Your Family Needs These TWO Secret Phone Codes

worried young woman looking at phone, for article on secret phone codes

If you stop by my house mid-week and I’m washing and folding laundry, you’ll probably catch me watching Dateline, 20/20, or 48 Hours. Experts expend a lot of energy disagreeing over why people – especially women – obsess over true crime, but for most of us, I think there’s a sense that we might learn something from these stories that could help us protect ourselves and our families. And one thing I’ve realized recently is that in the thick of the Digital Age, every family – and every chosen family, for that matter – needs a secret code to identify each other with when we aren’t standing right in front of each other. 

About a year ago, I befriended someone whose family member had gone missing. Despite their family’s concerns, police stated the individual wasn’t technically considered missing as the person in question was (barely) an adult and seemed to have at least initially left of their own volition. Through the family’s attempt to track this person around the country in hopes of finding proof of life, one of the innate problems that began to emerge was the fact that they had no simple way to verify anyone who claimed to be this person was actually the missing person. 

Phones as Digital Age Security Tools

I often hear folks my age or older groan that “We didn’t have phones when I was a kid and we turned out fine.” But the truth is there are a lot of folks who might still be with us today if we had. And I don’t know about y’all, but there were more than a few dodgy situations in my youth where having a way to get in touch with a ride home would have been a real lifeline. 

Whether you’ve got little ones, tweens, or teens, phones can be a powerful safety tool, and it’s never too early to start talking about the ways phones can be used to protect us and others around us. GPS can help folks find their way home and help us keep track of lost loved ones. If we see something potentially unsafe or dangerous, cameras can be used to capture evidence even if we can’t safely intervene. And in the case of a medical emergency, we can dial 911 or even look up first aid while we wait for first responders. 

Developing secret communication to use is just one more way you and your family can use phones for personal security, and it’s one of the most important things you can do if your kids are starting to become more independent. 

Code 1: The Identity Confirmation Code

It’s a frightening thought to imagine a missing loved one with only a comet’s trail of digital information to hint at their whereabouts, and it’s one that I’ve seen a few times in recent true crime shows. In several stories, family members of missing persons would later recount oddly-toned text messages or cryptic replies that didn’t fit their loved one’s typical digital cadence. That uncertainty about whether they were speaking with their loved one potentially cost them hours or even days of police intervention – intervention that could prove lifesaving in some circumstances. It’s a problem that could easily be solved by creating a coded question and response known only to a select group of people. 

Imagine, God forbid, your bestie is supposed to be stopping by your house after work. Normally, she’s pretty good about texting when something comes up, but today, she seems to have completely flaked. You shoot her a series of texts, and all of her replies are atypically monosyllabic to the point that it’s making you more than a little nervous:

You: WYA?

Friend: I’m fine. 

Your instinct tells you something is wrong – your friend doesn’t usually respond with punctuation, and it’s just plain odd for her to no-call-no-show, but you don’t want to make something out of nothing, either. 

Fortunately, you had the foresight to set up a secret question and response:

You: Have you seen my blue shirt?

Friend: Paula Deen has it

And with that, you know your friend is fine and everything is okay. 

I first heard a question-response code used in the Dateline episode “The Client.” When they became suspicious that the person using a missing woman’s phone wasn’t her, her coworkers used an office code to confirm her identity, asking about a red folder left on a desk. When she didn’t respond, they immediately knew their friend was in trouble. 

Codes Also Protect Against Deep Fake Scams

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about as our families navigate the digital minefield, several news agencies have recently reported a serious evolution among tech-savvy scammers: They’re cloning phone numbers and using social media to create audio deep fakes to trick their victims with. They hop on someone’s Facebook or Instagram page, grab a couple of videos, and clone that person’s voice and phone number so their unwitting (and often tech-naive) grandparents, aunts, or cousins get a phone call from what they believe is their family member claiming they are in serious trouble (jail, kidnappers, etc.) and need cash now. 

While you might think you would never fall for this, these programs can be incredibly realistic. They’re not usually coming from a single person working alone – there are entire call centers dedicated to these scams in countries where industries are not as tightly regulated as they are in the United States, which means they have plenty of cash to shell out for super scammy software. And if the call is coming from your voice and your phone number, there’s a good chance it can fool your family or friends. 

But one thing these scam artists don’t have is your secret family code – yet another reason you need to create one immediately. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating a secret question:

  • It should be something your family or friend will know but other people shouldn’t be able to guess even if they know you pretty well. 
  • It should be easy to remember, and you should talk about it from time to time so everyone remembers. 
  • Don’t go around sharing your family code with other people in your close circle – instead, use a different code for different groups of people. 
  • Keep it written down somewhere safe, secure, and private in case you forget it. 
  • Meet with everyone to go over how the code should be used and emphasize that it isn’t for sharing with anyone. 
  • Make sure they understand how deep fake scams work.

Code 2: The “X-Plan” Emergency Extraction Code

In addition to a check-in and response code, some families are implementing an emergency extraction from a sketchy situation. Imagine you’re with someone you suddenly don’t feel safe with. You want to ask someone for help, but you’re afraid they’ll see your text message and become hostile or even dangerous. 

But it doesn’t even have to be a sketchy situation – you might just need an extraction code because you’re having trouble breaking away from small talk purgatory at the company Christmas party. The genius of the extraction code is it sends out an SOS to anyone who receives it, and they can come bail you out. 

The idea comes from minister blogger Bert Fulks, who blogged about his “X-Plan” for helping his family members out of uncomfortable situations. 

Here’s how it works:

  1. Family Member A texts “X” to any family member. 
  2. Family Member B calls Family Member A with an “emergency” and says they need to come pick the other person up right away. 

Technically, I imagine you could do this with any pre-planned emoji if “X” doesn’t feel natural enough to easily send. You could even use your extraction code as a way to answer your confirmation question if it is indeed the correct person but they aren’t safe or need help immediately. 

Security Doesn’t Mean Scared

If you’re worried about coming across as paranoid or scaring your family or friends with your secret code strategy, you really shouldn’t be. Think of it like this – you don’t put a fire extinguisher under your kitchen sink or check the batteries in your smoke alarm in acute fear of a house fire. It’s just something you do because if the need did arise, having that smoke detector and fire extinguisher could mean the difference between a life-threatening fire and a slightly harrowing tale that may or may not result in some lightly singed eyebrows. 

Anytime you’re creating a safety plan, you’re investing in your family’s security with the hope that you’ll never need to use it but the comforting knowledge that if you do, you and your family will be ready. 

With school ending and kids setting out on their summertime adventures, it’s a perfect time to sit down with the whole crew and check in on your family’s safety protocols including your two new super secret codes. And while you’re at it, you might as well go over that fire safety plan

Thanks for reading, and have a safe and crime-free week in your little nebula!

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