What to do when possibly followed?
December 6, 2012 2:58 AM   Subscribe

What are you supposed to do when you suspect someone's following you home? Scenario: on foot, within 20 feet of the follower, and reaching home in 30 seconds.

I think I was nearly followed to my apartment. I had no idea what to do other than run if he picked up his pace. Is there a recommended course of action here? Confront them? Yell? Immediately run? I carry pepper spray, and I've practiced using it, but I wouldn't use it unless it was clear someone intended to harm me. I didn't have time to call someone, and I felt that fumbling with my phone would break my concentration on what he was doing anyway.

To flesh out what happened: I live in a well-to-do, gated apartment complex. Just now, when I was exiting the garbage chute room, I nearly bumped into a man passing by. I greeted him in a cheerful way and apologized while passing him. He said nothing and didn't acknowledge me in any way, but stopped going in the direction he was previously traveling and started trailing me. I shrugged it off, but then turned a corner and he did too. Now, there's only two apartments in the direction I was headed. I know my neighbor, and he's not this man.

A little spooked, I pondered what to do... and realized I have no experiences to compare this to. I didn't want to essentially invite him into my apartment, so I turned around and gave him a "What the fuck?" look. He stopped abruptly, stared for a millisecond, then turned around and left. It's quite possible he only intended to talk to me. If so, he couldn't have gone about it in a creepier way!

Either way, I can't help but feel I could have handled this better.
posted by plaintiff6r to Human Relations (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This has happened to me oncr and....you don't go home. I was fortunate that it was broad daylight and there was an office nearby I ducked into (I explained the situation and they let me stay til he moved along, offered to call someone to get me an escort). Late at night or out in the desolate burbs with no real neighbors, I don't know.
posted by availablelight at 3:05 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

If I did walk in to my house, I'd loudly call out VERY, VERY LOUDLY as I entered, "It's ok honey, I'm home now. Tell everyone dinner will be ready in ten minutes." Even if it was an empty house/apartment.
posted by taff at 3:13 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding availablelight, never lead them to your apartment. Keep in a public, busy place, duck into shops, restaurants, etc. I had to do this just last week - I eventually got rid of him by going into a pizza parlour. And don't worry about being rude or macing too early, if you feel threatened please protect yourself as you feel you need to. This guy had the opportunity to talk to you when you bumped into him, I don't think he followed you for that. You don't need to give people who creep you out the benefit of the doubt. This is actually scarily like a forced entry and sexual assault case described in The Gift of Fear, which I really suggest reading. It discusses listening to your intuition and resisting the need to be 'nice' that attackers use to lure you.
posted by everydayanewday at 3:26 AM on December 6, 2012 [26 favorites]

I had this happen in Toronto on Carlton st last month. A creepy guy started following me "hey sweetheart, hey sexy mama...." When I went into a shop he lurked outside and the woman behind the counter made it clear she wanted me to leave. I walked out, pulled out my phone and called 911 (which got nowhere; I said a man was following me and they transferred me to blank air), but the smegma walked off when he saw me talking to the police.
posted by brujita at 3:40 AM on December 6, 2012

I pull out my phone and talk to dead air like it's a boyfriend who just called.

"Hi Man Name, I'm almost there, I'm excited to see you"

I also pretend like I forgot something and turn around if I'm close enough to a public place.

You did nothing wrong or stupid. At all. You are safe and that means you did just fine.

Consider alerting neighbors and/or the police. If you feel uncomfortable saying you were scared, say he looked like he was casing apartments.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:02 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I second the suggestion to report this incident (as well as future ones) to the police. At a minimum, someone is accessing a part of your building that they have no business visiting, and the fact that you saw the guy first in the garbage room suggests to me that he was not there to visit someone. It's entirely possible the guy lives in the building, but it's creepy as hell to loiter around other people's apartments, and IMO a police report would not be an overreaction on the balance of probabilities here.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:16 AM on December 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

I'm assuming you'd locked your apartment door behind you (always lock the door when its not actually directly in your sight!), so hold your keyring in your fist so that the various keys stick out between your fingers, like you just grew claws like Wolverine --- you can rake somebody with that as an improvised weapon if needed. Oh, and I do the calling out a non-existant guy's name thing, too.

Besides calling the police to ask for advice, also alert your apartment management --- sure, its quite possible neither one will do anything at this point, but get it on the record.
posted by easily confused at 5:25 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you did a pretty good job. If I feel like someone is following me, I stop to fuss with my purse (which is full of things to fuss with- yesterday, for example, I put on my hat) and let them pass me. Then I'm the one following them.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:38 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do NOT make a real or fake cell call. This distraction could prove fatal, and no help can ever arrive fast enough.

Here is what you can do:

Redirect your walk to a public place. In your case, this was not possible, therefore, irrelevant. Instead , make sure you do not go inside your house. You will be trapped.

Get composure. Breathe deeply. Stay in the front of your house, not at the door, but on the sidewalk (this keeps you visible to neighbors).

As your walking, take the keys (let him see what you are doing) and place the longest key in your palm, with the sharp end protruding from between your clenched fist. This is a decent "weapon" and will injure your stalker.

Turn around and get a good look at your stalker - this will unnerve him, they don't want exposure and identification.

While you are looking at him, call 911. Do not lose your gaze on him. He wants you distracted.

In case altercation ensues, scream continously while you stab him in the neck, eye, or ear. Fleshy parts cause instant pain. Knee him in the crotch if you are close enough.

I can advise further, but this should suffice given your situation.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:40 AM on December 6, 2012 [64 favorites]

Seconding Kruger5 that you should most definitely NOT pull out your phone unless you intend to call the police.

While being followed by a man on a bicycle once, I pulled out my phone to call my boyfriend. The man following me yanked the phone out of my hand, knocking me down in the process (phone was in my left hand, he was to the right of me), and then rode away on his bike.

Not to mention, being on the phone is insanely distracting. If being followed, you should focus your attention on the person following you.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 6:02 AM on December 6, 2012

You did fine. If you can intimidate someone to stop their actions with a stare, that's the best method. Now if that didn't work, since you were on private property, with no shop or office to duck into, your best bet is to cause people to poke their heads out of their apartments.

One thing you can do is make a scene. Scream really loudly, "WHY ARE YOU FOLLOWING ME? I DON'T KNOW YOU!"

The important thing is to convey that you're not having an argument with a boyfriend (people will dismiss it and just be annoyed that you're being loud) but that you're in danger and afraid.

Knock on doors, ring bells, tap on windows. SOMEONE will come out to see what the fuss is.

We've been taught to give people the benefit of the doubt, to not bother others and not to be loud or make a scene. When you do the opposite it will unnerve unsavory types and should give you a chance to get away.

Go to the management office this morning and tell them about the incident. Ask if they have cameras. It may be that you're not the first person to be accosted in this manner. Talk to your neighbors. Maybe even get a garbage-buddy, so you're not walking to the chute alone.

When you're in public, and you see something that JDLR (Just Doesn't Look Right) don't be afraid to butt in and ask, "Is everything okay?"

We all need to look out for each other in this world.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on December 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Nthing don't be distracted by using or pretending to use your phone ... unless you are actually calling the police. In my only (thank goodness) experience with this, I called 911 and was able to get out just a few words before the person knocked the phone out of my hand and threw it across the room, breaking it. Just the fact of my using the phone did ratchet his rage up another notch. Had I been pretending or had I called anyone else, it would have been useless or worse. It was only because 911 follows up on things like that that the police did come. Pretense will not help, get away, get public, get loud, call 911.
posted by headnsouth at 6:18 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing don't go home - go somewhere as public as possible given the circumstances. My son and daughter were followed in the car recently and came home, not knowing what else to do. We've had a talk. There is a fire station 1 mile away. I told them drive there if they think they are being followed. In turned it out is was a cranky old man who thought my son almost hit him with he car so he followed him home to yell at him.
posted by COD at 6:23 AM on December 6, 2012

It's great that you were aware enough to notice the individual details of the interaction. Back up a bit and look at your interaction. Don't smile, don't apologize, don't let anyone you don't know within twenty feet of you at night when you are alone.
posted by effluvia at 6:26 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

What do we know of this guy's behavior?

1) He did not want to talk, because he had that opportunity already.

2) He wanted something from you, because he was clearly following you.

3) Whatever he wanted from you, he didn't feel comfortable taking it in a public space.

Based on this, it seems very clear to me that he wanted to rape you. What else fits all those behavioral criteria?

I would report this incident to the police, and go armed from now on. If you see this individual again, go to a public area and call the police.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:35 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You did the right thing. You feel like you could have handled this better because culturally, there are a lot of messages out there saying that if you were harassed/threatened, you must have done something to deserve it (especially if you are female).

Greeting people and looking them in the face is a good thing to do all the time - it shows you are paying attention to your surroundings and that you'll be able to identify them later. If dude didn't back off after you looked at him, the next step would be telling him super-loudly to leave you alone, back off, you don't know him. Then physical self-defense if needed. Unless you're a runner and are pretty sure you can outrun this guy to safety, running is a bad plan.

I don't get why everyone is jumping on the "don't lead him to your home" answer. OP didn't realize they were being followed until they were in the corridor to their apartment.
posted by momus_window at 6:37 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the situation you describe - already cornered, and at your door, with pepper spray in your purse or pocket - I think you should stop, turn, aim the pepper spray at his face, and say "stop following me or I will mace you". Then, if he does anything other than leave or credibly explain himself, mace him until he is incapacitated, get into your apartment, lock the door, and call the police.
posted by nicwolff at 6:40 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You handled it exactly right. He went away.

If speaking out loud would have worked, you'd have known it, and done that instead.

All the stuff people are saying are good things to keep in mind, and you'll know which to choose in the moment.
posted by tel3path at 6:43 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever I suspect someone is following me, I:

turn, and look them full in the face if I'm in a well lit area. This used to embarrass me, but I care more about my safety than I do about some stranger's opinion of me. I don't look at them long enough for it to become confrontational and i don't neccessarily look them in the eye (don't look drunks in the eye. If they are drunk, the last thing you want is to get their attention), but I do look at them. It's startling and if they are a predator, it throws them off because they don't expect it. It also allows me to get an idea what they look like, and assess how much of a threat they are.

Stay still and pull out my cell phone, pressing a button so it lights up. I had a man follow me in his car for several blocks (i was walking) who drove away as soon as i pulled out my cell phone. It is usually effective even if you're out of minutes or something, they dont know that! I have a few girlfriends who still carry their non-working cell phones for this reason. When my turned-on cell phone is clearly visible, I continue to fumble through my bag very slowly until they walk past me so they are no longer behind me. If they are taking too long to pass me, I will sometimes sit down, glance at them, and conspicuously play with my phone so they basically have to walk past.

If they seem to be following me and I stop at an intersection, I'll wait until the person behind me crosses the street, then either stand there at the intersection until I'm sure that they are gone or wait until they are across and then turn and walk in a different direction

I will cross the street to ensure I'm on a different side of the street than they are, then watch and make sure they stay on the opposite side of the street. This has been an issue for me. If they follow you to the opposite side of the street, cross again, as many times as you need to. If they keep doing it, just fucking run.

If someone on the bus seems scary and you don't want to get off at the same stop as them,it's usually ok to get off one stop later.

Always keep an eye on them!!! Do not be embarrassed, afraid or ashamed to watch someone who is scaring you. This is one of the best ways to protect yourself. If you feel they might be someone who will react negatively to being watched (a drunk, etc), you can do it furtively, but make sure you know what they are doing!

If I'm afraid they'll follow me home, I try to loose them using the tricks I mentioned but if they are still behind me, I try to avoid going home. It depends where you live and if there is somewhere nearby that you will feel safe going to.

Don't be afraid to get on a bus (even without bus fare), or go in a store, or call 911 and say "there is a man following me and I'm scared. Please help me". If you have to call the police because the person has followed you for a while and you can't shake them, do it loudly. Make this an absolute last resort though, just in case they are not actually
following you.

Don't scurry. Get big. Try to take up more space. Widen your stance, stand up straighter, hold your arms a little farther from your body, stick your elbows out. Use your body language to make yourself seem like less of an easy target. This has the added advantage of increasing your adrenaline and making you actually stronger. Most predators are on the lookout for easy victim. Convince yourself that you are not an easy victim.

This is all play-it-by-ear stuff- I'm a bit hypervigilant, and every situation is different and requires a different approach. Sometimes staying still is a bad idea, sometimes it helps. The most important things are: keep an eye on them, don't act afraid, and don't be embarassed to do whatever you need to do to stay safe.
posted by windykites at 6:44 AM on December 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Personally, these situations scare me so incredibly much which is why I always carry pepper spray and my cell phone with me wherever I go, especially late at night.

I recommend doing what nicwolff and the young rope rider said above. I tend to call a family member or friend so that I have someone to talk to and feel safer with. If my cell phone's battery died out on me then I'll just have a fake conversation which essentially involves talking to myself and I say things that indicate I'm coming home soon.

Another thing that I sometimes do is plug 911 into my phone so that if something were to happen then I could hit the call button without even having to look. I sometimes do this depending on how unsafe I feel.
posted by livinglearning at 6:49 AM on December 6, 2012

Upon reading others' comments, though, I'm rethinking the phone thing. In your particular situation, o think what you did was just right. These are just some tricks you might find handy in the future.
posted by windykites at 6:51 AM on December 6, 2012

Another thing, I realize this is probably obvious but ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS follow your gut feeling. Knowing all of these tips is helpful for others like myself too, but when you're in that moment it's something else and going with your gut feeling can truly help you determine the right course of action.

For instance, while I recommend calling a family member or having a fake conversation on the phone that's actually not always the best course of action. I remember a police officer saying that certain types of people (whether they're drunk, criminals, etc...) gravitate towards people in these situations because the 'follower' hears a one-sided conversation which indicates that the person is alone.

That's why in some cases I choose to plug 911 into my phone without dialing the number or speaking with anyone (real or imaginary!).

Also, I'd recommend NOT fumbling through your purse because that might imply that you have valuables to the person walking behind you and may lead to an unfortunate situation.
posted by livinglearning at 6:58 AM on December 6, 2012

I am sorry this happened to you. I agree with much of what was said above. Here is a short Wiki cartoon on possible things to do. I think the positive thoughts to yourself part is important and agree with the shouting/noise making. You could consider carrying a whistle, etc. (And yes, a self-defense class may also be helpful).
posted by anya32 at 7:10 AM on December 6, 2012

Add a whistle to your keychain, and stick your keys out between your fingers.
posted by Carol Anne at 7:18 AM on December 6, 2012

You handled it exactly right. In an ideal "someone is following you" situation (as if such a thing exists), you would lead them to the police, but if you can't do that, turning around and looking at them is what you should do. You want to let them know that you see them, and you are not going to be an easy victim. If this guy was intending to harm you, it worked. Good job!
posted by donajo at 7:30 AM on December 6, 2012

Regarding sticking your keys through your fingers--a cop teaching a self-defense class told us not to do that. He said that you're just going to end up injuring yourself by cutting the squishy connective bits of your own fingers, and you will likely lose your keys. If you need to scratch someone in self-defense, that's what your fingernails are for.
posted by donajo at 7:32 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I keep pepper spray in my purse, and also just got this self-defense keychain. It's purpose isn't obvious at first glance so it shouldn't raise too much attention, it's comfortable to hold and sharp enough to injure & slow down an attacker so you can get away. It also makes a nice fidget toy: I have it with my keys and find myself palming it a lot. Just having something like this makes me feel better when I have to be out in sketchy places. If I feel I'm being followed I will also get my phone out like others have mentioned; once or twice I've also opened the camera app so it's ready in case I need to get a pic (like the face of someone following me, or the license plate of a driver in a road rage situation).
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 7:53 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and more experience on the phone thing: DO NOT rely on the police for immediate protection unless they are close enough that you can see them. We had a push-in invasion by a very aggressive crackhead (literally, high on crack at the time) and I have never felt so impotent as I did when I was threatening him with the arrival of the police (I called 911 right away and explained how urgent the situation was, and we're right downtown) and the police did not in fact arrive until 8 minutes later, which is a fucking eternity with a violent, defiant person who doesn't care about consequences. Do not waste time, distract yourself, or lower your defenses by doing this if you can immediately secure your safety/position otherwise first. I would have been better off immediately evacuating everyone and/or grabbing a weapon in the 90 seconds it took to make the call, and THEN making the call.
posted by availablelight at 8:04 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

It was only because 911 follows up on things like that that the police did come.

Not every 911 system has the equipment to locate a cell phone, even if you are able to talk for a longer time. Find out what your local system uses.
posted by yohko at 8:37 AM on December 6, 2012

I'd be cautious about doing any of the fumble with bag and see if they pass you sorts of tactics. Obviously in your case it wasn't the thing to do, but in other situations it leaves you distracted and may make them think you aren't aware (and thus really are a good target). Better to look like a hard target (aware, confident, prepared).
posted by Feantari at 8:49 AM on December 6, 2012

Have a pen handy instead of keys.
posted by brujita at 9:41 AM on December 6, 2012

A long time ago, I read that if you wear glasses and you're being attacked, snapping off one of the earpieces makes a for a sharp, jabby weapon. Aim for the eyes and throat.
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 11:43 AM on December 6, 2012

Kruger5 has the best answer.

I'd add that I've heard and believe intuitively that it's a better idea to scream "fire!" than general screaming. That'll get people out of their apartments to see what's going on.
posted by cmoj at 11:50 AM on December 6, 2012

Thank you for the great responses. I'm still reading them.

@Inspector.Gadget, we have on-site police officers. I'm intimidated by the idea of filing an actual police report, but I fully intend on talking with the policemen who overlook our security. We have cameras in key spots; I've been to the security room to see them.

@effluvia, you're right. I shouldn't be so friendly with strangers at night. I was startled because I'm normally very aware of my surroundings, and yet I didn't see this person at all before bumping into him. I know the layout of the entire complex perfectly, and I'm still unsure of where he came from.

Thank you all for helping me realize the reality of the situation. Until now, I'd avoided thinking about what could have happened, only how to avoid it in the future. In my mind, he ran at me and then... blank... and I lived happily ever after.
posted by plaintiff6r at 12:25 PM on December 6, 2012

Please report this to the police. In a widely publicised case in Melbourne that's only weeks old, a woman left a bar one evening to walk home. It was only a few minutes away. She never made it home. The police followed up on CCTV footage of a man and sadly, a few days later the victim was found sexually assaulted and murdered. One of the saddest things about it is that in the surrounding publicity, scores of other women spoke up to say that in the location where she went missing, earlier attempts had been made to grab them and yet no one thought to report it. Maybe if someone had, this man could have been stopped before the worst happened. For your own safety, as he knows where you live, and for others, it's worth filing a report. Stay safe.
posted by Jubey at 2:30 PM on December 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

I turned around and gave him a "What the fuck?" look. He stopped abruptly, stared for a millisecond, then turned around and left.

Having recently re-read The Gift of Fear, I think Gavin de Becker would say you did exactly the right thing. He talks about how reluctant people are to turn around and look a stranger in the face, but that it's the very best thing to do if you feel like they're coming too close or inappropriately focused on you.

Also, you say in your comment I shouldn't be so friendly with strangers at night, but in your post you described it as I nearly bumped into a man passing by. I greeted him in a cheerful way and apologized while passing him.

Please don't let caution and hypervigilance put you in a place where you're reluctant to greet an apparent neighbor (which, at the time, you thought he was) or to apologize for almost bumping into somebody. I think you handled the encounter absolutely appropriately from start to finish, including both greeting him at first and giving him the hairy eyeball and a "what the hell are YOU doing?" look later when his behavior seemed inappropriate.

For context, I'm a skinny and not physically-imposing woman who (due to being carfree by choice) walks around a lot in Oakland neighborhoods sketchy enough to make my suburban co-workers feel light-headed at the idea that I'm strolling through them after dark (much less late at night — I don't mention that part to them). In my experience, the best and safest mode to be in is to be alert and aware, while moving with my head up and an air of knowing where I'm going and what I'm doing, and greeting people with a cheerfully confident attitude of "hey, neighbor, how's it going?"
posted by Lexica at 6:51 PM on December 6, 2012

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