It’s a bright sunny day. You’re wandering the town, window-shopping, without a care in the world. Perhaps in the company of a friend, perhaps on your own. Then he appears in your periphery.

He’s got swagger. He walks tall—and his eyes are laser-focused on you. You’re a little taken aback—you’re lugging a bag in each hand, and just getting ready to nip in for those half-price Ted Baker heels before some other eagle-eyed shopper swoops in to claim them.

“Hi,” he opens. “May I just say, your hair is looking beautiful today—although maybe you’ve got extensions in.”

In the midst of this bizarre interaction, perhaps you think back to an article you read only a few weeks ago. About negging, the ‘technique’ of putting someone down so they’re then more ‘vulnerable’ and in need of invigorating with a compliment. It’s the go-to weapon in the pickup artist’s arsenal.

But if you haven’t heard of pickup artists before, you might instead just stand there awkwardly, wondering what on earth he wants. He’s certainly not getting your number, the arrogant prick—so you decide it’s time to whip out the woman’s go-to in grim situations like this:

“Thanks, but I have a boyfriend.”

He scowls, turns, and stomps away without another word. Congratulations—you’ve just had your first ever encounter with a pickup artist—and it might not be your last. But who the hell are these guys—and what on God’s green earth do they want?

Well—they want you. Not you as an individual, mind—but you as but another anonymous woman to try their latest tricks on.

To the pickup artist, the world is a plain. You’re prey—and he’s on the hunt.

Pickup artists approach women in public for flirting, to get their number, or even just to outright proposition them. The encounters are impromptu: on the street, in a bar, in a club. They’re out for ‘conquests’. Many adhere to one of several ‘schools of thought’ when it comes to picking up women, led by oracular lotharios purporting to have unlocked the secrets to the female mind. Say this thing, then that thing, and bang!—she’ll be begging you to take her home.

Yeah—it’s icky to say the least.

Lots of pickup artists move in online circles sharing the latest ‘methods’ and elaborating on their experiences, both positive and negative. Some even attend in-person training courses, which often include practical sessions in which they head out ‘in the field’ to practise what they’ve learned.

Pickup artists were brought into the mainstream consciousness upon the release of investigative reporter Neil Strauss’s 2005 book The Game. Subtitled Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, Strauss goes ‘undercover’ to be trained in ‘game’, the term used by pickup artists to encapsulate in a word everything that goes into approaching, seducing, and asking out women in public, including charisma, charm, confidence, fashion and grooming sense, and psychology (some of which, it’s probably fair to say, is very much of the pop variety). ‘Game’ is refined through regular practice (read: regular pestering of unsuspecting women just trying to go about their lives).

When you’re right there in the moment with a strange man oozing machismo all over your peaceful day’s shopping, it can be hard to keep it together and look out for red flags. So today let’s explore 8 of the most common signs that you’ve been approached by a pickup artist—and you can be that little bit wiser next time a potential PUA’s on the prowl in your vicinity.

1. He’s weirdly overconfident

Self-confidence is sexy, sure. No one wants a wet flannel following them around. But if this strange bloke is positively exuding hubris—and doesn’t seem to be addressing you so much as an individual as he is addressing you as an object—chances are he’s been reading up on his game. Or on his Dag Albright, another ‘thought leader’ in pickup artistry, according to whom ‘Having confidence is like having the keys to the kingdom.’

2. He’s in incongruously flashy clothes

If he’s thrown together some gaudy ensemble which just screams “Insecure”, this might not just be some guy with too much money and not enough dress sense, but rather a bona fide pickup artist. Why? Because another technique they’re into is ‘peacocking’, which involves wearing overtly expensive clothes and accessories, like a swanky watch, but at the same time donning something ‘unusual’ so he stands out, thereby demonstrating that he’s got personality, that he’s not like those other rich schmucks. Maybe it’s a bright handkerchief in his jacket pocket, or some garish trainers, or he’s just gone full Mr. T with a neck weighed down by half a ton of faux gold.

3. He tries to isolate you from your group

Perhaps he physically puts himself between you and your friends, or if not then intensely focuses all his attention on you and tries dissuading you from moving on when your mates want to escape the situation. The ‘theory’ behind this especially egregious tactic is that you’ll be more open to things escalating physically (kissing) if you’re one on one.

4. He puts down your friends—or even puts you down in front of them

In a similar vein to the previous point, he might attempt to undermine your friends to distance you from them. This strategy may become particularly apparent if your friends discourage you from talking to him: “You girls need to let her break out of her shell”. By making your friends seem controlling or disproportionately concerned about your wellbeing, he’s attempting to break you off from the group.

Alternatively, as a form of negging, he might try lowering your confidence through humiliation in front of your friends: “How do you girls put up with her?”; “Does she have an off button?”; “Jeez, is she always this demanding?” Of course, even if this guy isn’t a pickup artist, well—he is a prick. You need to get rid—and sharpish.

5. He gets handsy

Of course, a man doesn’t have to be a pickup artist to be a lecherous creep, but it’s definitely an indicator. He might go for the high five like the two of you are back in the school playground. He might offer a handshake, which ends up being weirdly extended and uncomfortably charged. He might even immediately ask for a hug (or just take one, unsolicited).

During the conversation, maybe he’ll brush your hair out of your eyes, or continually touch your arm as he emphasises a point, or place a hand on your back. It’s all pretty grim stuff and I hate the fact I’ve felt the need to even write about this—but you need to be in the know.

6. He tries spinning you around

Unfortunately, yes, I’m serious.

In pickup artists’ jargon, this is the spin move, supposed to sweep you off your feet—literally. In his book The Pickup Artist, Mystery outlines a five-step approach to the spin move:

  1. He asks you to look at his outstretched hand. This ‘tests your compliance’.
  2. He asks you to hold up your hand.
  3. He grabs it without warning and spins you.
  4. He offers a ‘verbal reward’ (gross): “Very nice!”
  5. He tosses your hand away, only to then repeat the cycle later and out of the blue. This plays into the pickup artist’s drive to intrigue you with his unpredictable disinterest, designed to make you want to vie for his attention.

7. He employs an ‘FTC’

In the lingo, an FTC is a forced time constraint: “I’ve only got a minute, but I just wanted to tell you that you’re beautiful”; “My friends are waiting for me, but just quickly—would you ever consider giving your number to a guy like me?” This is meant to make clear that he’s not some weirdo (ha) with no mates, and that he’s got a life and social circle of his own. It’s also an attempt to distract you from the fact he’s entered your personal space uninvited.

8. He reveals pretty much no personal information

It’s all about you—but not in a flattering way. The attention is overpowering, and it’s clear he’s not actually interested in getting to know you; rather, he’s just going through the motions of what he thinks it looks like to express interest in an attractive stranger (because, as I said earlier, he’s likely somewhat lacking when it comes to emotional intelligence, oblivious to how creepily he’s coming across). Chances are that he ended up as a pickup artist precisely because he hasn’t got much going for him in the personality and backstory departments, so he fills that void by firing endless personal questions at you, a total stranger, in a feeble attempt to woo you. Or maybe he’s just trying to create an air of mystery around himself by being evasive or not offering any insights into who he is. Just remember: that’s probably because who he is is a loser.

Complimenting a stranger isn’t bad in itself—but there’s a time and a place, fellas

We’ve all been complimented in the street. Sometimes it’s nice—but usually it’s at best awkward or embarrassing. At worst, it’s downright scary. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with going up to a stranger in public and politely complimenting them (and it doesn’t have to be about their appearance, of course), as long as the context is right. I’ve had all sorts over the years, spanning the full spectrum from horrifically cheesy but essentially harmless (“Did it hurt when you fell from Heaven?”) to negs, which as we saw earlier are backhanded compliments designed to tactically lower your self-esteem (“Nice nails—are they fake?”). The sheer entitlement of those who spout the latter is astonishing—you seriously look at these pricks and wonder what the hell happened to them to achieve such disastrously low levels of empathy and self-awareness. But I digress. In a nutshell: be careful. Be aware. And if in doubt, trust your damn instincts.