Modus Operandi

DEFINITION of 'Modus Operandi'

Modus operandi is a Latin term used in English to describe an individual or group's habitual way of operating, which forms a discernible pattern. The term comes into play when discussing criminal behavior, but it does not exclusively refer to criminal behavior. Modus operandi is often shortened to "M.O." in both writing and speaking.

BREAKING DOWN 'Modus Operandi'

Modus operandi can also be defined as a specific method of operation, a term also abbreviated M.O. Security firms and military strategists use a threat's M.O. to predict the next move in an armed conflict. This extension of examining an M.O. is called predictive profiling.


As an example, a Ponzi scheme's M.O. involves taking money from new investors and using it to pay off old investors to create the appearance the old investors are earning a return. A straight-A student's M.O. might be to get all her homework done the day before it is due, never miss a class and visit professors during their office hours once a week. A daily routine could be considered an M.O wherein an individual has the same basic routine every day, no matter what, to have the most productive day possible.

In terms of serious criminal behavior, law enforcement detectives may use a criminal's M.O. to link the person to several crimes. A burglar, for example, may always enter a property through a roof or attic to avoid detection through a lower door or window. When gathering evidence against the burglar, detectives may examine the method of entry, through the roof, to determine which properties the person burglarized during a crime spree.

Security Threats

An enemy's M.O. can be used by security experts and military organizations to prevent an attack while it is still in the preparation stages. Predictive profiling, an extension of an M.O. developed by Israeli security forces, predicts terrorist behavior based on observing particular behaviors in groups and individuals. Predictive profiling is successful after observing potential threats, examining situations or objects around the threats, and developing an operational profile.

Security forces then use the operational profile to predict the threat's next move. If a person always meets with a known criminal element at a certain house at a particular time of day, the operational profile may predict when the person comes to the house next. The person's M.O., meeting at the exact same time every week, gives away his pattern and, perhaps, his next move.

Predictive profiling's logical conclusion is to prevent any crimes from happening. Undercover security forces may confront the person away from the criminal's house to get more information. The threat may also face consequences if anything illegal occurred. The fact the threat came face to face with authoritarian figures may scare the person away from carrying out any more criminal activity.

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