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Bait-and-Switch Accusation

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"Dealing with a blown cover is about stalling for time. Stay alive long enough to figure out what they know, and tell a bigger lie to save yourself."
Michael Westen, "Family Business", Burn Notice
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Keeping Secrets Sucks. It's deceitful, it's difficult, and it's stressful. Especially when you think someone's found you out. If you've cheated on your spouse, and they tell you, "I know what you did," what do you do? Do you confess everything immediately and hope for forgiveness? Do you deny everything? Do you play your cards close to the chest and hope to bluff your way through it?

But then they add, "...How dare you record over my soap opera!" ...Phew.

This trope tends to play out in one of two ways.

Oftentimes, when Alice thinks she's been found out, she'll immediately confess, or she'll be so distraught that she'll reveal herself by being so obviously upset that Bob will realize she must have done something even worse than what he knows about. On the other hand, if Alice is smarter, she'll deny everything until it becomes explicitly clear that Bob knows exactly what she did, or she'll just play her cards close to the chest and not confirm or deny anything until she knows exactly what Bob is referring to (as in the page quote). This trope can also be in play if the accuser actually does know what the accused is hiding, or if it's never made clear whether they know, but the defining factor is that the accused (A) isn't sure and tries to bluff their way out of it, or (B) panics and reveals themselves, rendering it irrelevant whether the accuser knew beforehand.

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Hey, Wait! is a specific Sub-Trope involving guards or authority figures—see that page for a more in-depth description. Also compare Cat Scare, which has similar overtones of a buildup of tension only to see that there was nothing to fear all along (but bear in mind that in some rare cases of Bait-and-Switch Accusation, the accuser really does know what the accused is hiding). A Sub-Trope of Bait-and-Switch, and also of One Dialogue, Two Conversations. Usually involves a Suspiciously Specific Denial and frequently overlaps with Sure, Let's Go with That if Bob plainly states his incorrect suspicions and Alice goes along with it to maintain the secret. If someone in the cast does find out but plays along with the lie, it's Pull the Thread. You Know What You Did is a Stock Phrase that appears in a closely related situation. If the character falls for the bait-and-switch and lets their secret out that's You Just Told Me.

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Examples

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    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet, the villain has taken on a Secret Identity as Baron von Kratzmar. When the hero detective finds out, he informs the Director of Police, who doesn't believe that his dear friend, Baron von Kratzmar, could be the "most mysterious criminal of the century". The Director then approaches the Baron himself, confronting him with the accusations. The latter shrugs, but then the Director starts to laugh, revealing that he didn't buy it himself and was only pulling the Baron's leg.
  • In Darling Lili, Clueless Detective Duvalle visits Lili, a German spy during World War I. He tells her that her current admirer, Ace Pilot Major Bill Larrabee, is suspected of passing military secrets to the Germans through a woman. It looks as if Lili has been found out, but Duvalle finishes by asking her to keep an eye on Major Larrabee and to let him know if she finds out the identity of the woman to whom Larrabee has been leaking the information.
  • In The Departed, Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) works as an undercover cop infiltrating a criminal gang. In one scene he exits the gang's headquarters only to be accused of being a cop by two "fellow" members at the gate. Billy doesn't flinch and asks "What?" upon which the two thugs reveal that they were just playing a game and jokingly called everyone passing by and ignoring them to be cops. Billy and the audience take a deep breath.
  • When Data comes by in The Goonies, he accidentally causes Chunk to break a piece off of a small statue. They fix it while Mrs. Walsh is giving the new housekeeper a tour, but not very well (they used scotch tape). When Mrs. Walsh finishes the tour, she gets on Chunks's case about something. He immediately gets scared because he thinks they've been caught. It turns out she's asking about the crackers on the floor and insists he clean it up. He all too happily does.
  • In Hard Candy, while Hayley is torturing Jeff at his house, the Nosy Neighbor rings at the door to bring cookies. Hayley answers the door where she explains that she is Jeff's niece and that the disturbing sounds from the inside are caused by him suffering from food poisoning. The neighbor seems to buy the story but then puts on a serious face:
    Neighbor: Can I ask you something? I might be a little out of line here. (Hayley tenses up) Do you babysit?
  • In Midnight (1939), Eve thinks she is found out as the impostor at the music party when Marcel approaches her sternly. But before she can explain herself, it becomes clear he sought her out in hope she would play bridge with his friends.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Angel: At the end of the episode "The Shroud of Rahmon", Wesley and Cordelia talk about the recent events. Wesley is worried that biting Kate may have re-awakened Angel's bloodlust, while Cordy is still wearing the antique necklace she stole from the museum of national history. Wesley doesn't know that, but...
    Wes: It's not the shroud's effects on [Angel] that worry me as much as—
    Cordy: As what? My stealing? I returned everything, I swear!
    Wes: Angel drank human blood.
  • The A-Team
    • Hannibal is impersonating a villain to find where they've taken a hostage. He's confronted by one of the villains, who says he knows everything. Hannibal manages to maintain his composure long enough to find out that what the other character "knew" was that the man Hannibal was impersonating has been fooling around with his girlfriend.
    • In "Pros and Cons", Face is impersonating a visiting doctor/author Dr. Pepper (no relation) at a prison. The prison nurse announces that she knows he's not the genuine article, and instead of giving everything away, he stalls for time long enough to find out how she knows (different picture on the book jacket) and provide a reasonable explanation (printing error his publisher had SWORN had been recalled).
  • In Blackpool, because of her husband Ripley's terrible money management skills, Natalie puts a flat owned by the family into a trust for their children, to ensure Ripley doesn't sell it and waste that money as well. Ripley is furious when he finds out, and confronts her. She immediately breaks down and starts panicking because she thinks he's found out that she is having an affair with Detective Carlisle. By the time she realizes what he's talking about, she's already revealed the affair.
  • In an early episode of Breaking Bad, Skyler confronts Walt about his relationship with Jesse, and Walt lies. Skyler then confronts Jesse and tells him that Walt "told me everything," which Jesse initially takes to mean that Walt told her the truth—that Jesse and Walt were cooking meth together. As a result, he's understandably nervous...until Skyler tells him to stop selling Walt pot, which was the lie he told her.
  • Burn Notice:
    • In "Family Business" Michael goes undercover as an arms dealer, and at one point it looks like his mark Ari Zamar has found him out. But then it turns out Ari just saw his girlfriend Debbie coming on to Michael('s cover ID) and got jealous. So Mike plays dumb and pretends Ari sent Debbie over to test him, congratulating him on his ingenuity.
    • "Turn and Burn" from season 2 plays this similarly. Michael is helping Sophia, an undercover DEA agent, deal with a stalker, Raul, affiliated with the Columbian cartel she's investigating. At one point it turns out Raul has had Michael's and Sophia's phones checked and discovers the two were talking, but rather than outing them he assumes they've been sleeping together. Mike improvises, convincing Raul that he was getting background information on him from Sophia, who refused to cooperate even when he tried to bribe her, and Sophia thankfully has the presence of mind to play along.
      Michael (voiceover): Inexperienced operatives often abandon a cover I.D. under pressure. Experienced ones just play their roles harder.
      Michael: Stop wasting my time! Of course I talked to Sophia! I'm checking up on you! You don't think I do my homework on the people I'm doing business with? I'm a professional!
  • Game of Thrones: "You stand accused of murder, you stand accused of treason. How do you answer these charges… Lord Baelish?
  • On The Mentalist this is invoked by Jane during a mole hunt. He has a senior DEA agent arrested on suspicion of being The Mole even though Jane knows the agent is innocent. The primary reason for this is to cause the real mole to drop his/her guard and thus make a mistake. The secondary reason is that Jane suspects the agent to be a Dirty Cop and wants to observe the agent's reaction to the accusations. If the agent really is dirty, he will assume that the FBI has found evidence of his other wrongdoing and are misinterpreting it as evidence of him being the mole. If he tries to explain it away, Jane's suspicions will be confirmed and he will know where to find the real evidence.
  • In the Veep episode "Baseball", Vice President Selina has a pregnancy scare. Her director of communications, Mike, tells her chief of staff, Amy, that the press has found out that she's pregnant, so she spends the entire day panicking, arranging a shotgun wedding (an actual shotgun wedding, not a Shotgun Wedding), and desperately trying to sneak a pregnancy test into her day without the public noticing so that she can confirm it as soon as possible. At the end of the episode, all of the tension is suddenly deflated when it turns out Amy misheard Mike—he said the press was calling her repugnant. Well, not completely deflated—it also turns out she is pregnant.
  • AP Bio: Jack thinks that he might be responsible for his neighbor's death after stealing the man's sheepdog. Meanwhile, a janitor at Jack's school is told that his lost mop is magically transforming into something new. When Jack takes the sheepdog to work, the janitor stops him and claims to know its real owner. Jack looks paralyzed with guilt, but when the janitor explains that the dog is actually his transformed mop, Jack admits that he thought this conversation was going somewhere completely different.

    Podcasts 

    Webcomics 
  • In Code Name: Hunter, at one point Queen Moraine calls Ruby and Hunter to the commander's office because she suspects he's trying to "protect" her from an unpleasant reality, and Ruby makes some assumptions...
    Ruby: [approaching the office] Me? I didn't do anything. Me conscience is clear.
    Moraine: Agent Hunter, Assistant Gypsy? Good. Now I have some questions I wish to ask you about recent events—
    Ruby: It wasn't me! I don't know where those firecrackers dropped down the loos on the fourth level came from OR how the lights got shot out on the fifth! I don't know who glued Bullet's locker shut with his keys still inside or greased the weights in the training room! I certainly didn't remove the towels from the guys' locker room while they were showering! And I don't know where all those mimes came from I swear to God!!
    Hunter: Yes, clear as crystal...
  • In The Whiteboard after a player took a picture of Pirta changing (which Doc and Roger safely intercepted and destroyed), Pirta asked Jake if they had "found the kid who took it." He thought she had heard and was taking it well, when in fact she had believed Red's Last-Second Word Swap about someone stealing a rental. Cue explosion when Sandy walked up and asked Jake what they were talking about.
  • The Square Root of Minus Garfield comic "Jon the Clueless Witness" makes use of this trope, as Jon complains to a shop clerk about the glasses he sold him, but the clerk assumes he's talking about body parts.
  • In Narbonic, Helen confronts Dave about something, and he immediately says, "Is this about the sentient computer virus?" Helen replies, "No, it's not about the sentient computer virus. I didn't even know there was a sentient computer virus! On second thought, let's make it about the sentient computer virus."
  • The Androssian Prophecy: Mild example on Book I, Page 92. Raelen, who has a massive (and mutual) Bodyguard Crush on Tala, tells Lovable Rogue Darach that Tala told him "what happened at the temple." Darach assumes Raelen means Tala kissing him (as thanks for protecting her from an assassination attempt) and frantically denies that he has any romantic designs on her. However, Raelen was referring to the saving-of-Tala's-life part. Cue a quick backpedal from Darach.

    Western Animation 
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • In "The Smoking Peanut", the police finally come to SpongeBob's house and interrogate him, drilling him with multiple pieces of incriminating evidence. The police say that they've got all they need, and to book him. So they put handcuffs...on Patrick.
    Patrick: Wow, you guys are good. I'm the last person I would have suspected, but I was looking for me all the time! It's the perfect crime!
    Mr. Krabs: Flippin fish fossils! look what you did!
    Spongebob and Patrick: (begging) Mr. Krabs, were so sorry! Have mercy! Don't de- butt me!
    Mr. Krabs: Sorry? You dusted all my knickknacks! That was really nice. Great Barrier Reef!! What's this?!
    Spongebob and Patrick: (still begging) Accident! Accident! Accident! Accident!
    Mr. Krabs: Oh, and I suppose the floor molding just painted itself on its own. (wall is decorated with tiny ships) That's what I call craftsmanship. CRIMINY JIMJAM!!! You messed up my Dollar... (goes to a stack of dolls) ...Rama!!! All the dolls in this Doll-a-Rama were perfectly aligned! (straightens one doll) Oh well, no harm done.
  • The Simpsons:
    • In Wild Barts Can't Be Broken, the adults are gathered together as the kids broadcast various accusations over the radio.
      Lisa: And guess who's been practicing medicine without a license...
      (Dr. Hibbert tugs at his shirt)
      Lisa: That's right, Homer Simpson!
      Homer: D'oh!
    • In "The Debarted", Bart suspects that someone in his group is a rat who has been telling on Skinner to foil his pranks. His new friend Donny gets fearful, but it turned out that Bart suspected Milhouse.
  • In one episode of Danny Phantom, Jazz tells Danny that she's on to his secret.
    Danny: W-What?! What secret?
    Jazz: The clumsiness, the nervousness, I can't believe I didn't figure it out before. You have a girlfriend!
    Danny: It's a lie! I'm not a ghost!

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