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4 Signs That a Stranger Poses Danger

Not paranoia, but preparedness. How to separate the helpful from the harmful.

 Milles Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Milles Studio/Shutterstock

Strangers often turn into friends, co-workers, or even life partners. We are motivated to view others positively, because of this potential for building productive relationships. Yet sensing danger should curtail your initial level of courtesy.

Strangers Are Statistically Safe

As we prepare to head into April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we begin with the observation that most strangers are safe — or at least harmless. As strange as it sounds to put it that way, statistically speaking, it is true. Yet it is precisely because the majority of people are harmless that we extend the benefit of the doubt to those who are not.

To put the danger into perspective, I have spent the last 20-plus years prosecuting the exceptions to the harmless stranger rule. And those exceptions will keep myself and my colleagues in the District Attorney's Office employed for the rest of our careers. In other words, the level of risk from stranger danger is statistically low, but significantly serious.

This risk is enhanced by the reality that in most cases, we are unable to spot dangerous people merely by looking. Actions speak louder than words, and appearances can be deceiving. Here are some safety strategies to help you separate the harmful from the harmless.

Context Counts

Stranger danger includes both risk of criminal behavior and of sexual harassment — which even if it does not include physical contact, can have significant adverse consequences.

Research indicates that stranger harassment results in more negative outcomes than workplace harassment, with incidents involving physical contact causing the most negative reactions.[1] It further reveals that harassment taking place at a bar caused less negative reactions than harassment at a store or at an office, a finding believed to be consistent with the interaction between perceived sexual harassment and permissive social norms.[2]

Yet not all strangers display harassing behavior. Some are even more dangerous, charming, and disarming by clothing themselves in courtesy. These wolves in sheep's clothing prey on victims by capitalizing on social norms of helpfulness and cooperation in either requesting or offering assistance.

Requests for Personal Assistance

We all want to live by the biblical and social mandate, “Do unto others.” Following the Golden Rule, we would love to help everyone in all situations. But beware of the seemingly able-bodied stranger who approaches you requesting assistance, particularly in an environment with lots of available options, such as train stations and airports.

This person may be harmless, but you should remain attuned to your instincts. Direct someone who makes you uncomfortable to an information counter or to local authorities for help. And in an era when almost everyone has a cell phone, do not feel pressured to lend someone yours, which will give them access to your personal information, including private numbers, passwords, and photographs of your kids.

Assistance Insistence

Some people, both good and bad, offer assistance instead of requesting it. As a general rule, helpful people are wonderful, as we welcome both aid and altruism.

Helping behavior enhances interpersonal warmth, because helping is believed to demonstrate kindness.[3] Helping also generates perceived competence through demonstrating valuable skills or essential information, resulting in elevated status attributed to the helper.[4]

Yet a stranger's true intentions are often revealed in reaction to your response. While most strangers are gracious whether you accept their help or not, a further offer becomes inappropriate after you have declined assistance.

It is appropriate to accept a stranger's offer to lift your heavy briefcase into the overhead compartment on a crowded airplane. It is inappropriate to have a stranger approach you outside your neighborhood market and insist on carrying your groceries to your car — particularly after you have said “no.” Be wary of any sentence that begins with “I insist.” And keep a firm grasp on your belongings when declining assistance, as a predator intent on pursuing an opportunity for sexual assault will attempt to grab your belongings right out of your hand.

The Open Nook

When you meet friendly strangers, your level of disclosure will depend on your level of comfort. Remember that it is not rude to keep personal details to yourself. Along these lines, beware the open book (or the open "nook" in the digital era).

Predators may attempt to elicit personal details from you by revealing their own. Providing too much information, or “TMI," can be a ploy to create a sense of obligation on your part to reciprocate. Don't fall for it. There is no rule of reciprocity that requires you to share private details with a stranger, regardless of how much they share with you.

And remember that you cannot always judge a book by its cover. When getting to know a new acquaintance, what you assumed was an authentic autobiography may in fact be fiction.

From Foot in the Door to Door in the Face

We remind our children to mind their manners, and we try to do the same. Yet with a stranger who makes you uncomfortable, don't. If you realize you have allowed someone who makes you uncomfortable to get a foot in the door, close it.

Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert, and is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015). The opinions expressed in this column are her own.


[1] Megan K. McCarty, Nicole E. Iannone, and Janice R. Kelly, ”Stranger Danger: The Role of Perpetrator and Context in Moderating Reactions to Sexual Harassment,” Sexuality & Culture Vol. 18 (2014): 739-758.

[2] McCarty et al.,”Stranger Danger: The Role of Perpetrator and Context in Moderating Reactions to Sexual Harassment,” 751 (citing Pryor et al., 1993, 1995).

[3] Esther Van Leeuwen and Susanne Tauber, “The Strategic Side of Out-Group Helping,” in The Psychology of Prosocial Behavior: Group Processes, Intergroup Relations, and Helping, eds. Stefan Sturmer and Mark Snyder (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2010), 81–99 (88).

[4] Leeuwen and Tauber, “The Strategic Side of Out-Group Helping,” 91.