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Bluff the Eavesdropper

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"When a spy finds a listening device, the last thing he does is turn it off."
Michael Westen (Narrator), Burn Notice

People notice their phone is tapped, or see a microphone in their potted plant, or otherwise discover that someone is spying on them. So they start faking.

A specific version of this is when two people being audio bugged carry on a conversation for the benefit of the bug while holding the real conversation by sign language or exchanging written notes. (And the visual conversation will often begin with a note or signal meaning "I should warn you we're being bugged".)

Can be used as Number 33 of The Thirty-Six Stratagems. Compare Feed the Mole, contrast I Know You're Watching Me. Not to be confused with Staging the Eavesdrop, where getting someone to eavesdrop is the intention from the very start.

See also Being Watched, Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults and Exact Eavesdropping. Compare Bluff the Impostor, where you're talking directly to the person whose identity or trustworthiness is questionable.


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    Comic Books 
  • One Donald Duck comic has Scrooge McDuck hiring his nephews to pick up a large diamond from a courier. The Beagle Boys have a bug in his office and learn of the exchange, resulting in a madcap adventure for all involved. When the Ducks return to Scrooge's office, he reveals that the diamond they picked up is a fake; Scrooge knew of the bug, and set up the entire mission so the Beagle Boys would be distracted from the real diamond coming in from elsewhere. Of course, Donald and his nephews had no idea of this scheme, and were a little sore that they busted their tail feathers for almost nothing.
  • In Astonishing X-Men, Cyclops is aware that the enemy is probably listening to the team's conversation, so he signals Emma Frost to link the team telepathically. He then lays out his plan via the link, while the team has a verbal conversation designed to lure the enemy into a trap. It's particularly effective because the readers aren't aware of the second conversation until the scene is revisited in the next issue.

    Comic Strips 
  • Doonesbury: While Zonker is being kept in a hotel awaiting trial for possession of marijuana, Mike finds a bug under a lamp. The two start very obviously acting, talking about how completely sober Zonker is in order to tip off the prosecutors that yes, they know there's a bug in the room. It gets the case thrown out of court.
  • A MAD strip suggested several ways to mess with them (for the kind of eavesdroppers who are just nosy folks, not spies). Like on an airplane: "That nice Arab guy gave me this package for his grandma. I bet it's a clock - you hear how it's ticking?"

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. Sherlock Holmes and Watson are in a room when Holmes silently informs Watson that there's someone listening at the keyhole. They then have a conversation intended to fool the eavesdropper that they're leaving the country.
  • In After the Sunset, after the retired jewel thieves discover that the FBI agent has hidden a bug in their apartment, they begin talking like they're getting ready to have sex. (the fact that he's eagerly listening to all this is genuinely creepy). Then the woman claims to have invited another woman over to join them. . .the agent's mother. At this point, they bid him good night, then smash the bug, causing painful feedback in his ear.
  • In Bad Times at the El Royale, Darlene sets up her singing so that she will draw attention to anyone watching her room through the two-way mirror while hiding the fact that fellow guest and ex-thief Flynn is taking up her floorboards to find a stash of money his brother hid there years ago.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier features a rather unique variation. Nick Fury has crashed Cap's apartment to lay low after an assassination attempt, verbally claiming that his "wife kicked [him] out," while simultaneously warning Cap via text on his phone that there are "ears everywhere" and "SHIELD [is] compromised." Two things make this one unique. One, the "ears" are SHIELD listening devices, that Nick himself put there. And two, Cap, for his part, doesn't reply via text, instead carrying on a Multitasked Conversation.
  • Casino Royale (1954)note : Bond, knowing that Le Chiffre has a microphone in his hotel room, confronts Valerie about it. When he realizes that she knew nothing about it, he figures out that Le Chiffre also intends to test Valerie's loyalty and decides to go along with it.
  • The villains do this to Dick Tracy in the Dick Tracy movie once they find out that he has bugged their conference room.
  • In Evident Domain, a Soviet official is suddenly taken off from his job and is put under surveillance. After learning that his home is bugged, he fakes a fight with his wife about a lover that he "wasn't supposed to see anymore" so that she'll have an excuse to leave town while he investigates the matter.
  • The Guns of Navarone
    • The team is going over the plan when one of the main characters hands to the other a note that reads "Keep talking". The rest of the team does so while Stavros sneaks over to the door catching the eavesdropper and pulling him into the room. It's the first sign that things may not be going as planned.
    • In a darker variant, Mallory feeds disinformation to the loyal but badly injured Franklin, knowing that when Franklin is captured the Germans will extract the disinformation and be decoyed. The question is whether they have access to Truth Serum or whether they'll just torture the information out of him.
  • In Hangmen Also Die!, Dr. Svoboda and Mascha use the method of writing notes for the sensitive information and saying inconspicuous things out loud when they figure that the Gestapo is probably bugging the apartment.
  • In Heat, professional thief Neil McCauley suspects the LAPD is onto his next job but needs a way to smoke his tail and turn the tables. So his crew gathers in a shipyard and lays out their target and escape routes for the benefit of the cops listening in nearby. As the officers gather in the same spot later, and see a lack of both lucrative targets and viable escape routes, it hits Detective Hanna that they've been successfully bluffed and smoked out. Cut to Reveal Shot of McCauley photographing them with a long lens camera.
  • In the war movie Hell Is for Heroes, the troop finds that the Germans have bugged their camp and have fake conservations near it to make the Germans think they're still waiting on orders.
  • The Kentucky Fried Movie's segment "A Fistful of Yen". While in Dr. Klahn's headquarters, Loo is about to discuss escape plans with Ada Gronick when she shows him a listening device. They make polite conversation as she shows him the rest of the devices and spies.
    Ada Gronick: [speaking quietly] The guards will have to be bribed. We'll need money.
    Loo: We can raise the money, that's no problem. [Reaches up and pulls down an overhead microphone, speaks into it] But that would be wrong.
  • King Of The Rocket Men. Jeff King finds a bug placed by Dr. Vulcan and places a Phoney Call in which he offers to illicitly sell a top-secret item of equipment, knowing Dr. Vulcan's men will steal it off him. It's actually a radio location device for finding Dr. Vulcan's lair, but unfortunately Jeff's colleagues were outside the door listening and think he's in league with Dr. Vulcan, so they try to recover the device.
  • James Bond:
    • In Live and Let Die, Felix Leiter has put bugs in Kananga's New York office. The latter knows it, and starts pretending to dictate a Strongly Worded Letter, then activates a recording allowing him, Tee Hee and Solitaire to leave the building through a secret exit and go to Harlem for criminal business.
    • Similarly, during A View to a Kill, Bond and Tibbett suspect that Max Zorin has their hotel room bugged, thus they put on a tape of them talking. Later, as they're snooping at night, they put another tape of snoring sounds to cover.
  • In The Return of the Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau tries to snoop around Sir Charles Lytton's home by pretending to be a telephone repairman. However, Charles' wife Claudine figures out that Clouseau's not who he says he is, so she and her housekeeper pretend she's planning a secret meeting with someone over the telephone, giving the eavesdropping Clouseau a false lead for his investigation.
  • In The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, intelligence officer Toulouse sets the story in motion by telling his lieutenant that a 'super agent' is arriving to blow the lid off his in-house rival's operations, knowing his rival is listening in and will expose his operatives by going after the decoy Toulouse sets up. This is also done in the American remake The Man with One Red Shoe.
  • A villainous example in There's Something About Mary. When Pat finds out that Mary's neighbor routinely intercepts and listens to cell phone calls, he sets one up with his friend where they talk about his philanthropic work with orphan children in Africa, and generally make him seem like the greatest guy in the world.
  • Thunderbird 6: when Lady Penelope is talking with Alan about Skyship One's captain Foster, of whom they both already suspect that he is not who he claims to be, the lamp next to her bed falls of the table, revealing a listening device underneath. Realizing the ship's crew is eavesdropping on her, she quickly alters her opinion about Foster and tells Alan they shouldn't jump to conclusion so fast.
  • In The Wolf of Wall Street Jordan warns Donnie about an FBI bug by writing about it on a napkin that is later used as evidence against Jordan.


    Video Games 
  • In Metal Gear Solid, Liquid and Ocelot discuss their PAL codes and Snake's card key deactivating Metal Gear Rex, knowing that Snake is spying on them, to further fool Snake into unwillingly doing their bidding for them.
  • A common strategy in the Asymmetric Multiplayer game SpyParty is for the spy player to utter the code phrase "banana bread" when far away from the Double Agent, hoping to throw the sniper player off of his/her trail.

  • In Girl Genius Zola plays up her false ditsy blonde persona and acts like her plans are much less complex and dangerous while walking in the parts of Castle Heterodyne that can listen in to her conversation with Gil. As soon as she's in a "dead zone" she drops part of the act and explains that she's got a device to kill the castle.
  • Subverted in The Last Days Of Fox Hound when Gurlukovitch calls Ocelot on a cell phone to discuss their evil plan. Rather than bluff the people he knows are listening in, Ocelot flat out scolds Gurlukovitch by telling him exactly who is listening in on the other end. Cue said eavesdroppers breaking silence to wonder how Ocelot does it while Ocelot rolls his eyes and Gurlukovitch listens in disbelief.
  • xkcd #525:
    Now and then, I announce "I know you're listening" to empty rooms. If I'm wrong, nobody knows, and if I'm right, maybe I just freaked the hell out of some secret organization.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of Adventures of the Gummi Bears, the king tries to find out a famous chef's secret recipe by listening at the door, which the chef thwarts by reciting absolute nonsense instead of his ingredients. However, this does not thwart Cubbi, Sunni, and Tummi, who are hiding in the kitchen and can write down the actual steps he's taking.
  • In one episode of American Dad!, Stan decides to stage a "disappearance" to see how quickly Francine would move on without him. When he gets back, he discovers that Francine had intentionally moved on as quickly as was plausible to get to him, remarking that it was suspicious that the house was full of Incredibly Obvious Bugs.
  • From Avatar: The Last Airbender: a masterful example by Azula, when she has Mai and Ty Lee purposely reveal that they're Fire Nation in disguise... to the pair of Dai Li agents they knew were eavesdropping, overhead. She knew they'd ferry the news back to Long Feng, and knew he couldn't resist the opportunity to use it against her. So she wasn't surprised when those same agents brought her to his cell, where he coerces her into helping him under threat of exposing her to the Earth King. Azula "reluctantly" agrees. It doesn't end well for Long Feng.
  • One episode of King of the Hill centers around Dale attempting to sue the Manitoba Tobacco Company for "ruining Nancy's skin" with their cigarette smoke, so he can use the money to get her some plastic surgery. They send him a singing placard fish that's bugged, in order to get proof against Dale's claim. Being the paranoid nut he is, Dale almost immediately recognizes the bug, and decides to counter-bluff them. Unfortunately, he does this in some of the saddest and most painful scenes in the series by acting as a total Jerkass towards her.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars: In "The Hidden Enemy", while searching for a traitor in the base, Rex spots footprints indicating he's hiding in the vents above the ceiling and silently indicates them to Cody. The two officers then proceed to loudly discuss the traitor having apparently gone to the south exit, so Rex will therefore go over there as well, to lure the traitor out of the vent so they can catch him.

    Real Life 
  • The Finnish military bought equipment from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Finns knew that their hotel rooms would be obviously bugged so while discussing in "private" they would mention X as absolutely definitely maximum agreeable price for a given item and like clockwork the next day Soviet negotiators would ask X+Y which would then be haggled to X.
  • During World War 2, US Intelligence intercepted Japanese Navy communications about plans to attack a target but couldn't tell what the target was. They suspected it to be Midway Atoll, so they had the Midway base transmit a radio message that they were running low on fresh drinking water. Sure enough, Japanese communications were soon intercepted stating that the target was low on water, confirming that the Japanese intended to attack Midway.


Video Example(s):


How to Fake Defection

Siegfried uses his enemies' secret tape recorder to convince them he's joined their side.

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Main / BluffTheEavesdropper

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