Where Should I Look for "Suspicious Activity"?     

Watch for suspicious activities of vessels and individuals in locations such as:

  • Under and around bridges, tunnels, or overpasses
  • Near commercial areas or services like ports, fuel docks, cruise ships, or marinas.
  • Near industrial facilities like power plants and oil, chemical, or water intake facilities.
  • Near military bases and vessels, other government facilities, or security zones
  • In and around passenger terminals, ferries, and day cruise lines
  • Near railroad lines serving any of the above listed facilities.

You are NOT expected to patrol any particular area. Your expertise in recognizing suspicious activity is derived from your familiarity with surroundings you operate within while engaged in your normal work or recreation around the waterfront.

What is Suspicious Activity?

What do we mean by suspicious activity? Suspicious Activity is a pattern of behavior that arouses a "gut feeling" that something is not right. Trust your intuition, but remember it is the behavior of individuals that is suspicious, not their ethnic, religious, or national origin. For example, suppose you see people of an obviously different ethnic or national background fishing off a pier or near a secure facility. The mere fact that they are "different" is not important. People fishing near the water by itself is obviously not a suspicious activity. In fact, if they weren't fishing that might be a trigger to alert you they were engaging in Suspicious Activity.

Keeping in mind that "People aren't suspicious, behavior is," here are some situational examples of behaviors and activities that may help you determine what is suspicious and, thus, what should be reported:

Unusual Operation of a Small Boat, Accompanied by Videotaping/Still Photography

You observe a boat being operated aimlessly (with no apparent destination). The boat is occupied by three young to middle-aged people -- not a "family" as usually seen cruising these waters. A little while later you see the same boat, this time with two occupants, and it's movement is repetitive. It circles around bridge abutments for a while, and makes several passes alongside a shore side power plant, moored commercial vessels, and a ferry passenger terminal. You notice that the passenger is taking still and video pictures of the facilities. Later, you observe the boat picking up the third person from a public dock near the bridge. He boards the boat carrying a video camera and a notebook. These actions could indicate initial surveillance of a potential target and subsequent attack.

People Taking Still Photographs or Videotaping from the Shore

A white mid-sized four-door sedan pulls into a "view" area near a railway bridge, drops off two passengers, and departs. One of the passengers begins taking video pictures of the bridge, as well as a commuter train and a long freight train, which, headed in opposite directions, pass each other on the bridge about 15 minutes later. (As a frequent and long-time marina worker, you know this happens every weekday throughout the year). The second person appears to be taking notes, and occasionally glances at his left wrist as if checking a watch.

You continue down river, returning to your home marina just a quarter mile South. As you pull into the service dock, you notice what appears to be the same white sedan parked at water's edge in the marina parking lot. The driver is outside the car, and is in the process of packing a large video camera into its storage case. A few minutes later, he gets into his vehicle and drives away. People photographing or videotaping potential terrorist targets are engaged in activities that should be considered suspicious.

Person Running Away/Fleeing

You notice a person running away from an area close to a secure facility. Some questions should come to mind: Does this person's behavior or dress indicate he is more than the usual jogger? Does he appear to be someone just in a hurry, or does his running have a heightened sense of urgency or tension about it? It would be suspicious if he were looking about furtively, as if he were concerned about being observed or pursued.

Person(s) Engaged in Surveillance

You work in a business in the immediate vicinity of a ferry terminal, and you ride the ferry to and from work everyday. One day you observe a particular person taking pictures of the shore side -- unusual for people riding the ferry during "commute time." While at work you notice the same person board a ferry to a different destination, and return a few hours later. The next day you see the same person loitering around the terminal as passengers pass through security while boarding ferries -- at one point the person joins a group lining up to board a ferry, takes some pictures, but leaves the group without boarding. During the day you see this person making two round-trip ferry rides -- once wearing a large backpack, and once carrying a oversized briefcase. Over several days you notice the same person engaged in varied activity, at different times, all in the vicinity of the ferry terminal.

Could the activity be completely innocent and explainable? Of course. Could the person be engaged in surveillance in preparation for a terrorist attack? Perhaps. Is the behavior suspicious enough to report? Yes!

Person(s) Asking Unusual Questions

While you are working on a customer's boat, a stranger approaches you and strikes up a conversation. She says she is interested in renting dock space for her boat at the marina, and says, "I guess my boat will be pretty secure here since it's very close to the power plant across the bay, and I'm sure the area is heavily patrolled by the Coast Guard and police." She then presses you for more details about the type of land and water patrols, their frequency and their scheduling. The person may be asking legitimate questions, but may also be gathering information for a potential terrorist attack.

Suspicious Conditions -- Physical Breaches of Security

A chain link security fence topped by barbed wire has been erected around the abutments of a bridge you pass by every day. One day you notice that there is a large hole in the fence, large enough to allow a person to climb through. Even though you don't observe either anyone in the area or any object placed inside the fence, you are aware that the hole is large enough for an adult to crawl through.

Several hundred feet down the road, you also notice a car or truck parked in an unusual place -- very close to another security fence at a waterfront shipping facility. The vehicle could be used as a platform for terrorists or criminals to facilitate climbing over the fence to gain access to the secured area.

Both of these are suspicious conditions and physical breaches of security that should be reported, so the fence can be repaired and the vehicle moved.

Person Renting a Boat -- Examine the Totality of Conduct

You work at a business that rents small boats by the hour. In the process of renting a boat for the day "to do some fishing," two men ask about the "best fishing spots" on the bay and, pointing in the direction of the Navy Base to the north, ask if that might not be a good place to fish. You tell them, "No, the best fishing is in the South Bay area." They fill out the paperwork, and pay you the required deposit and "full day" rate with a credit card. Neither of them seems all that interested in the terms of the contract, nor in the fact that they are not entitled to a partial refund if they return before the end of the day. You then help them load the boat with obviously brand-new fishing equipment and two large coolers, and take the time to remind them, "It might be a good idea to buy some bait." After you check them out on operation of the boat, they leave the dock and head north in the direction of the Navy Base. The whole situation starts to seem strange to you, including the fact that the person's recently-issued drivers license provided as proof of identity, the bank credit card used for payment, and the license plate on their vehicle were from three different states. Individually, each of the oddities in this situation do not rise to the level of "suspicious behavior," but when viewed in their totality they do.

Identifying Suspicious Activity

Identifying suspicious activity starts with understanding the steps a terrorist group takes to plan an attack. The acronym SETS will help you understand the basic steps and indicators.

SURVEILLANCE involves photographing, videotaping, drawing and/or mapping or other means of monitoring a potential target. (Types of surveillance include fixed, mobile, progressive, creative, overt and covert.)

ELICITATION involves asking detailed questions in an attempt to gain knowledge of hidden or proprietary information. Things to keep in mind:

Listen carefully when engaged in a conversation with a stranger. When they begin to ask or inquire about guarded information you may be involved in, you can suspect that elicitation is being used. Remember, the conversation may seem totally innocent.

Avoid becoming a victim of elicitation by sharing proprietary, classified or guarded information only with those that possess a need to know; without exception. If you suspect that you are being targeted, simply reply to the elicitor's questions with an inquiring question of your own.

TESTS OF SECURITY are a tools used to develop timelines of authoritative response to a particular incident or occurrence. Staging an incident can be done to determine access vulnerability and/or establish a timeline for later use. Examples include (but are not limited to):

  • Bomb threats
  • Small fires (trash can/dumpster)
  • Abandoned packages

A test of security is likely to occur in close proximity of a potential target or an integral component in the plan to attack a potential target.

SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR is displayed behavior that is out of place or out of character with the environment. Behavior is the key enabler. What activity is the person(s) engaging in that is out of place with the immediate environment (their surroundings)? If the activity is out of character, then that activity may be considered suspicious.

Remember, People are not Suspicious, Behavior is!

To report suspicious activity: Call the National Response Center at 1-877-24WATCH
If there is immediate danger to life or property, call 911 or the U.S. Coast Guard on Channel 16

U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Department of Homeland Security

This page was last reviewed / modified June 26, 2017