Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life

By Jason Hanson
272 pages, paperbound, $19.95 
ISBN-13: 978-0399175671

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

This month, I enjoyed an easy-to-read book about threat awareness that could just as well be titled The Path to Self Sufficiency, but I doubt that title would sell as well as Spy Secrets. I picked up some new tips and enjoyed the reminders former CIA officer Jason Hanson detailed, most of which he introduces with a news story or two about how people were victimized and how the harm could have been prevented.

Reading about real life examples prompts readers to think through possible ways to escape or defuse bad situations. Most problems have multiple solutions and Hanson advocates adaptability, writing, “While knowing what to do in emergency situations is important, ultimately it’s being adaptable that can save you.” Hanson gives readers possible solutions, all under the umbrella of the bigger lessons about the importance of self-reliance, quiet self-confidence, and determining what is normal so you can identify and move quickly away from dangers. “It’s our knowledge of situational awareness that allows us to act before a crisis occurs,” he writes.

SpyEarly on, Hanson establishes a theme that runs throughout the book: how to recognize when a bad situation is brewing. “Many victims will tell you they had no idea they were about to be attacked. The truth is, there are clear-cut signs most criminals exhibit before attacking someone,” he writes.

Risky situations won’t always include obvious hints of impending attack – a committed aggressor giving you the target stare or trailing along, matching your walking speed – so Hanson teaches determining the baseline to identify where the problem may come from. Start by establishing baselines at home, he writes, teaching readers to consistently follow a “preplanned security routine” of locked doors and windows. Consistently leave exterior lighting on or off, window blinds closed or open so finding blinds open or lights burning warns of the unusual. “People who are in tune with the baseline of their surroundings are able to pick up on the sometimes subtle (but not always) clues that something is wrong. These people not only understand what a baseline should look like but they’re also not letting normalcy bias get in the way,” Hanson writes.

Human behavior has a baseline, too, Hanson reminds readers. “While standard human behavior may change depending on where the behavior takes place, we all know in our gut if someone’s behavior is out of the ordinary and we need to proceed with caution.” Red flags can include:

  • inappropriate clothing like a heavy coat worn in summer heat
  • odd gestures
  • a person where they should not be
  • paying close attention to or trailing you or another person
  • nervously looking around

Later chapters address surveillance, being followed, and the psychological manipulation criminals and predators use to make decent human beings do things they don’t want to do. Vulnerabilities that make people fall for scams are many. “Con artists know how to use a wide range of human emotions in their favor—greed, curiosity, generosity, and fear,” he writes.

Some use guilt, and demand reciprocity for an inconsequential favor or fake an emergency. Instead of telling readers not to help others, he writes, “Before agreeing to assist someone, make sure you’re not isolating yourself, don’t ever get in someone’s vehicle, and don’t be afraid to leave immediately or call for help if you’re uncomfortable.” Recognize ploys to create a false familiarity and don’t share too much information.

Good advice about gathering details about local conditions, hospitals and emergency escape routes continues the baseline theme. “When you’re abroad, make a point to note what’s typical and what’s not. What’s the baseline? What are locals wearing? How can you blend in?” Hanson asks. Continue this practice even where you feel you know the environment intimately. “If you’ve lived in the same place for a long period of time, it becomes very easy to stop paying attention to changes that are happening in your own area,” he observes.

Identify escape routes, exits and areas in which either foot traffic or vehicle traffic gets congested and grinds to a halt, Hanson advises. Where are the hospitals, pharmacies, police departments and airport? Whether vacationing or at home, know how you can get out of the area quickly because “movement saves lives,” Hanson reminds readers. I took a break from reading to study several back road routes from work to home and how to travel out of the area without going through the big cities.

Wide-ranging topics covered in Spy Secrets include disaster preparation, water, and food storage, what tools to carry on body and what to stage at home and in your car. I use about 4/5 of the list Hanson recommends but had to smilingly admit that he is the ex-spy, so more likely to put to use lock picks or tools to steal cars to get moving out of a bad situation. Other useful topics include thwarting an abduction attempt, escapes from common restraints, and the danger of and defense against home invasions.

Hanson studies situations that attract burglars and low-cost deterrents, writing, “In addition to physical security such as motion-detector lights, deadbolts, and an alarm system, it is possible to secure your home using a powerful combination of physical and psychological tricks. These tricks are easy and inexpensive and will make burglars think twice...”

  • Eliminate places intruders might hide around your home
  • Add motion-activated floodlights
  • Keep windows locked and blinds closed

Other deterrents suggested include security system signage, extra-large dog food bowls, fake security cameras, door peep holes, deadbolts, and driveway alarms. He warns that air conditioners can be pulled out to break in and dog doors also give access. A determined or deranged intruder may overcome your precautions, so Hanson details responding to a home invasion. “A good home defense plan should be simple and quick.” He recommends flashlights, weapons, a chokepoint behind which to shelter, and assigning roles for various family members, like who is to call 9-1-1.

An often-overlooked element in personal safety is related to all the time we spend driving, so I appreciated Hanson’s chapter on “survival driving.” My favorite car safety resource, Curt Rich’s Drive to Survive, is now two dozen years old, so I was interested in new ideas. “What I’m about to tell you will sound like simple common sense, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t do these things. Everything I’m about to talk about should become second nature, like putting on your seat belt,” Hanson writes.

Carjacking is the fastest growing crime in America, he continues. The first part of the solution, he comments, seems almost too easy: approach your car cautiously and once inside, lock your car doors and keep the windows up. Even then, don’t relax as if there’s no risk because you’re locked in your car, he continues. In parking lots, at stop lights, leave enough room to drive away from surrounding traffic.

He gives examples of people who suffered bump and rob attacks, people attacked when they stopped to give aid to motorists or pedestrians, people robbed while dozing in their car, getting children out of cars when under attack, and why driving away instead of engaging in an unknown situation is so desirable.

Watch approaching pedestrians, and if they’re armed and threatening, quickly drive away. “Remember, movement saves lives, so get yourself out of the danger zone,” Hanson urges. That’s why you must not crowd the car ahead of you when traffic stops. The general rule, see the tires of the car ahead, applies. “Leaving this amount of space enables you to get around that vehicle should you need to get away in an emergency. You can’t do anything to control the space behind your car, so be sure to take control of the space in front of you.”

He adds a segment on parking lot safety, those transitional zones we must move through. Even in the car, don’t drift into unawareness, he warns. No matter how much time you spend in it, your car is out in public where you are vulnerable to predators who watch for inattentive victims. Don’t be lured into pulling over and getting out of your car, Hanson continues. If you suspect someone is following you, keep the car moving. He adds instruction on how to ram through a roadblock, make a J turn, and how to take over control from a disabled driver with the car in motion. 

I’m a little put off by the frequency of “go to my website and buy” messaging mixed in with good information in Spy Secrets, that’s just me. This approach is quite common; I’ve seen it in several of the books we’ve reviewed in the past year. Knife disarm video training is only one example, and in Hanson’s defense, his chapters on self-defense techniques are not the reason to buy Spy Secrets. Learning a knife disarm or how to block requires in-person instruction and coaching, so written material serves better to raise awareness of need for such skills, not as actual instruction.

Hanson’s chapter of self-defense tactics complimented Dr. Margulies interview this month. If escape isn’t an option, Hanson recommends breaking free by attacking eyes, throat, groin, and shin, then running as fast as you can. If grabbed, fight the urge to get into a tug of war and step in to counterattack, he teaches. He addresses bear-hugs, hair grabs and choke-holds.

Spy Secrets is full of lessons and reminders about staying safe in an uncertain world.

Back to Front Page