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Criminal Positioning 101: How to Spot a Bad Guy Lying in Wait

Criminal Positioning 101: How to Spot a Bad Guy Lying in Wait

It’s no secret that one of the most critical aspects of self-defense is recognizing a threat in the first place. But how do you differentiate between regular people going about their day and those that mean you harm?

It all comes down to understanding body language and criminal positioning.

Most criminals don’t just randomly attack the first person they see walking down the street. They usually have a plan – an idea of the type of person they want to victimize, and how, when, and where they want to do it.

Before an assailant can make a move on a potential victim, they have to get into a position to do so. That can mean lurking around a corner, blocking all the exits, or even distracting you so they have an opportunity to strike.

Understanding criminal positioning can help prepare you to recognize potentially dangerous people so you can defend yourself, or, ideally, avoid a confrontation in the first place.

There are several ways a criminal might “lie in wait” for their next victim. Here are the most common:

Closing the Gap Between You

Before someone can attack you, they’ll need to get within arm's reach.

Whether they’re planning to grab you, assault you, or steal from you, a bad guy will need to close the physical distance between you to get it done. So, if you notice a person stalking toward you in a way that makes your hair stand up, or if someone tries to get uncomfortably close to you, don’t ignore it.

Just because someone violates your personal bubble space doesn’t automatically make them a crook (some people are just like that, ugh). BUT, it does raise some red flags and should put you on guard.

Watch for strangers who seem like they’re intentionally trying to get closer to you than is normal. Odds are you don’t want anybody invading your personal boundaries, so moving away from them is a win whether they’re up to something or not.

Man wearing a hoodie approaching a woman at night - Vedder Holster's Stock Photorgraphy

Intercepting Your Path

One way that criminals try to get close to you is by taking a path that ensures you will bump into each other.

Now, just because someone walks past you isn't cause for alarm. We’re talking about when someone intentionally creates a situation in which you must divert or bump into one another.

For example, if you’re walking down a sidewalk and someone crosses the street so that you have to walk right by them, that should cause alarm bells to go off in your head. This can also happen in places like stores and parking lots, or anywhere you might cross paths with someone.

According to NRA Women, a great way to determine whether a person is trying to intercept you or just innocently pass by is to slow your pace and see if they match it. If they slow down to match your speed, or change the direction they’re going in again, that could be a sign of trouble.

Lurking Behind Cover

Believe it or not, bad guys hiding behind bushes or dumpsters waiting for an unsuspecting person to come along doesn’t just happen in movies.

The problem with this type of attacker is you can’t see them coming until it’s too late. They often wait until the very last minute to ambush you, leaving you little time to react.

Luckily, by practicing a bit of situational awareness, you can learn to recognize the types of hiding places these criminals often lurk in and use caution when you encounter one. So, what kind of areas do aggressors like to hide in?

A bad guy will hide behind anything and everything so long as you can’t see them coming. That could be a bush, wall, dumpster, door, or even a stereotypically sketchy van. Be careful any time you pass by an alleyway or round a corner on a deserted street, as those are prime places for an attacker to hide.

Once you’ve attuned your eye to recognize these hiding places, give them a bit of space as you pass by. Don’t walk right into a criminal’s trap!

Suspicious Man lucking from behind a car while woman is entering the vehicle

Blocking the Exit

An intelligent criminal will wait to make a move until their victim is stuck somewhere they can’t escape, then move in on them while they have nowhere to go.

If someone is approaching you in a way that backs you into a corner or blocks the only exit, that’s a very, very bad thing. Do your best to avoid being trapped by being aware of your escape routes in any given place.

If you know which doors are locked, which streets are dead-ends, and whether or not you can squeeze between the parked cars around you is a great start. If you already know, and avoid, the avenues that could leave you stuck if someone blocks the only exit, you’ll stay one step ahead of a criminal looking to entrap you.

Ganging Up On You

Not all criminals are solo artists. Many of them work in teams of two or more, which is that much harder to evade.

That being said, it’s also harder for them to hide their intentions. If you’re approaching a group of people, watch for indications they’re up to no good. Telltale signs of nefarious activity would be a group that’s lined up on either side of your path or several people who split up as you approach or pass by.

Both of these, and other behaviors that make you uncomfortable, could be a sign that the group is planning to surround you. Or, it could mean some of them are planning to follow you while the others are blocking your exit. Either way, the situation screams trouble.

In an event like this, don’t be afraid to turn around and take another route if you’re getting the heebie jeebies. While it could be a harmless group of friends hanging out after work, it could also be a very dangerous trap. Use your intuition, and remember it’s better to be safe than sorry!

3 men with bad intention suspicious looking  at a walking pedestrian

Laying a Trap

Another common ploy criminals use is a distraction to divert your attention before an attack.

This can be anything from a block in your path, to someone approaching you for directions, or even a person who appears to be in need. While you address whatever unexpected encounter they created, they’ll surround you or sneak up behind you.

This is a tricky one, because most kind-hearted people will be hard-pressed to pass by a lost child or a pregnant woman who needs help with her groceries. And don’t get us wrong – you should help people – but pay attention to context clues that can help you determine whether it’s real, or if it’s a trap.

If something seems out of place, or if your gut is telling you to watch out, listen to those instincts and proceed with caution.

What to Do If You Think You’ve Come Across an Attacker

So you’ve spotted someone who looks like they’re up to something. Maybe you noticed them eyeballing you from around the corner, or maybe you don’t like the way they’re walking in your direction.

Whatever the case, the reality is that you can’t take action against someone just for creeping you out – you have to wait for them to make the first move. Chances are, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for their behavior. But, don’t ignore something that seems suspicious. In case they are looking to victimize you, you want to be ready.

Trust Your Gut

Our subconscious is far better at detecting trouble than our conscious self is. So, if your gut is telling you something’s not right, pay attention!

Even if you feel crazy for being on edge about something or someone, there’s usually a reason. Your intuition is likely picking up on subtle cues that say something is wrong.

Blurred man approaching a female from behind

According to the Tactical Arts Academy, these “pre-attack cues” are usually very small physical or behavioral signs that someone is getting ready to attack. These cues are made unconsciously by the assailant as a result of anxiety or nervous energy.

With practice, you can actually learn to pick up on these cues – including sweating, swallowing or spitting, trembling, jaw clenching, scratching, scanning people walking by, etc. But until you know what you’re looking for, your subconscious will do it for you. All you have to do is listen to it!

Remember, a good rule of thumb is if something feels wrong, it probably is!

Prepare to Defend

Once something has caught your attention as suspicious, the very first thing you need to do is prepare to defend yourself if necessary.

Mentally thinking through how you’ll react if a person does indeed make a move to attack you – noting escape routes, thinking about the best defensive position you can put yourself in, freeing your hands so you’re ready to draw your weapon, etc. – goes a long way in successfully warding off an assailant.

Maybe that looks like unzipping your jacket so your pistol is more accessible. Maybe it means grabbing your child’s hand in case you need to run. Whatever the situation dictates, do what is necessary to ensure you can protect yourself if things escalate.

You’d be surprised by how just mentally running through the different possible scenarios and considering how you’d respond to each (even if you have just a few moments to do so) helps speed up your defensive actions.

You already know what action you need to take depending on what happens, meaning you’ve taken the guesswork out of defending yourself. And, if nothing comes of it, congratulations! You’ve just completed a situational awareness exercise, and that never hurts.

Remove Yourself From the Situation

Once you’re prepared to handle the worst-case scenario, your next course of action is to get away from the potential threat as fast as possible.

That may be as simple as pulling away from a stoplight or crossing the street to avoid a suspicious individual. It could entail a little more. Maybe you decide to leave a party where someone is making you uncomfortable. Or perhaps you ask a creepy ride-share driver to drop you off ahead of schedule at a public place.

Do whatever you have to do to get yourself safe – even if that means you have to be rude, or people look at you like you’re crazy. It’s better to seem weird or inconsiderate than to face a dangerous situation because you didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

Man in a car - Vedder Holster's Stock Photography


Knowing how to recognize those who pose a threat to you is the first step in successful self-defense. Understanding criminal positioning and knowing how to recognize the body language of a would-be attacker is an important skill, and one that can easily be learned with practice.

Before an assailant takes action against someone, they typically get into a position that gives them an advantage and allows them to assess potential victims. That often includes closing the gap between you, blocking your escape route, and using a ploy to distract you.

Once you know what criminal positioning looks like, you can take necessary steps to keep yourself safe by preparing to defend and leaving the situation.

If you conceal carry, a quality gun holster is critical when seconds count. If you’re looking for a new IWB, OWB, or pocket carry holster, visit our Holsters by Gun Model page for Kydex holsters that are custom-made for your weapon of choice.

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Mikayla Blair

After launching her career as an award-winning journalist in the American Southwest, Mikayla Blair joined the Vedder Holsters team as a content writer in 2021. She writes about all things guns, holsters, and concealed carry, and is especially passionate about women's self-defense.

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