Updated: Jan 18, 2020
Back in the 90's, I worked the door of a strip club down by the airport. It’s not a job that I ever put on my professional resume, but it was a rich experience that taught me a lot about managing people, groups, crowds and personal safety.
For the most part all I had to do was sit in a booth, check IDs, collect cover charges and alert the bouncers to any trouble. Because it was a pretty seedy place where most of the girls where a bit rough-around-the-edges, I made decent money as the untouchable girl-next-door type tucked away in my booth. With my pushup bra doing most of the heavy lifting, I would bat my eyelashes and watch my tip jar fill up. A pretty easy way to help pay for college.
The bouncers took care of the hard stuff – but there was that one time where three underage frat-types slipped through on a busy night. For some reason I happened to be the only one around to take care of it. Somehow, just through pure sass and some well-placed elbows on the frat boy in the middle of the pack, I herded them back out the door.
I was so adamant about it because the job required me to take classes and get certified from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The class really drilled into me the liability I might personally face from someone else’s lack of responsibility. So while I batted my eyelashes, I made damn sure nobody was getting in that didn’t belong there.
To protect myself, I learned a very simple technique from the experienced bouncers on spotting fake IDs. The technique has become an unconscious self-defense habit that I have used many times since in a wide range of settings.
It goes like this:
When someone hands you a suspicious ID, ask them their name. If they stumble and give a wrong name you know they’re lying. For the more savvy liars, you take it a step further – you ask them for more information about themselves that is found on their IDs – for example, birthdate and address. To go further still, ask them their astrological sign and make sure it matches up with the birthdate on the ID. Of course, this means you have to know some rudimentary astrology while assuming they will know their sign. But even people who roll their eyes at astrology have an idea of what their sign is.
A crucial part of the success here is to be friendly and playful about it. If you come on too strong they get combative and become a problem. But even if you're polite, those with something to hide will still become agitated. Every bit of the interaction is used for information gathering.
The whole aim of this “interview” is requiring the person to generate the information, not just merely confirm it. It does no good to look at the ID, see the name, “John” and ask, “Are you, John?”.
All they have to do is say "yes", and you’ve just wasted your opportunity to gather information.
And this is what all the well-meaning, but overly general, rideshare safety advice misses. Lyft and Uber themselves recommend you confirm the driver’s identity. But in practice most rideshare customers simply ask, “Are you John?” which easily sets them up to be lied to.
Why is this important?
After all, you’ve done your due diligence and confirmed the license plate, make, color and model of the car picking you up.
But in speaking to both drivers and customers it seems that drivers sharing accounts is a frequent practice. So if a driver named John has been vetted by the company, and he may be an otherwise trustworthy fellow, he may share his account his friend, Bob who is neither vetted nor trustworthy. In fact, there seems to be a thriving black market for bogus driver accounts acquired through identity theft and utilized by drivers who wouldn't otherwise pass background checks. (UPDATED 12/05/19: Uber just released a report with the staggering figure of 5,981 reports of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018.)
Now the last thing we can do is plan for every single possibility. It already seems that for every bad guy tactic we hear about, we react by adding one more thing to an already mile long to-do safety checklist. This leaves us paranoid but not necessarily more prepared.
But with a pro-active mindset we don't have to plan for each and every one-off tactic. Rather, by cultivating a pro-active mindset you get to the point where:
You are not in reactionary mode scrambling to respond to what is happening to you, and
It becomes such a habit you don’t even have to think about it.
The goal is to develop an unconscious competence in your self-defense habits.
A common example of unconscious competence is that of driving a car – when you first learned, every move you made was painfully conscious – until you got enough practice and you became habitually effective at it.
So by simply asking, “What is your name?” to the driver – rather than asking them to confirm their name – you are building habits and strengthening the muscles towards this pro-active mind-set.
And here's how this pro-active mindset kept me out of potential trouble recently:
I was prompted to write this article after an experience I had with a Lyft driver. I made a video about the encounter shortly after it happened – so if you want the raw story you can watch it here. Warning, I was very angry and dropped a lot of F-Bombs. So if that kind of thing bothers you, stick with the article here and I’ll give you the G-Rated version.
I was waiting with a girlfriend to be picked up after a relaxing day at my favorite Ktown spa. My phone was on the fritz and unable to call a car for myself so we planned to share the ride where it would take me home after it dropped her off. When the car pulled up we sleepily confirmed the license plate, make, color and model of the car.
So far so good.
As we opened the door the driver asked, “Are you (my friends name)?”
She said yes.
“And what’s your name?” I asked with inquisitiveness fully balanced with that practiced sense of friendliness that all women know we-need-to-have-when-asking-a-man-a-direct-question.
“I don’t need to tell you that," he responded.
His answer shocked me right out of my previously relaxed and post-massage state.
I laughed it off and asked him again.
Again he refused to answer.
Completely weirded out by his demeanor I turned to my friend,
“I’m not getting in a car with that guy," I told her.
He left, we called another car, and we made it home safely.
But here’s the kicker – the next day when my friend went to follow up about the original driver there was no record of him in her system. This certainly raises more questions than it answers.
And it all turned on the nonchalant one-question-interview of this driver:
the way he responded told me EVERYTHING I needed to know about him in just a matter of seconds.
wait, more than that...
so full of contempt and incensed over a simple question from two women about to get into a car with an unknown man, was unbelievable.
Yeah, I’m not getting into a car with that level of entitlement.
And neither should you.