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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 skill 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.

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.


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  • 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.

  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Andromeda, Dylan Hunt blinked in morse code "AC 145" during a message he sent to the ship that supposedly stated all was 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'.
  • A rookie agent on NUMB3RS once went undercover to catch a group of people kidnapping ATM users and was 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.
  • 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: Crime Scene Investigation 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 was eventually discovered 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.
  • On Laverne and Shirley, when Shirley needs help after being handcuffed to an escaped bank robber, she calls Mr. De Fazio at his restaurant requesting "extra BBQ sauce" on her chicken. Naturally, Mr. De Fazio fails to note Shirley's "code"...although Laverne immediately understands that Shirley would never order extra BBQ sauce, because it would get under her fingernails.

    Tabletop games 
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."

     Real Life 
  • According to some newspapers, Queen Elizabeth II of England 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).
  • In World War II, when the Japanese let captured American soldiers speak on the radio to assure the troops they were being well-treated, they often said things such as they were allowed to keep their clothing — that is, they were still dressed in whatever rags their clothes were after battle and POW camp. This were improvised, but still conveyed enough to the Americans that they were not being treated well.
  • 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 a signal of distress (and an insult); a very subtle one as most are not aware of how to hang it correctly.

Ambiguous SyntaxDouble MeaningDouble Entendre
    Cryptic ConversationDouble Meaning
Could Say It ButDialogueCovert Emergency Call

alternative title(s): Duress Code
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