tell an attacker?” It would be so easy if bad guys all had the same look that they do in the movies. Dark clothes, mean muggin', sneaky body language. But unfortunately this has nothing to do with reality. The reality is that abusers do not fit a single profile. They come in all shapes, ages, genders, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. They work in every profession and live in every city. What’s more, is that victims are more likely to be abused by someone they already know and trust. That’s why ‘Stranger Danger’ and avoiding ‘people who look sketchy’ is insufficient and unhelpful advice.

Predators are often master manipulators, master charmers, and masters of disguise. They know how to blend in, feign innocence, gain trust, and exploit others. This is why some of the most horrific killers like Ted Bundy were noted by everyone who knew them to be ‘charming, pleasant, and totally incapable of such a thing’. Indeed, appearances are deceiving.

Instead of assessing danger based on how sketchy someone looks, or solely on the fact that they are a stranger, we must get a little more advanced, and

learn to recognize predatory behaviours and tactics no matter who they come from.

Tactics are the non-social strategies abusers use, like timing, setting, tools, force, and lures or tricks. Behaviours are the way that an abuser acts to gain trust to exploit, including verbal, emotional, mental, and physical strategies. Predators often display both tactics and behaviours that we can pick up on if we are paying attention and know what to look for.

"The height of strategy is to attack your opponents strategy." -Sun Tzu

The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has spent years analyzing the data from millions of cases of abductions, human trafficking, and other forms of abuse. They have gathered precious insights about the tactics that abusers use to lure and trap victims. They have learned about the manipulative behaviours that abusers use in order to gain trust. And many studies have also revealed priceless information about how predators target victims and what they look for.

Predatory Tactics

  1. Everyday routes are the most common site of attack. For children, their highest risk of abduction is on their way to or from school.

  2. Physical force is most commonly used against little elementary school age children and older high school age children. Verbal ploys are most commonly used against middle schoolers.

  3. The highest risk demographic for abduction are females from age 10-14.

  4. Social media is one of the most common methods used by child abusers to message and gain trust from victims.

  5. Abusers often use similar lures in street attacks, including the Help Trick, where predators pretend they need help with something and ask the child/victim to approach their car.

Predatory Behaviours

  1. Someone online (they may appear to be your age) that you’ve never met in real life starts a conversation with you and asks for your personal information, asks you to send them inappropriate images, or wants to talk about inappropriate subjects.

  2. Someone pressures you to drink or take drugs, or tries to isolate you when you have been drinking.

  3. An adult who starts a chat with a minor in private messages (always a red flag, safe adults have almost no appropriate reason to message minors privately).

  4. They ask you to keep inappropriate secrets, they want you to be secretive about your relationship with them.

  5. Someone who asks you to preform sexual acts, or commit crimes for money. They may tell you that it's only temporary, until you can afford the life of your dreams.

  6. Someone who tells you all the things you’ve always wanted to hear, and they just seem too good to be true. For example, traffickers often use compliments, give gifts, and promise victims fame and fortune. They often look for children who are lacking supervision and have poor family relationships. They then seek to fill that void to gain the trust and dependence of the victim.

  7. They take advantage of your feelings towards them, guilting you to do things that you don't want to do to 'prove you really love them'.

  8. Charm and niceness: charm isn't simply a character trait, it is an ability; a strategy of social interaction that always has some type of motive. Instead of thinking "this person is so charming", think "this person is trying to charm me", and then ask yourself why. Nice is not a credential for good intentions.

  9. Refusing to hear the word no. Someone who refuses to accept you saying no is trying to control you, or refusing to relinquish control over you. When someone doesn't accept the word no, ask yourself "why is this person trying to control me?"

It is all too common that behavioural danger signals are ignored as people debunk their own survival instincts, seek to be nice and understanding, and carry on with their day thinking "it's probably nothing, he seems nice, I don't want to be rude." If you want to learn about some of these behavioural danger signals, see our post on Gavin De Becker's book "The Gift of Fear."

It's so important for women and children to understand how predators operate. It's the best way for us to be aware that these people are out there, and know their tricks. We have to know the tricks because we have to be able to identify them no matter who they come from- whether it's your beloved soccer coach, your step dad, or your pastor. We must give ourselves and our children the knowledge and skills needed to judge others by their behaviour- not by their relationship to us, their social status, wealth, or position.

And by no means should women and children live in fear of the world- this will only make them look and act timid, which will make them an even more attractive target to criminals of all types. However, ignorance is no better, because then our only hope is luck. What we need is confidence. And confidence comes through preparation. When I'm prepared for what's out there, when I have armed myself with knowledge, skill, and awareness, I can enter the world confidently. This in turn, tells predators to stay away, because this girls' not afraid to fight back.

"Confidence is the only option that not only makes us better prepared to face the dangers of the world, but makes us less likely to ever have to." -Gemma Sheehan (GWF Founder)

To continue learning about how to be a high risk target, I suggest you check out our post on situational awareness, our post on confident presentation, and our post on survival signals.

Thanks for reading! If you're interested in self defense and street safety, have a look around our blog and website, and don't forget to follow our instagram and facebook for great tips!


Author: Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight Inc.

Gemma is an ex-MMA fighter who started Girls Who Fight Inc to bring the value of martial arts and self defense training to the female audience.


The Girls Who Fight Film, By Jennifer Roberts

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