|Never trust anthropomorphized punctuation marks. photo credit|
The answer is not to be perpetually suspicious of everyone. That is no way to live. But there are some things you can do to be safer.
Trust Your Gut
Your first line of defense is your initial interaction with the person.
Your brain can hold on to seven details (give or take) at once. That means at any given moment, you are ignoring the vast majority of the details around you. It's called Miller's Law, and if you'd like to read more about it as it pertains to self protection, I can highly recommend Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. But for now just understand that you have a biological limitation of considering only a few details at once. In order for you to function as a person, your brain has to efficiently choose and filter those most important details quickly and accurately, discarding the rest.
A side effect of this phenomenon is that you can have a visceral reaction to a person or situation and not understand why. If you feel a gut-wrenching fear when meeting a stranger in a public place, you might not know why. Some people will tell themselves that because they don't know why they feel that way, they're being foolish, that there is nothing to worry about. We all have social conditioning toward being polite, which is usually a good thing, but it can sometimes make us less safe. That fear was caused by something--maybe the person was dressed far too warmly for the weather in a way that could easily conceal a weapon, or maybe the person was standing too close, or maybe the person parked right next to you in an otherwise empty parking lot, or maybe someone is just too determined to give you help you didn't ask for.
|What if they just pose for creepy-looking stock photos?|
Your brain won't necessarily remember those details. You probably also won't remember the air temperature, what color his shoes were, or what the floor was made of. Those details weren't important, so your brain filtered them away. The important detail was that you were facing a threat.
If a coworker "creeps you out," or the guy you've hired to mow your lawn inexplicably makes you uncomfortable every time you see him, you want to take those warning signs seriously. Trusting your gut will do a lot toward making sure the people you let into your life are worthy of being there.
Look Them Up
This section will probably be less useful to those who live outside of the United States, but there may be similar resources in your country.
So, they didn't creep you out or raise any red flags when you met them, and now you're considering bringing this person into your life. The idea is to do a little due diligence before giving someone access to you or your family. If you need a pet sitter, if you have a new boyfriend, if you're signing your kids up at a local martial arts school, etc., you will need to trust a person who you don't know very well. But if the person has a criminal history, you can probably find out.
|A history of domestic violence is a solid predictor of future violence. photo credit|
A quick note before using any of these tools--If you are looking up this kind of information for employment purposes, the laws are different and more restrictive. Check your state laws before doing a background check for employment purposes. You can still do it, you just have to do a little extra work.
1. Federal Searches
First there are the federal tools, which you can use in any state. The first is the National Sex Offender Registry. This is a free resource that lets you type in a name. Alternatively you can search by location, which is handy if you are moving to a new neighborhood. The other federal tool is PACER, which allows you to access public court records such as criminal convictions. Some of its features are not free, but you can search for names without paying a fee.
2. State and Local Searches
The next thing to do is to check their local public records. This is another one that requires some caution as the laws are different from state to state regarding which records are public. In general, you can look at your own records, or you can look at someone else's records if they consent to it. Some states make the records public regardless. My home state of Wisconsin does this, and you can type any name into this website to look for criminal convictions. Many states have similar tools, and a quick internet search should tell you whether your state or territory is one of them. Barring that, you can visit the local police station and court house.
If the person has lived in more than one state, you'll have to check multiple states to get a complete picture. There are some commercial services that will do this for you, but their accuracy varies. You are better off doing the search yourself, if you can. But if you don't know all of the states a person has lived in and you want to check the entire country, it may be worthwhile to use such a service.
3. Internet Searches
The easiest but least reliable method of looking someone up is to just do an internet search. But it's dubious... if you type my name into Google, for example, you are likely to find a whole lot about the much more famous television personality of the same name. You could find me by adding "Martial Journeys" to my name, but you would only see my professional life. It would be very hard for you to use Google to find my Star Trek Dresden Files crossover fan fiction. Mostly because I never wrote any.
|Or did I? I didn't. photo credit|
But if I did, you probably wouldn't find it unless you knew to look for it. So it's hard to know whether your new babysitter runs a dog-fighting business on the side, or is prominently involved in a hate group, or whatever, unless you specifically thought to check for those things. And you can't check for everything.
However, there are a few things you can do to make the process a little less useless. First, search for their name and any aliases you know of. Try a search for their name and add either their profession or the state or city they live in. See if you can find their social media accounts. Do a Google Image search and click the "visit website" option to see what the related content is.
Taking a few minutes with a search engine to try to vet someone before you let them too deeply into your life can save you a lot of pain down the road.
One Last Note: Find a Balance
One thing that we as martial artists (especially instructors!) have to remember is that balance is important. Training in martial arts should make your life better. If you make yourself so nervous and so cautious of everyone around you that you are unable to relax and enjoy your life, you might live longer, but it won't be much of a life. If you are so carefree that you obliviously walk right up to a threat and end up in some trouble, that is obviously not right either. You need to find a balance. There's no need to vet every single person you encounter. But for the big, high stakes question marks in your life and your family's life, it's often worth doing.