Peerasith Patrick Triratpadoongphol/Shutterstock
Source: Peerasith Patrick Triratpadoongphol/Shutterstock

Planning time away from home involves packing, preparation, and perception. Airports and other transportation centers are notorious criminal hot spots, capitalizing on distraction and travelers' lack of discernment. Here are a few tips to enhance awareness. 

I'll start with a caveat to which many frequent travelers will attest: Most fellow travelers are harmless, helpful, gracious, and kind. Yet this is precisely why we are tempted to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who are not. This column is about the small percentage of people who are dangerous, and how to spot them. When away from home, be especially aware of these five ways dangerous people might attempt to ingratiate themselves with you or your family.

1. Stranded Strangers: “Forced Teaming”

The concept of ”forced teaming” is described by author Gavin de Becker in the national bestseller The Gift of Fear as a manipulative method of establishing premature trust.[1] A shared predicament often stimulates mutual support, but may be exploited by predators seeking a socially appropriate way to invade personal boundaries. 

A canceled 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 over a 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.  

2. Etiquette Shaming: Preying Upon Politeness

We are socialized to be gracious and kind. 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.” We are socialized to attend to the needs of others within reason, and to listen when a stranger politely speaks to us.

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. 

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 sex offender by looking. If someone sits too close to your child, particularly when there are other seats available, and immediately strikes up a conversation with him or her, move. 

4. Strangers Turned Stalkers: Friends, Fans, and Followers

Last century before the Internet, people experienced the “strangers on a train” phenomenon — feeling comfortable sharing intimate details with a stranger while traveling whom they never expected to see again.[2] If you did this today, you would immediately pick up a new Facebook friend and Twitter follower, and 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.   

While again, they are the exception to the rule, I have handled a significant number of stalking cases that began with friendly conversation between strangers. So when striking up casual conversation on public transportation, make sure you know enough about your seatmate before you self-disclose. And never feel bad about declining to give a curious stranger your name or personal information if you are uncomfortable with the request. Polite conversation is possible without oversharing.

5. Likability 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 “My son is the same age as yours” are not always true.

Knowledge is Power: Travel Smart

Although reminding your loved ones about stranger danger and discussing sexual assault prevention 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 proceed with caution.

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert who spent years prosecuting sex offenders. She received the SART Response with a Heart Award from the Sexual Assault Response Team based on her significant contribution to the field of sexual assault prosecution. She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House 2008). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-bad-looks-good

[1] Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect us From Violence (Dell Publishing, 1997), 64-66.

[2]. Katelyn Y. A. McKenna (Yael Kaynan), “MySpace or Your Place: Relationship Initiation and Development in the Wired and Wireless World,” in Handbook of Relationship Initiation, eds. Susan Sprecher, Amy Wenzel, and John Harvey (New York: Psychology Press, 2008), 235–47 (237 (citing Rubin, 1975)).

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