Jul 07 2010

Signs of Criminal Activity

Published by at 2:27 am under Detective/Crime Stories

Here are some behaviors and traits that are mostly not themselves illegal, but may suggest that something is amiss.

  • Level of wealth inconsistent with job.  You don’t buy a yacht on a used furniture salesman’s salary.  (Innocuous possibilities: lottery, inheritance, wealthy in-laws, game show superstar, etc).
  • Unusual clothing.  In particular, people wearing bulky clothing in warm weather.  Depending on where you are, this may be a red flag for a shoplifter or a suicide bomber.  A person with gloves on his person in warm months may be concerned about fingerprints and DNA evidence.  (On the other hand, some professionals like gardeners have a legitimate reason to wear gloves year-round).
  • Clothing that obscures features.  Most banks require that everybody take off their hats (and sometimes sunglasses) for this reason.
  • Loitering, particularly outside a home, bank or a store that has a lot of small valuables.  (Small valuables are easier to steal, move and conceal).  Loitering may be a sign the person is casing the place for a robbery.  Innocuous possibilities: “I’m on my smoking break!” or “I live here!”
  • Use of lookouts and/or runners (low-ranking criminals, frequently juveniles, that run as soon as the police show up to create a distraction).
  • Use of typewriters, to avoid a paper trail.  (Innocuous possibility: Convinced that those newfangled IBMs are just a fad?)
  • Disposable cell-phones (harder to wiretap).  Innocuous possibility: the person doesn’t have the money for a regular cell-phone.
  • Unusually high consumption of electricity.  This may suggest a drug growing and/or processing operation, or in superhero fiction, science of the mad variety.
  • Unusual purchases: vast amounts of fertilizer, certain industrial chemicals used in explosives and drug processing, armor-piercing bullets, bulletproof vests, maybe one-way plane tickets, etc.  The background of the individual may tie into the perceived threat level.  For example, the police will probably want to verify you’re a farmer or have some other legitimate use for copious amounts of fertilizer.
  • No credit card, just cash.  Credit cards leave a record of every transaction, which is very helpful to police verifying alibis.
  • The individual keeps large amounts of cash at home and/or on his person (putting it in a bank puts the money on the books, which is problematic if you can’t explain to the IRS where it came from).
  • Gang colors and/or insignia
  • Envelopes addressed to someone else–stealing mail is itself a crime and may suggest the person is also involved in identity theft.  (Innocuous explanation: A friend or neighbor asked you to pick up their mail while they were in the hospital or away).
  • Unusual smells (particularly related to drugs and blood).  For example, “Making meth produces powerful odors that may smell like ammonia or ether. These odors have been compared to the smell of cat urine or rotten eggs.” Innocuous explanation: the septic tank exploded.
  • Blackened windows on a house.
  • Expensive security cameras on a house or store, particularly if the owner is not particularly wealthy.  There may be an innocent explanation, but this may be a red flag for criminal activity.   Low-grade operations may use baby monitors outside, guard-dogs, and/or tall fences.
  • Taking a note of somebody’s license plate.  (Criminals may keep track of license plates in the area to keep tabs on cars that may be unmarked police cruisers).  Innocuous reason: “Would the owner of the red Mustang with license plate 2FAST4U please turn its lights off?”
  • A lot of visitors, particularly ones that come and go quickly.  It’s harder for the police to monitor indoor drug sales.  (For one thing, you can’t take pictures as easily with a long-lens camera).
  • Strange ventilation.  This may suggest a drug processing operation.
  • Unusual trash.  For example, respiratory masks, lithium batteries that have been ripped apart, packaging from cold tablets, and plastic hoses are telltale signs of a meth lab.
  • Bleach stored in a car.  Innocuous explanation: certain professionals (like cleaners) may need bleach for work.  Besides that, bleach in a car suggests the person is scrubbing crime scenes of DNA evidence.  It really isn’t something that most people would just have lying around.
  • Unusually wealthy for the area.  In a really bad area, wealth may be an indicator of a connection to the drug trade or some other illicit activity.
  • Signs of a physical altercation (unusual cuts, bruises, black eyes, etc).
  • Injuries not treated at a hospital.  In particular, hospitals will report every gunshot wound to the police.
  • Paranoid behavior.  They may have testy relations with the neighbors.
  • They don’t get out as much as most other people.
  • A criminal record.  Save the best for last!

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Signs of Criminal Activity”

  1. Goaton 07 Jul 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Well this is good for writing fiction and real life!

  2. B. Macon 07 Jul 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Probably not that useful for real life. Anybody that’s a police officer would know at least a hundred of these. Anybody that’s thinking about committing a crime and DIDN’T know these is so screwed that he should get a real job while he can. 😀



    The Tribune recently covered a shady businessman that had a typewriter just for documents tied to illegal activities. By that point, he was so neck-deep in charges that the FBI brought in a document analyst and those guys are, ahem, quite skillful. Rather quaintly, the businessman got rid of the typing tape and thought that would make it impossible to tie his typewriter to the documents in question. Lulz–even if he HAD remembered to remove the erasing tape, there were so many holes in this plan that it was like he was gunning for a lifetime achievement award in felonious stupidity.

    When writing police characters, I think the most important thing to emphasize is that the police are usually methodical and driven, particularly in serious cases. They have a lot of manpower and highly skilled investigators. That, and there are so many possible ways to leave evidence that the evidence is almost assuredly out there, somewhere, and the criminal only has to screw up once. E.g., a murderer bleached the scene and wore gloves but left a soda can. No fingerprints, but the saliva he left behind in the can made for a DNA match. Police interviews are also a gold mine for incriminating evidence. It is very surprising how many criminals imagine that spending a few weeks planning their crime and/or rehearsing their story will allow them to outsmart at least 2 cops that may well have 25+ years of experience and thousands of convictions between them. (For more on writing police interviews, I’d recommend this lecture by a longtime police officer that’s worked on 1000 felonies and 2500 misdemeanors).

  3. Goaton 08 Jul 2010 at 12:41 pm

    To a degree this stuff helps. Someone I know just caught a coworker embezzling 600 dollars from their workplace. It was the little things like what her pay was compared to what she was spending etc that led to the coworker confessing.

  4. Ragged Boyon 09 Jul 2010 at 7:16 am

    The link for Unusual Smells isn’t complete. But this is a cool list I could definitely see about using some of this stuff in my upcoming works. Especially for a particularly perceptive character.

  5. B. Macon 09 Jul 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Ah, thanks for telling me about the link. I’ve fixed it.

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