Most people when they think of a kidnapping think of a violent, dramatic event. The victim is ambushed, dragged from his car, threatened with weapons and restrained before being moved to a location where he is isolated. Many kidnappings do follow this model or something very similar. Speed, violence, “shock and awe” are effective tools for the kidnappers – allowing them to gain control of the victim quickly and effectively, dramatically reducing the likelihood of resistance of escape.
There are however kidnappings that don’t follow this model. Circumstances where victims are lured into their captivity induced to put themselves in a vulnerable position and sometimes even controlled through duplicity as much as physical restraint. It’s important to understand and recognize this methodology to be able to protect yourself against it.
A number of these events evolve out of sophisticated scams. The victim is lured to a specified location with the promise of a lucrative business opportunity and then abducted. Many but certainly not all of these incidents have occurred have occurred in West and Central Africa. In March 2014 KR Magazine (www.krmagazine.com) outlined the case of an Australian businessman who was lured to Togo in West Africa, in December 2012 by an opportunity to purchase gold bars. He entered Togo by land from neighboring Ghana, did not get an entry stamp in his passport and was told by his “hosts” that he faced immigration and money laundering charges. He was then held captive “for his own protection” and forced to call his business partner and estranged wife for ransom payments. This incident was also controversial in the sense that after the victim purportedly escaped or was allowed to escape there were allegations that the entire incident was a fraud. Regardless – the case provides numerous examples of a modus operandi that has apparently become increasingly common. There was also a notable case in May 2012 off a US commercial airline pilot who was also lured to Lome, Togo by an opportunity to buy gold bars. The pilot was subsequently held captive in a village in neighboring Benin until a ransom was paid. Similar cases have been reported in Uganda, South Africa and numerous other countries.
The Colombian Facebook Gang – which we have previously discussed used social media to identify and target wealthy men. Using fake profiles depicting beautiful women the kidnappers enticed the men to “meet in person”. The victims were then abducted when they arrived for the meeting.
Even the well-publicized and tragic case of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan contains elements of the use of deception to lure the victim into captivity. Pearl went to what he believed was an interview with a Pakistani militant – Sheikh Gilani in Karachi. After being taken willingly to the safe house where the interview was to occur, Pearl surrendered all his personal items and allowed himself to be restrained “for security reasons”.
Kidnapping through the use of deception and guile, rather than a gun offers a lot of advantages to the criminal:
- They can get the victim to do the work for them by getting them to isolate themselves and in some cases willingly put themselves into captivity.
- It gives them deniability. If it goes bad and they are caught they can argue it was all a misunderstanding on the part of the victim. If no violence was used and the victim was not physically restrained they may very well prevail with this argument.
- It reduces the physical risk to they face. The victim is unlikely to fight back or physically resist and they are less likely to draw the attention of law enforcement.
- It creates an opaque environment they can manipulate to their advantage. Is the victim free to go? Does the victim know that?
Common Elements and Mitigation:
There are some common elements that occur in cases where guile and deception are used and ways to mitigate your risk:
- Many of these situations have the hallmarks of a scam. If it seems to go to be true then it probably is. That said it is worth noting that many of the perpetrators of these crimes can be very sophisticated and can work on developing the mark or victim over time – this is true for both kidnappings and straight out scams. It’s important to do your due diligence in these situations and know who you are dealing with as well as watching for some of the other indicators below.
- Many have an illegal or at least unethical component where the victim knows he or she is getting involved in something that is not legitimate. This allows the perpetrators to require a level of secrecy that would not be typical in most business dealings. It also provides the kidnapper with the leverage of reporting the victim to the authorities. You can mitigate this by not engaging in business deals or other activities that are questionable.
- Be wary of unsolicited approaches from people you don’t know or unsolicited calls or emails requesting a meeting or offering a prospective business opportunity.
- There may be a requirement to go to an isolated location or to accompany the perpetrators to an unknown location. Additionally there may be a change in plans or meeting places at the last minute that isolates the victim. To avoid this it’s important to insist on holding meetings in public locations – preferably that you are either familiar with or have time to assess in advance. You should not agree to last minute changes in meeting venues and if pressed its best to cancel the meeting. Criminals will try to create a sense of urgency to get you to go along with their plan.
- The perpetrators may say certain measures are “for your own protection” or are “security measures” to control you. Do not allow yourself to be willingly confined or restrained under these circumstances.
- There may be an attempt to isolate you and make you dependent. This may include surrendering your passport, mobile phone, etc. We strongly advise travelers – particularly in the developing world – to create multiple layers of contacts or parallel contacts. Do not allow one person or one group of people to control your agenda and activities. Have alternate means of transport, communication, etc. to eliminate this dependency. Also have check in procedures and let others know where you are going and who you will be meeting. We have discussed this in our article on dealing with local contacts and in the book Safe Travel Abroad (http://www.amazon.com/Safe-Travel-Abroad-Individual-Expatriates/dp/1484871987/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1402518982&sr=8-1).
Being aware of this type of crime is the best way to reduce your risk of being a victim. Recognizing the criminal modus operandi and identifying the signs will allow you to avoid these situations in most cases.