Tradecraft Notes: The Use of Clothing Disguises and the Manipulation of “Perceived Authority”


By Hammerhead

While watching the new series “Sherlock” on Netflix the other day with my better half, I had an epiphany, well, more like a “fantasy ideal” I guess;  I realized that if the average person had the heightened awareness of both his surroundings and other people that the borderline autistic savant Sherlock Holmes has, in the new series on BBCA, the world would be a much safer place. In particular, it would be much harder for criminals and terrorist to practice their devious art of disguises, because as Sherlock Holmes would eventually discover, there is always that “one thing” the criminal would slip-up with in his disguise like for example wearing the wrong shoes or not carrying themselves properly; something would be amiss and the ever-present ALERT “Sherlockian”  in “Continuous Condition Yellow” would discover it, right? Well, maybe….

It is a common misconception that the use of disguises can be tricky, and when it comes to the actual use of make-up, wigs, appendages, etc., it can be, depending on the situation and the ultimate goal. But with clothing disguises, for most professional crooks, bad guys or folks in the spook game, it is simple. Typically, they are always going to choose a disguise that is streamlined and identical across the board. In other words, a uniform of some type. It could be something simple like a “Construction Worker”. Simply put, something easily recognized by the everyday joe, but just as easy to forget in a high stress situation. “Yes, officer, there was a guy leaving the scene, a construction worker. I really did not get a good look at his face, but he had a toolbelt and a yellow hardhat…..” And you can bet as soon as the person in disguise exits the area he immediately changes into another clothing disguise, ditching the obvious toolbelt and yellow hardhat.

There is also another factor  that plays into the use of clothing disguises that a lot of people never think about, and that is the issue of TRUST. Think about it. Most criminals  or terrorist when choosing a disguise, will nine times out of ten choose an authority figure of some kind; a Police Officer, EMS, Security Guard, etc. Why? Well right off the bat, authority figures are PERCEIVED by the general public to both KNOW what they are doing and to have the authority to BE where they are, where ever that may be. The average person is not going to have the where-with-all or the stones for that matter, to question a cop, EMS, security guard or first responder on the particulars of their duties; especially when those duties are not interfering with their lives at that moment, right? Think about it. You see a couple of guys in a armed security uniform standing outside a bank, you automatically assume their have the right to be there, you do not scrutinize them or the scene intently, why should you? It never crosses your mind they are the lookouts for a robbery that is occurring inside.

This manipulation of the public perception of “Perceived Authority” is not only used by crooks and terrorist by the way, but also by dishonest law enforcement. Watch any number of videos on YouTube where cops are caught abusing  their authority in some way; almost always to a man they will respond something like “Who do you think you are! I am a Law Enforcement Officer and you are not, so back off or I will arrest you for obstruction of justice..” Or something like that. They are counting on that perception of “Perceived Authority” to intimidate you with the fear of breaking the law yourself so they can hide their misdeeds. It is no different with the criminal or terrorist.

So all of this ultimately begs the question: What should I be on the lookout (BOLO) for in a situation where my “spidey senses” are telling me something (in the words of Sherlock Homes) “foul is a foot?” with an authority figure, or to put it better, a “possible fake authority figure?” Now here is where I could go in to a long diatribe about noticing this or that with his/her uniform or badge, or the way he or she carries themselves, but in the 21st century, where you can buy uniforms, badges, official looking documents and “how to” manuals on looking like a security officer or EMS online for as little as $300 or less, that would be a giant exercise in futility. The simple answer is the same technology that enables these people to commit these crimes is the same technology that can verify their identity. We live in a connected world, like it or not, and if you have the slightest notion somebody is NOT who they say they are, get on the phone or online and confirm it. Anybody claiming to act in an official capacity will typically have no problem with you doing that. Except, most people using disguises in the manner I am talking about will most likely want to avoid any “real” contact with people, and when I say “real” I mean a meaningful exchange of words. If they are forced to have contact with you, they will typically keep it short and sweet and not try to draw too much attention to themselves.

You see, The entire clothing disguise tradecraft for the true professional criminal or bad guy is to keep OUT of the limelight, to be that “Gray Man” that person you saw but did not really get a good look at. In essence, they are counting on the disguises keeping attention AWAY from them and when true attention starts getting shined their way they are either going to exit stage left or neutralize the prying persons in some way.

Stay Alert, Stay Armed and Stay Dangerous!