10 Crime-Fighting Tricks the Bad Guys Didn’t See Coming

Alex Eben Meyer
Alex Eben Meyer / Alex Eben Meyer

Real crime fighters might not have superpowers, but these tactics are the next best thing.


Back in 2010, would-be terrorists could download Inspire, a magazine produced by al-Qaeda. The publication ran essays on betraying America, interviews with leading jihadis, and DIY guides to crafting homemade explosives. But when readers opened the article “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” they found a list of cupcake recipes previously published by The Ellen DeGeneres Show. (British intelligence forces took credit for the ruse.) That wasn’t the only time terrorists got “cupcaked.” In 2001, reporters in Kabul combing through debris left by the Taliban found so-called plans for a thermonuclear bomb. The text came from a 1979 piece in the humor magazine Journal of Irreproducible Results. Step 1: “First obtain about 25 pounds of Plutonium 239 at your local supplier.”


While wandering through South Delhi, India, in 2014, Ranjani Iyer Mohanty noticed something odd: exterior walls and fences, adorned with Hindu deities. Was it an expression of piety? A celebration? Nope. The gods were there to watch you pee. Specifically, as Mohanty revealed in an article for The Atlantic, locals were using the images to discourage men from urinating on walls. In some places, the images were multicultural, with depictions of Jesus as well as Sikh iconography. Whether it worked, God only knows.


Geese and swans are surprisingly fierce! Just take a look at their bills—full of serrated toothlike ridges called tomia—and you’ll see why. In fact, the birds may be better than guard dogs: They’re loud, aggressive, and not friendly to strangers. In June 2013, a man tried to break into a police station in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, hoping to steal back his confiscated motorbike. He poisoned the guard dog, scaled the compound wall, and was met by 20 geese initially kept around for meat and eggs. They began to honk, flap, and raise the alarm. Guard geese are now being trained throughout the province.


The United States military used hair metal to drive Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega out of his hideout in 1989. FBI agents leaned on Nancy Sinatra and super-cheesy Christmas carols during the Branch Davidians standoff in Waco, Texas, in 1993. More recently, however, British Merchant Navy vessels needed something stronger to stop the Somali pirates who got too close to their ships. So sailors mixed their bullets with some Britney Spears. While the pirates probably found the gunfire battle more toxic than “Baby One More Time,” the footage definitely makes for one of the strangest music videos you’ll ever see.


Every city has homeless people. And some of those folks will panhandle where they are likely to be seen (and helped) by drivers, like intersections and highway off-ramps. But police in Ottawa, Canada, noticed how drivers had stopped paying attention—tuning out the homeless in their midst. Cops took advantage of the situation, dressing in shabby clothes by roadways, carrying signs with messages like “My name is Constable Jesty. If you are on a cell phone, you are about to get a ticket. God bless.” In 2012, when The Ottawa Sun tagged along, the undercover cops ticketed 10 drivers in less than an hour.


In some parts of India, the UK, and the United States, the cop on the block is more like a scarecrow in a cornfield. Life-size cardboard police cutouts are stationed at busy intersections where drivers don’t obey traffic rules, gas stations prone to fuel theft, and public transit stops where bikes are frequently stolen. The idea is that the sight of a cop, even one you know is fake, might make you think twice about breaking the law. Success is decidedly mixed: In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a cardboard cop has reduced bike thefts—but in Bangalore, India, the cutouts were just stolen.


Moscow scientists created a system they say can screen airline passengers’ thoughts and spot malicious intent—before anyone sets foot on the plane. In 2007, WIRED reported that the Russian lab Psychotechnology Research Institute had landed a contract with the Department of Homeland Security. The Semantic Stimuli Response Measurements Technology starts with a person being shown a series of images flashing quickly—too quickly for that person to consciously see what they depict. Hypothetically, the terrorist would register an image of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even if his face flashed onscreen for just a moment. Security agents could monitor the subject’s responses to the images and understand what the person was thinking about. Sound crazy? It probably is.


Meet the crime fighters of the future: your microbiome. That’s the name for the special community of microbes that colonize your body—inside and out. Each person’s microbiome may be more unique than a fingerprint, and it could help investigators identify victims and perps. How? “Humans colonize new living spaces with their own personal bacterial stamp within just a few hours,” reports Rachel Feltman of the Washington Post. In the future, investigators could ID criminals by finding this microbial footprint at a crime scene. While that technology is far off, researchers are now trying to use microbiomes to identify a victim’s time of death. Since microbiomes change after a person dies, decoding them may allow investigators to determine when a murder took place.


Forensic psychologist Claire Nee spent 20 years studying the “dysfunctional expertise” of criminals—i.e., the illegal skills that help them ply their trade. During her study, she learned that burglars always eyeball valuables to discern how much items are worth, even when they’re off the job. The result is an immediate sense of objects’ cost. (Think the sharp instincts of a top Price Is Right contestant, but for expensive jewelry instead of dish soap and mops.) In 2014, she decided to follow subjects as they “worked,” letting six burglary offenders and six graduate students rob a staged house. The two groups operated very differently. The real-life criminals spent more time in the house, and though they nabbed fewer and smaller items than their counterparts, on average, their hauls were worth $1500 more. Nee’s research isn’t just teaching police how criminals think, it’s also teaching scientists how practice turns to skill, and how skill then evolves into unconscious and automatic behavior. These are lessons that apply to chess players and athletes just as much as they do to burglars.


Remember James Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin, which had secret buttons that left oil slicks and nails on the highway or triggered an ejector seat? In 2005, Wolfgang Gleine patented a design for an airplane terrorism defense system that would bring similar tricks to the skies. Features include gas jets that fill the cabin with fog (cough), high-intensity lights to blind assailants (and, unfortunately, everybody else), and tranquilizer dart guns that can be operated either manually or through an automated system that (somehow) evaluates whether someone is a terrorist or just a passenger trying to go to the restroom. Manage to escape all those defenses and you face Gleine’s best idea yet: a trapdoor. The floor outside the cockpit can open, dropping the bad guy into a holding cell below. Beats flying coach.  

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