How to prevent flags

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This is the flip side to last week’s post. Today, I will cover a few ways to avoid raising obvious flags that might alert someone that something is up. This of course assumes that you are engineering your truth and presenting something that isn’t necessarily so. The four flags I mentioned in last week’s post were:

  1. Suspicious Person / Place / Time
  2. A person is saying things that don’t align with what you see. (Liar / Liar)
  3. A person has visible indicators that are incongruent with their story.
  4. Things you observe fit a pattern that is consistent with previously experienced patterns and not with what you expect in this situation.

While you are possibly saying “But Tom, I’m never going to be in a situation where I will need to prevent raising flags!”, I would argue that it’s more likely than you think and that learning how to think about this side of social engineering will help you to be more aware of someone who is trying to hide red flags. Have you ever known that a coworker was about to be laid off but weren’t allowed to say anything? Perhaps you had information about a partner or competitor organization that you could not share while still having to interact with individuals from that organization? Maybe you snuck into a venue to see your favorite band, or simply showed up to your first day of work at a new job and felt imposter syndrome; that feeling that you are unqualified and everyone else around you will find out the truth and fire you?

Step 1. Act like you belong.

When I was new to the Marine Corps, I learned very quickly that if you walk around looking lost or like you have free time, some Sergeant will grab you and find something for you to do. When you had nothing going on and wanted to be left alone (or “hide and slide in the open” as we called it), your best bet was to have something in your hand like a piece of paper, an envelope, or a small box, have your head slightly down, look a little mad, don’t look at other people (except those that you must recognize like Officers), and walk with a purpose. Picture this image in your head and imagine someone walking like this. It should appear like someone who is in a hurry, and likely knows what they are doing. On the face of it, the way this person is acting answers the questions from the The Cotton Eye Joe from my first post. Anyone who sees you will assume that you are coming from somewhere that gave you something important, and you are headed somewhere to deliver or drop off that important thing. They will also think it’s something you don’t really want to do since you seem a little mad about it. This simple act will often be enough to prevent any further examination. Imagine if instead of doing the above, you walked slowly, looking at everyone with a blank face and wide eyes, stopping every few steps to look around. You would stick out like a sore thumb because you don’t look like you belong in that place.

This applies to a party, the board room, you name it. Learn to spot the person who doesn’t catch your eye and mimic their behavior. If you are at a social gathering where small talk is expected and you need to find something to say to someone, ask if they know where you can find decaf coffee, or the restroom, or some other similar thing that has nothing to do with the work or event at hand and seems mundane.

Step 2. Keep your words to a minimum.

If you don’t say a lie you’re less likely to get caught in a lie. In our above example, you wouldn’t say to passing people unprompted “I’m going to the post office.” because that would just seem weird and out of place. They also might point out that the post office is closed. If someone where to stop you and ask if you were busy, you could just say “Yes”, or under other questioning you could answer “I’m a little busy right now, can I get back to you?”. Saying something nonspecific and minimal is best. Back to our example of the social gathering that might be work related, a place where you are trying to not stick out, or just some event you feel out of place at, imagine the most outgoing person has chosen to talk to you and they ask why you’re here or what you do. Assuming you actually don’t belong, you can lie but that might not be a great idea. If you say “I’m sorry but do you know if there is any decaf coffee around here?” then it will briefly short-circuit the conversation and force them to answer you. At that point you can either continue your imaginary quest for decaf, or you can ask them “so what do you do?”. Once you have them talking about themselves, pay close attention and ask good questions to keep them talking for a bit. After several minutes you can excuse yourself to use the restroom.

Step 3. Show people what they think they want to see.

This is mostly already covered in ‘Acting like you belong’ but you can also use this as a ruse. Let’s say you were at this social event described above and you wanted to listen in to a conversation taking place in the buffet line several people in front of you. The thing to do is to skip the line to get closer to the conversation but you don’t want it to be obvious that you’re there to overhear something. Why else would you skip the line? The obvious answer is to get a spoon, grab a napkin, or get food faster than someone else. So show people an explanation for your actions that falls in line with their expectations (show them what they think they want to see). Excuse yourself and grab a napkin or spoon. There is now an explanation for your actions that doesn’t reveal your true motives but explains the behavior. If you are trying to sneak into a building where you don’t belong and are caught by the police, quickly act like you are trying to urinate. It’s a minor offense and explains the behavior. That’s kind of a weirdly specific example but hopefully you get the point. Find another explanation for what you are doing that can avoid giving away what you are actually attempting. If it’s something that can paint you in a slightly negative light, it’s even better. This is called the ‘principle of embarrassment’. People generally want to portray themselves in a positive light. Embarrassing material is often thought of as being evidence of the account’s authenticity. People reason that the material would have been left out if the account had been fabricated. Hence, if you say, show, or admit to something slightly embarrassing, it’s more likely that it will be accepted as truth. Just make sure it’s less embarrassing than what you’re actually up to.

Step 4. If everything fails, say you’re an idiot.

Back to the social gathering situation. If everyone else is in black tie and you’re in a tank-top and flip flops, you kind of stick out. You failed Step 1. You are violating flag number 3 about visible indicators. What to do? Just proclaim that you are an idiot. You don’t need to make up a lie about what you thought was supposed to happen. Just say “Oh man, I’m such an idiot!” This will make the person you’re talking to both agree with you and will likely make them feel sorry for you and naturally try to defend you. Not everyone, but most people will imagine themselves in your shoes and naturally try to shield you from negativity, telling you that “it’s OK”. Being self-effacing will make you seem humble and most people have a natural inclination to help someone else in need who is humble. If someone asks what you thought this was supposed to be, just say “I don’t know, I’m so stupid.” Obviously this isn’t going to work if you are caught burglarizing a jewelry store in the middle of the night.

That’s all for this week.