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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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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ah... and Mm... Are All She Says: In chapter 15, Tanaka tells Toda she's discovered a secret she'd been hiding. Toda mentally cycles through eating all the coffee jellies, spilling curry on Tanaka's shirt, buying Aitune purchases on Tanaka's account, and winning a huge plush shark that's due to arrive any day. She may actually convey all this in her "MM...", since Tanaka says it's nothing like that. The secret turns out to be Toda's family.

    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 penis of a small statue of Michelangelo's David. They fix it while Mrs. Walsh is giving the new housekeeper a tour, but not very well (Chunk glued it on upside down). 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 The House That Jack Built, the titular Villain Protagonist is at one point held at gunpoint by an old hunter, who tells him that he knows all about his crimes. This is after the film has showed several scenes from Jack's life as a Serial Killer. But it turns out the old man actually thinks he is a bank robber. Jack is more than happy to go along with that.
  • 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.
  • In Most Likely to Murder (2018), Billy goes to the pharmacy to spy on Lowell, whom he suspects of murder. Lowell catches him and says, "I know why you're here." Billy panics until Lowell continues, "You know, a lot of people have a hard time admitting that they need help with smoking. It's okay. You're here for the Habitrol patch, aren't you?"

    Literature 
  • In Fractured Stars, Axton tells Dash, "I looked you up, and I know who you are." At first Dash thinks Axton has figured out that he's an Alliance member as well as one of the oppressed Starseers, until Axton says, "You used to be a Bounty Hunter, the rogue bastards." Axton goes on a rant about how much he hates bounty hunters while Dash sighs in relief.

    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!
  • Castle: After Castle met up with his ex-girlfriend (who's a suspect in the murder and therefore off-limits), he's already nervous walking into the precinct. Then Beckett confronts him about sneaking around behind her back. He manages not to blurt anything out, just stammers an apology, and Beckett reveals she's talking about him using her chair and readjusting the height. He then confesses out of guilt, and she reveals that the ex-girlfriend was under surveillance, so she already knew and was intentionally messing with him.
  • Game of Thrones: In Season 7, relations between Arya and Sansa, who have never gotten along, are especially tense, and it's vaguely hinted that Arya is considering killing Sansa. Near the end of the season, Sansa summons Arya into Winterfell's meeting room and makes the following statement before confronting Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, who'd manipulated Sansa for much of the show and was responsible for many of the tragedies that befell her family, over his actions and having Arya kill him.
    "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.
  • Mimpi Metropolitan: In episode 57, Melani helps Alan prepare his surprise love confession to Pipin by bringing Pipin away from her shop to Melani's bedroom. To do so, Melani shows Pipin some keychains images and claims that she wants to buy one of them. Pipin gets suspicious and accuses Melani of having a secret motive for showing her those images: she must have want to sell those keychains.
  • 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.
  • A.P. 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.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In one FoxTrot arc, Peter punches a student who makes fun of Denise's blindness and the school calls his house. When he gets home at the end of the arc, his mom Andy tells him that she got a call from the school about him. He pre-emptively apologizes for the fight, only to find out that the call was because the school found his wallet, at which point Andy asks about the fight.

    Podcasts 

    Webcomics 
  • 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.
  • 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 Kevin & Kell, Bruno's sheep girlfriend Corrie disguises herself as a wolf named Dale by using Ralph Dewclaw's wolf pelt, only for Bruno's friend Fiona to register "Dale" into the Species Registry, forcing her to live as a wolf. Since Corrie can't hunt, Bruno does it for her, but both Fiona and her boyfriend Rudy know that "Dale" didn't catch the prey herself, and claim to know her secret. Fiona goes for a walk with "Dale," and says, in a polite and non-accusatory tone, that she knows "Dale's" secret- that she's the secret daughter of Rudy's uncle Ralph, who's a famously inept hunter. Corrie, who'd been seconds away from unmasking herself under the belief that Fiona knew she was a sheep, puts her pelt back on and asks Fiona not to tell anyone. Amusingly enough, Fiona, who'd based the claim off the scent of Ralph's wolf pelt, is Right for the Wrong Reasons, since Corrie is Ralph's daughter, and a sheep-wolf hybrid.
  • 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."
  • Penny Arcade: Tycho with a thing for Giraffes: "Savannah Heat"
  • In a Something*Positive flashforward, Aubrey and Jason lecture Pamjee on some wine coolers they found her with, but this quickly turns into an insistence that as long as she's in their house, she drink vodka.
  • 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 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.

    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!
    • "Wet Painters" has Spongebob and Patrick paint Mr. Krabs' house, where they are told not to spill paint all over his Kitsch Collection. After some hijinks involving a three-hour long paint dab, a giant paint bubble, a coverup for putting paint all over Mr Krabs' first dollar, a vending machine and a crayon, Mr. Krabs came back, speculating everything went in order, until...
      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 Jellyfish Hunter" has Spongebob being stalked by a blue jellyfish, and is getting more and more paranoid about being followed.
      Spongebob: It feels like somebody... wants to sell me something!
      One of the Traveling Salesmen Hiding Behind a Boulder: See, I told you he was on to us!
  • The Simpsons:
  • 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!
  • In season 2 of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Jet tells Zuko he knew who he was the second he saw his scar. Zuko winces, thinking he’s been found out as the banished, fugitive of the Fire Nation, but Jet just says that he’s an outcast.
  • In the episode "Weredad" of Miraculous Ladybug, Cat Noir realizes that Marinette always seems to show up at the end of missions. Before he can say aloud what he's thinking, Marinette hastily interjects that she's in love with Cat Noir (to deflect from the possibility that she's Ladybug), and then curses herself for not thinking of something better. Cat Noir privately mentions that he believed she was just his and Ladybug's fan.
  • My Gym Partner's a Monkey: In "The Two Jakes", Adam and Jake's clones trick Principal Pixiefrog into thinking the real ones are the fakes. Pixiefrog buys it (despite the clones looking way older), but he then notices that their voices have gotten deeper and suspects that just might be... perfect candidates for the school's glee club ("We could always use a couple of booming baritones").

 
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