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Kidnap and ransom: what happens if it happens?

Globalisation is driving a huge increase in international travel as companies seek out new business opportunities across the world.

Many of those opportunities are being found in developing countries, which often have unstable political systems, weak law enforcement agencies, and corrupt government officials.

“One type of crime that’s becoming increasingly common, is ‘express’ kidnapping”

For the people living and working there, this can mean exposure to significant security risks, including kidnap, ransom and extortion (KRE). Traditionally associated with war-torn, U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) and European Union (EU) sanctioned nations like Syria*, or extremely unstable countries like Libya or Afghanistan, KRE incidents are increasing across the world, from Latin America to the oil and mining territories of Africa.

Express kidnapping

If kidnapping brings to mind media images of high-profile hostage situations, the first thing to know is that, outside a handful of extremely dangerous locations, those incidents are relatively rare. But one type of crime that’s becoming increasingly common, however, is ‘express’ kidnapping.

These are generally short-term and opportunistic kidnaps, perpetrated by young criminal gangs who target tourists, the extravagantly wealthy, and the intoxicated, usually at ATMs. Typically, a gang of two or three people will grab their target and force them to extract money from the cash machine under threat of violence. In some cases, the victim is driven to a nearby location and either made to hand over money directly or held hostage until a ransom is paid by their family.

Safety and security cover

As a result of the unpredictability and ferocity of terror attacks, and people’s concerns around their safety while travelling abroad, Aetna International offers personal safety resources and support for eligible members through its crisis response partner, red24 (now provided by Crisis 24). Depending on the type of plan members choose, they will have access to red24 (now provided by Crisis 24) services — AdviceLine or ActionReponse — which include travel safety briefings, country intelligence, 24/7/365 access to personalised and expert safety advice, and on-the-ground support for situations affecting your personal safety or loss of belongings. In addition, we have negotiated a discounted rate on red24’s kidnap, ransom and extortion cover for our group clients and individual members who are globally mobile, or who are relocating to areas where there is a high risk of kidnap. Members can choose to buy KRE cover from red24 (now provided by Crisis 24) over and above the security services available through their Aetna International plan.

Employers have a duty of care to look after staff working overseas, making safety and security benefits particularly important for them. Through surveys of individuals and their families, we also know that expats and the globally mobile want to be connected to 24/7 safety and security services for peace of mind.

KRE support

If a kidnap or hostage situation takes place, Aetna International members who have purchased separate KRE cover directly from red24 (now provided by Crisis 24) can rely on round-the-clock, on-the-ground support in the event of a KRE situation.

For red24 (now provided by Crisis 24) the most important first step in preventing this kind of crime is helping people understand why and where it happens. They can provide Aetna International members who have KRE cover, with access to training courses and advice online, over the phone and, if necessary, face to face. Designed to educate members about the security issues they could face in high-risk countries, red24 (now provided by Crisis 24) details what measures should be taken to reduce the likelihood of being targeted. And if the worst happens and a member is actually kidnapped, their highly experienced negotiators are on hand to help.

China crisis

It’s tempting to think that a kidnap couldn’t happen to you, but it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself in a dangerous situation, as Steve** found out on a recent business trip to China.

“I landed in Beijing late afternoon. It was my first time there and I needed some cash for a taxi, so once I’d cleared customs I went looking for an ATM. This guy approached me in the queue, said he was a driver, and asked if I needed a ride into the city. Normally I’d brush it off and look for a taxi rank, but for some reason this time I didn’t.

“I was suddenly aware that I was in a stranger’s car, in a city I didn’t know, with three people I’d never met, and nobody knew where I was. And that’s when I realised I could be in serious trouble.”

“I followed him outside and looked round for a yellow cab, or a marked car of some kind, but there weren’t any. The guy ushered me towards what looked like a short-stay car park. It didn’t feel unusual. When I’m picked up at home, taxis often wait in the short-stay area. I figured this was the same. But as we went down some steps into an underground area I saw another man and a woman waiting for us, standing beside a black Mercedes. I was beginning to think something wasn’t right, but I was tired from the flight and kept moving.

“There was a conversation when we reached the car that I didn’t understand. I was ushered into the car and they all got in. I gave him the address of the hotel and checked he knew where to go. His English wasn’t great and I was feeling increasingly uneasy about the situation.

“We were out of the airport and moving into the suburbs when the guy sitting next to me took out his phone and made a call. I looked over and he grinned at me, and I was suddenly acutely aware that I was in a stranger’s car, in a city I didn’t know, with three people I’d never met, and nobody knew where I was. And that’s when I realised I could be in serious trouble.”

Action stations

Situations like this aren’t unusual. International travel can be tiring, which means people take decisions they wouldn’t ordinarily make, ultimately putting themselves at risk. With the right training and education before leaving, Steve may have made different choices.

Assuming Steve is the target of a kidnapping attempt, how would red24 handle a situation like this? Security consultant Jason** describes what could have happened next:

“Steve’s now in a potentially very dangerous position. He’s been targeted at an ATM, so these people know he has access to cash. If this is a kidnapping, he’ll be taken to a location that’s under their control, where they’ll either attempt to extort money directly from him, usually through violence, or put a call in to his family and try to get money from them in exchange for his safe return.

“Our consultant will talk through what’s happening and give advice on what they should do next. They can also negotiate with the kidnappers on the family’s behalf”

“If the criminals do make that call, his family or employer would contact us on our 24/7 emergency assistance line and we’d get them direct access to one of our highly experienced negotiators. Kidnap situations can move very quickly, so we have consultants available to deal with what’s happening in the country where the crime’s taken place, and someone working with the family directly.

“Kidnap incidents are extremely stressful, especially for families, and having someone with them who’s experienced these situations before is an enormous help. Our consultant will talk through what’s happening and give advice on what they should do next. They can also negotiate with the kidnappers on the family’s behalf, and liaise with law enforcement agencies in the country.

“In most express kidnappings, the incident is usually nearly over by the time we get called. But in longer hostage situations a big part of our work is negotiating the client’s release. To do that, we spend time forming a relationship with the kidnappers, gaining their trust, and finding ways to get them to the point where we can secure a safe release.

“Sometimes that means paying ransom money. Most governments won’t do this as a matter of policy, but private payments secure a hostage release in 73% of kidnaps. If we’re in a position to secure release through negotiating a payment, we do that. If not, the situation usually ends with police or military action, which is often riskier for the client.”

Safety cars

In Steve’s case, his worst fears weren’t realised. After an increasingly stressful journey, the car dropped him off at his hotel and he checked in, vowing never to take an unlicensed taxi in future.

He was lucky, explains Jason. “The decisions he made could have resulted in a much worse outcome, something easily avoided by following a few simple guidelines.”

To find out more about the red24 personal safety resources and support plans for individuals and families head here, and here for businesses looking to support international employees. Additionally, our consultants can also help you access the discount available to Aetna International members for additional red24 services such as KRE cover.

Aetna® is a trademark of Aetna Inc. and is protected throughout the world by trademark registrations and treaties.

* Aetna International does not conduct business in countries subject to financial sanctions and regulations
** Names and locations have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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