How to Create a Duress Code

Three Methods:PhraseSequential WordsCall and Response

When you work with sensitive or classified materials, you, as well as people you care about, become targets of influence. Foreign agents, terrorists, or common criminals may use your relationship with your loved ones to force you to provide privileged information. During times of duress, communicating an agreed phrase to a loved one can signal that you need help.

Even if you do not work with sensitive information, having a pass-phrase can be useful if you ever are kidnapped and forced to provide personal information.


  1. Image titled Create a Duress Code Step 1
    Consider changing jobs. If you want to decrease the likelihood of being used to provide intelligence, take a job that does not require a security clearance or does not handle sensitive information.
  2. Image titled Create a Duress Code Step 2
    Communicate the importance of your job to your loved ones, revealing details only on an as-needed and need-to-know basis. They should understand that being under duress may be a possibility due to your work. The closer you are to these people, the more influence they will have. For example, it's good to tell your spouse but may not be important to tell your second-cousin, twice removed if you never talk with them. Having this conversation during a calm setting is important.
  3. Image titled Create a Duress Code Step 3
    Choose a phrase or a combination of words that you will use to indicate duress. Generally, there are three different approaches:

Method 1

A phrase is a short sentence that can be used naturally in any conversation that would not arouse suspicion.


  • "I put the chicken dinner in the fridge."
  • "Don't forget to bring in the tricycle."
  • "Can you stop by bakery on the way home?" (If you never go to a bakery.)

The phrase must be something that you normally would not say but would not seem suspicious to say. The problem with using a phrase is that it may seem forced. And, depending on the context, you may say it accidentally.

Method 2
Sequential Words

Choosing two or three words that must be used in combination provides a bit more security. Since the words must be said in order but in different sentences, it decreases the possibility that it will be said accidentally. However, it may be harder to remember under duress.

For example, consider the words oven and spatula. To indicate duress, you could say, "I left the oven on. Make sure you use the spatula to grab dinner."

The goal is to create a combination of words that would not often be used in casual conversation but would not seem suspicious. In the above example, the spouse may usually serve dinner without help.

Method 3
Call and Response

For the security conscience, a question and answer dialogue may be best as it allows for the person under duress to say the keywords and allows the target to verify the duress.

Call and response sounds more natural, since it mimics a normal conversation. As with the previous methods, words and/or phrases should be common, but unique enough that it would not normally be used in everyday conversations.

For example, using the sequential words method, you and your spouse agree to use "dry cleaner" and "fifth street" as your pass-phrases.

Under duress, a conversation could go like this:

  • Spouse: Honey, remember to go to the dry cleaner on your way home.
  • You: Which one did you take our clothes to this time?
  • Spouse: The one on Fifth Street.

Be sure to practice. Rehearsing what you will do should this happen will make it easier to remember and may even help you deal with the situation better.


  • The same technique can be used with children in emergency situations. Having an agreed-upon code word that can be passed to emergency personnel can indicate to the child that he or she should trust them. With more and more predators using uniforms to deceive children, a code word can mean the difference between life and death.
  • Always change the code after it has been used so that it cannot be used again in the future.


  • Remember that these should be used when there is an imminent and present danger and should never be "activated" as a joke. Likewise, if used, the responding party should assume the worst and get law enforcement or other responsible agency involved immediately. All parties should understand the seriousness of a duress code.

Sources and Citations

Article Info

Categories: Travel Safety & Security