Covert Distress Code

Also known simply as a "duress code", this is any memorized code word, phrase, or action dropped into a message or conversation to discreetly convey a distress call to someone without unwanted or eavesdropping third parties realizing it.

This is an important device for any undercover operative (detectives and spies, say), who can't just "call for backup" if they get into trouble because it'll blow their cover (if not their head), but really anyone can arrange a code ahead of time — you never know when being Crazy-Prepared will pay off. It's incredibly useful if you have to issue a Quiet Cry for Help.

As a type of Spy Speak, the code should (for obvious reasons) be easy to remember and easy to work into a harmless conversation without sounding suspicious or off-topic. At the same time, it also can't be something that the character might wind up saying coincidentally in ordinary conversations (i.e. a false alarm).

Mind that this only applies to codes that are agreed upon in advance of their usage - see Out-of-Character Alert if the speaker has to improvise a distress code on the spot (because if so, even the intended recipient may fail to notice the signal until later).

Compare Trust Password, which is typically used to provide a sense of safety as opposed to warning about danger. Also compare Safe Word for code words of a more ... Freudian nature.


    open/close all folders 

  • At the beginning of The Negotiator, Danny Roman flashes hand signals (1, 2, and 3 fingers) to alert the sniper team when to fire. The "1" signal is worked into his conversation with the hostage taker as a "wait a minute" gesture, while the others are displayed with his back turned to the suspect.
  • Running Scared (1986). Police detectives Hughes and Costanza force Snake to go undercover with a hidden microphone to set up the drug lord Julio. They tell Snake that if he gets into trouble he should say "snakebite" and they'll come rescue him.
  • A variation in The Bourne Ultimatum. Nicky, a CIA agent, has just unexpectedly entered a CIA office where Bourne killed two hitmen. The CIA calls the office to check what's going on. As part of standard procedures, they give Nicky a one-word sign, to which she needs to respond with a countersign: either the "normal" countersign, or the "duress" code. Even though Bourne is right in front of her and pointing a gun at her, she responds with the "normal" signóconfirming that she's sympathetic to Bourne and wants to help.

  • In The Evening News, a news anchor describes to his wife some of his prearanged visual codes to alert people if he's ever kidnapped and forced to send a video message. This comes in handy later when his wife and son are themselves kidnapped by a South American drug kingpin.
  • In The Famous Five a standard covert distress call is for George to sign her name 'Georgina' (something that she hates doing) whenever the bad guys inexplicably ask the captured children to send a note to the non-captured ones, to alert them that something is wrong.
  • In novels based on the Halo series, the Spartans' classified distress call is a simple "Olly Olly Oxen Free".
  • In The Hobbit, when Bilbo is preparing to sneak up on some trolls, he's told that should he get into serious trouble, "hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl, and we will do what we can" — however, it turns out Bilbo doesn't actually know how to make the correct owl sounds, so it doesn't do him any good.
  • In Lucifer's Hammer there are two sentries guarding the settlement at any time: an outer sentry to talk to people trying to enter, and a hidden inner sentry who watches and guards the outer sentry. If the outer sentry raises both hands over his head, this is the signal for the inner sentry to shoot the person at the gate, presumably because that is the one gesture least likely to get you killed if someone is pointing a gun at you.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Han Solo's Revenge inverts this. Han is being marched back to the Falcon at gunpoint, warned to not make any suspicious moves. This is fine, because Chewbacca is waiting for him to give the all-clear signal, and deploys the ship's guns when he doesn't get it.
  • Mentioned on the Death Lands book "Pandora's Redoubt". The Companions use a variety of names when greeted by a scouting member for certain actions, like "all clear", "run away" or "kill the guy with me". They explicitly mention that if they use anybody's real name in such a context, they have been coerced somehow and the Companions must shoot the member, whoever is with them, and run the hell away really fast.
  • The girls of The Baby-Sitters Club create such a code to use in case one of them is babysitting and hears a prowler. In a subversion, it turns out that they can't remember the code phrases five minutes after creating them, much less in an actual stressful situation.
  • Prince of the City, by Robert Daley. Two crooks hear a rumor that the protagonist is working with the DA to expose corruption, and grab him off the street to interrogate him. On two occasions he's able to get to a phone, call the DA's office and give the distress code. Unfortunately the secretary doesn't recognise the code (it's along the lines of "I can't make breakfast", so doesn't sound urgent). Fortunately a member of the Mafia vouches for him, so he's let go and makes his third call. This time the apologetic secretary puts him through immediately, the DA having returned to his office and realised what's happened. The protagonist just coldly states his location and tells the DA to pick him up.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Andromeda, Dylan Hunt blinks "AC 145" in Morse code during a message he sends to the ship that supposedly states that all is well. "AC 145" means no, he's been captured.
  • On The A-Team "Red Ball One" and "Bag is Leaking" mean "big trouble" and "one of the team took some lead" as explained to Amy by Murdock, who receives the code from the team.
  • On Flashpoint the leader of the SRU team is taken hostage but the rest of the cops are unaware of this. He is told to give his team instructions over the radio as normal and direct them away from the hostage taker. He complies but tells his team members to "stay frosty" — his team's code word for a situation like this. In a fifth season episode, a nurse is kidnapped and forced to make a call to her significant other that she is working late. However, she is not the first nurse to be kidnapped, and so drops the pre-arranged distress code (Dr. Armstrong) into the phone call.
  • In An Idiot Abroad, Karl's distress code in case he gets kidnapped in the Middle East is "congress tart".
  • NUMB3RS:
    • A rookie agent is sent undercover to catch a group of people kidnapping ATM users and is given the distress code "Mexico" to use if the operation starts to go south. It does, but she's too stubborn to use the word, believing that she can salvage the operation on her own. Don berates her for this later and assigns her to answering telephones.
    • Later on, when another agent is in a hostage situation, he says that he could ask the FBI to "send out for Mexican" to discreetly let them know that things are not what they seem.
  • When Neal Caffrey of White Collar has to go undercover as a foreign man named Mr. Black (whom he assumed was a courier at the time), he is told that if anything bad happens, he should use the words "long flight" to alert Peter. Subverted in that when he discovers that Mr. Black is a hitman and not a courier, he attempts to use the phrase and fails because the criminals have employed a signal jammer.
  • Star Trek
    • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Bread and Circuses". "Condition Green" means that the landing party has been captured, they are being forced under duress to communicate with the ship, and that the ranking officer aboard ship is to take no action at the present time. It does not prevent the ranking officer from preparing to take action later, or to exploit any opportunity to rescue the landing party.
    • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Day of the Dove". When Captain Kirk and his landing party are captured by Klingons, he pushes an emergency button on his communicator, warning the Enterprise. When Scotty beams them up he materializes only the Enterprise crew, leaving the Klingons suspended in transit. When the Klingons are finally materialized they are easily captured.
  • In Burn Notice, ex-spy Michael and ex-terrorist Fiona have developed a number of ordinary phrases they can drop into a conversation to convey meanings like, "this is a trap, be alert" or "this phone call is being made under duress, don't believe anything I'm saying."
  • In a 9th season CSI episode, Riley communicates to Greg that the situation is normal, but calls him by her name to indicate that she is speaking under duress. Greg responds by calling Riley by his last name to indicate he understands. This was something the team was demonstrated practicing during a drill earlier in the episode.
  • In CSI: Miami, it is eventually discovered that a woman died because her handler ignored her coded call for help.
  • Employed several times in 24, the most famous instance being early in Day 5, when Jack Bauer is being forced to misdirect CTU's assault teams into an ambush by the terrorists. He slips the duress code "flank two" into his radio conversations, but CTU initially fails to pick up on it, since their duress codes have been changed in the two years since they fired Bauer.
  • During a con in Leverage, Nate and Sixth Ranger Tara are held at gunpoint by a Corrupt Corporate Executive and Triads who demand $50,000. Tara tells Nate to get the fifty thousand: "Fifty thousand, ok, five-o, do you understand, five-o?" The "five-o" is an explicit covert alert for Nate to switch the con they had been running to one that involves bringing in the police.
  • In Terra Nova, Cowboy Cop Jim Shannon teaches his family this trick, which comes in handy when his daughter Maddy is kidnapped by a murderer.
  • Played with in the NCIS episode "Judgment Day." Director Shepard dismisses Tony and Ziva (her security escorts) before going on a dangerous mission. When they call to check up on her, she doesn't use the duress word, so Tony thinks she's OK while Ziva is still concerned. They later find her in an abandoned diner, having been shot and killed.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "First Date", Xander text messages Willow a codeword that means either "My date is a demon who's trying to kill me - send help!" or "Don't call me because I'm about to score!" Unfortunately as it's been several years since Xander went on a date, Willow has forgotten which one it is. They play the percentages and rescue him.
  • Angel. Angel Investigations doesn't have one, so when Lorne is held captive in Las Vegas, he keeps asking about 'Fluffy' (a non-existent dog) when calling his friends. Unfortunately one of Lorne's character tropes is The Nicknamer, so no-one is suspicious.
    Winifred: You don't think he was referring to anything of mine that's fluffy, do you? Because that would just be inappropriate.
  • Doctor Who. Romana does a tongue-in-cheek version where she tells a Companion the signal is her putting her hands up. She later invited by the villains back to their spaceship; aware it's a trap, she does an elaborate gesture that just happens to involve putting her hands over her head.
  • Wiseguy. Undercover cop Vinnie Terranova calls his Uncle Mike (actually 'Lifeguard', his Mission Control) and says he can't make breakfast. At one point he's arrested by the local police and has to shout to the woman with him as he's dragged off to relay the message. She does, but knows there's something suspicious as she's Vinnie's cousin, and he doesn't have an uncle called Mike.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Modesty Blaise: If Modesty or Willy insert the name 'Jacqueline' into a conversation, the other knows that they are under duress and not able to speak freely.

    Tabletop games 
  • The List of Character Survival Techniques Version 1.5, as a guide to RPG players, includes the following tip:
    The party should have a short list of subtle signs, with meanings like:
    "Something is wrong, try to leave unobtrusively."
    "Get ready for a fight."
    "Get ready to run like hell."

    Video Games 
  • In Mass Effect, Quarians returning to the Migrant Fleet have a code phrase that indicates they're in danger. They also have a second phrase that indicates their mission was successful and the ship they're aboard is no danger to the Fleet; Tali'Zorah's is "After time adrift among open stars, along tides of light and shoals of dust, I will return to where I began."

    Western Animation 
  • A major plot point in The New Adventures Of Captain Scarlet episode "Trap For A Rhino". The Mysterons are actually counting on a kidnapped Spectrum agent using her duress code so they can ambush the rescue team and hijack the titular Rhino armoured vehicle, which they intend to use to blow up a nearby nuclear power station.

    Real Life 
  • According to some newspaper stories, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K. apparently has several signals involving the way she holds her handbag which she uses to signal her staff when she wants to get out of a conversation with someone (for example).
  • Also during World War II, the British government had spies working in occupied Europe, and gave them codes to indicate if they had been captured by the Germans and forced to send bogus data back. Unfortunately, several captured operators would be reminded by their British handlers "that's your duress code, don't use it unless you've been captured" and subsequently be shot by their German captors. Strangely, the German intelligence services never seemed to have thought of doing the same with their own agents, all of whom were captured within hours of being landed in Britain and being offered a choice between turning and death.
  • Hanging the Union Flag upside down is widely believed to be a signal of distress (or an insult); if so, it's a very subtle one, as few people (even in Britain) are aware of how to hang it correctly, or would notice the difference. This is more in Urban Legend territory.
    • Not so much with the American flag, as it would be very obvious that it's upside down—doing so is not an Urban Legend in this case.
  • Before the Iraq War, a soldier let his family know he was about to go into combat by inserting a phrase about the size of the flies into a message to them- which they had pre-determined before he deployed.

Alternative Title(s):

Duress Code