Having been a prosecutor for over two decades, one thing I have learned is that you cannot spot a predator just by looking. Nonetheless, particularly when traveling, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.
True, most fellow travelers are harmless, gracious, and kind. Yet this is precisely why we are tempted to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who are not. So when traveling, be aware of five ways dangerous people might attempt to ingratiate themselves with you or your family.
1. Etiquette Shaming: Preying Upon Politeness
We are socialized to be gracious and helpful. Deviants prey on this social custom, where politeness attracts predators.
We are all used to the occasional “Excuse me, you don´t know me but I really could use your help/advice/money/(fill in the blank).” We are socialized to attend to the needs of others within reason, and to listen when a stranger politely voices a request.
Yet if you are alone, traveling with young children, or otherwise wary of engaging with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that you are not obligated to talk to strangers, much less help them do anything.
2. Stranded Strangers: “Forced Teaming”
Gavin de Becker describes the concept of “forced teaming” in the national bestseller "The Gift of Fear" as a manipulative method of establishing premature trust. Shared predicament often stimulates mutual support, but may be exploited by predators seeking a socially appropriate way to invade personal boundaries.
A cancelled flight, train, or bus trip creates common ground among those left stranded. Particularly if it is dark or late at night, the stranger who approaches you and asks “How are we going to get home?” should be regarded with caution. You have not become part of a stranger´s “we” through mutual misfortune. While bonding through common predicament can lead to cooperation, it does not automatically require you to collaborate or share travel plans — particularly with someone who makes you uncomfortable.
3. Boundary Violations: Too Close For Comfort
Airports and train stations are crowded. Yet do not let a friendly stranger invade your personal space by sitting too close to you or your children because you are afraid of appearing rude. Many space invaders are harmless — but you cannot spot a predator by looking. If someone sits too close to your child, particularly when there are other seats available, move. And certainly avoid anyone who strikes up a conversation with your young child, instead of you.
4. Strangers Turned Stalkers: Friends, Fans, and Followers
Before the internet, people experienced what researchers refer to as the “strangers on a train” phenomenon — feeling comfortable sharing intimate details with a stranger while traveling whom they never expected to see again. If you did this today, you would immediately pick up a new Facebook friend and Twitter follower, maybe have the selfie you took together tagged, flagged, and retweeted as soon as your conversation is over. And because all of the content posted by your new friend/fan/follower (stranger) will have your name and current location, make sure you were truthful as to the reason you are out of the office.
Although they are the exception to the rule, I have handled a significant number of stalking cases that began with friendly conversation with strangers. So when striking up casual conversation on public transportation, make sure you know enough about your seatmate before you self-disclose. You are not obligated to give a curious stranger your name or personal information. Polite conversation is possible without over-sharing.
5. How Strangers Disarm With Charm: Likeability Is a Lure
Be particularly wary of strangers who approach your child to ask for help or directions. Most parents recognize this as a notoriously transparent ploy to gain access to potential victims. Yet some predators are so polished and practiced in their craft, they lower defenses through likability — appealing to parents and children alike. And remember that rapport building professions of similarity such as “I have a son the same age as yours” are not always true.
Knowledge is Power: Travel Smart
Although reminding your loved ones about stranger danger is never pleasant, knowledge is power. Awareness of the ways in which predators think and behave will enhance your ability to spot red flags and enjoy a satisfying Spring Break.
Portions of this content were first published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 2,500 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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