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7 Ways to Spot a Predator

If you've ever felt uneasy around a person who didn't seem to consider your boundaries, you know how disorienting it can be. Today, Dr. Monica Johnson discusses seven warning signs that a person might be a predator.

By
Dr. Monica Johnson
7-minute read
Episode #355
The Quick And Dirty

There is no way to tell at a glance if someone is a predator. But if you trust your gut and examine the way a person's behavior makes you feel, you can look for seven possible warning signs that a person might not have your best interests in mind:

  1. Implying that you're working toward a common goal
  2. Turning on the charm
  3. Providing too many details
  4. Demanding that you prove yourself
  5. Creating a debt
  6. Making unsolicited promises
  7. Ignoring the word "no"

Have you ever worried about your safety? Missed potential red flags with a new partner? Been the victim of a con? Today we will address warning signs of a potential predator. 

The #metoo movement has been in the news lately with the release of Bill Cosby and New York City Governor Andrew Cuomo resigning his position after an investigation confirmed sexual harassment. It's something that came up with many of my patients since the topic of victimization is, unfortunately, commonplace in my work as a psychologist. While much of what I do is dealing with the aftermath of trauma, I think it's also important to help others avoid these circumstances whenever possible. I wish we could live in a world where there weren’t folks looking to do harm, but that's unrealistic. I also want to be clear that being the victim of a predator is never your fault; however, being aware of potential warning signs can be one way we arm ourselves against those who have a mind for malice.

Trust Your Gut

Many of us don't trust our "gut," or intuition, because of past experiences, general self-doubt, or agreed-upon social norms. Well, I’m here to tell you that gut health is about more than probiotics. In a mental health context, we can train our gut through the use of mindfulness to generate more situational awareness.

The first step is to throw out your preconceived notions of what a predator looks like. We know from news reports and documentaries that many predators come from "good families," whatever that means, or appear to be "nice." Now, I don't want you to leave this podcast being paranoid about everyone you encounter. What I do want you to do is use your mindfulness skills to be curious about your environment and the people around you, and use it to tune into your gut or intuition about your experience. Not all masks are worn by criminals, and not all sweaters are worn by Mr. Rogers.

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I will be using gendered language in this scenario. Most often I will use the pronoun "he" for the perpetrator and "she" for the victim. The rationale for this is that these kinds of crimes are overwhelmingly committed by men. However, these strategies could be used by any gender, and all genders can be victimized.

Gavin de Becker is an author and security expert. He wrote The Gift of Fear, which outlines what he calls Pre-Incident Indicators, or PINS. PINS are early warning signs that someone is possibly up to no good. Examples can include a con artist, or someone who intends to physically assault, kidnap, sexually harass, or sexually assault another person. I will outline these PINS, what to look out for, and possible responses for when they arise.

PINS are early warning signs that someone is possibly up to no good. Examples can include a con artist, or someone who intends to physically assault, kidnap, sexually harass, or sexually assault another person.

Warning Sign #1: Forced Teaming

Forced Teaming is a way to create a premature atmosphere of trust. When a person uses this technique, they introduce the concept of "we" like "we’re in this together," or your circumstance is really "our" shared problem. He is trying to create a personal connection that doesn’t really exist. For example, let's say you had a flat tire one night, you’ve already called AAA, and you're waiting for assistance. A man drives up and states, "Looks like we have a flat tire here." It's dark, and you are alone. It is best to refuse the partnership; you can attempt to do so politely at first. You might say something like, "Everything is fine. I've got it covered."

Warning Sign #2: Charm and Niceness

This is being polite and friendly to a chosen victim in order to get her guard down and manipulate her. De Becker suggests thinking of charm as a verb. It is something done to a person. Even when it does not have malicious intent, remember that it's a purposefully chosen strategy to influence your perception. In regards to niceness, keep in mind that it doesn't necessarily equate to goodness. If a person is less skillful with these strategies, you may feel that something is off. That's your gut's way of saying, "Wait, why is this person being so nice to me? Look around. Pay attention!"

Charm [is] a verb. Even when it does not have malicious intent, it's a purposefully chosen strategy to influence your perception.

As a true crime fan, I often think back to these Ted Bundy documentaries in which women he dated, but didn't specifically attack, would describe him with terms like "charming" and "nice." Does this mean you shut down every man who is friendly to you? Not necessarily. Are you in a situation where you have signaled that you want to be approached? Then you may want to entertain the conversation, but remember: they are a stranger to you. Be careful not to divulge information that could be used against you (e.g. sharing a personal story that makes you feel unreasonably bonded, or precise locations for where you live or work). If the encounter is undesired or as you're speaking with the person you are seeing other warning signs, end the conversation. 

Warning Sign #3: Too Many Details

When people want to persuade you, they sometimes give a lot more information than necessary. This can be because they are socially anxious, or because they're just trying to come up with a good enough excuse for a sick day. Either way, be careful when it appears someone is offering you unwarranted details. When a person is lying, they might feel the need to support what they are saying by giving extra information. As with all things information-related, check the source! Ask yourself: "Who is this person to me? Why are they telling me all of this? Is there anything in their behavior that is making me uncomfortable? Is he respecting my requests?"

Warning Sign #4: Typecasting

Understandably, most people don't like to be harshly labeled. When this occurs, we often have the urge to prove the person wrong. Perpetrators who use this tactic are counting on you to act on this urge. Imagine, in these COVID times, that you are partaking in outdoor dining with a friend. A passer-by yells, "You're looking lovely today." You initially give an awkward smile and continue your conversation with your friend. Then he states, "Oh, you think you're too good to say hello?" Do not engage. It is not your job to prove your kindness to him. He is a stranger to you. You owe him nothing. And, quite honestly, the answer to his question is, "Yes." But we aren't going to say that either, because that would require engaging. This could also come up in more newly established relationships, when a person is trying to get you to do something uncomfortable. For instance, if someone was pressuring you to have sex, they may decide to label you as a "prude," thereby urging you to prove him wrong. Anyone who attempts to shame you for having boundaries doesn't have your best interests in mind.

Warning Sign #5: Loan Sharking

A loan shark is someone who offers help, or gifts, and asks for much more in return. Often, when we feel indebted to another person, it can be more difficult to refuse their request. A classic example is the date who takes you out to an expensive restaurant of his choosing. He then expects you to have sex with him. Again, you owe him nothing. He offered these things to you. Kindness and gifts should never come at the price of your self-respect. If you are in a situation where a stranger is offering help, remember he approached you and look for other warning signs. Again, the point here is to increase our situational awareness and fine-tune our "gut." You may assess that he's a good samaritan, but if you're unsure and his help isn't required, decline the offer. Worst case is likely that you end up carrying your heavy groceries to your car all alone. And you've been working out with Get-Fit Guy so you're totally capable of handling the heavy bags yourself.

Warning Sign #6: Unsolicited Promises

Now we are going to talk about the unsolicited promise. Returning to the date example from before, let's say that he states, "Let me come up for one cup of coffee. I won't try anything, I promise!" Typically, people don't say "I promise" unless they notice some hesitancy in you. Their promise, in many cases, is verbalizing the very thing on their mind. Confer with your gut; there is likely a reason why you feel reluctant. You might ask: "Why is this person trying so hard to convince me that they're safe? Why is he both ignoring my apprehension and pushing forward with his agenda?"

Warning Sign #7: Discounting the Word "No"

Anyone who doesn't respect your right of refusal is trying to control you and get what he wants. There are certain circumstances when you can expect that people will try and coerce you into a yes. For instance, a salesperson may try to talk you into spending more money. In other circumstances, whether it's a stranger or a personal relationship with a friend, family member, or partner, declining or dismissing your "no" is a clear warning sign. Do not negotiate your "No." Understand that "No" is a full sentence. Support your "No" through your tone of voice and body language (e.g., be loud, be clear, make eye contact).

These are some of the warning signs for a potential predator. I understand there is nuance in social situations, and you may need more support. A therapist can help you in this area, and completing a self-defense course might also be beneficial. 

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If it’s not a trigger for you, it’s sometimes helpful to watch movies, TV shows, or read books and identify these PINS in various characters, so you can learn to spot them more easily in real life. One suggestion, for those so inclined, is “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor. It’s a short story. If you happen to read it, let me know what PINS you found by interacting with me on Instagram at KindMindPsych, via email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com, or by leaving me a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.

Sources +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.