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Understanding the Risk of Kidnapping During Executive Travel

Jon Hooton

May 17, 2018

In the fourth quarter of 2016, Aon, a global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions, surveyed 1,843 organizations—representing 33 industry sectors in 64 countries and regions—on the biggest risks facing their companies.

The results of this survey were compiled and published in the company’s 2017 Global Risk Management Survey, where the top three highest-ranked risks were somewhat unsurprising:

  1. Damage to their reputations or brands
  2. Economic slowdown or slow recoveries
  3. Increasing competition
Without a doubt, these risks are significant. And while we don’t want to minimize their importance, what surprised us were not the specific risks that ranked in the top 10 out of 55 possible options. It was the option that ended up dead last—in the 55th position: Kidnapping, ransom and extortion.


Busting the Executive Kidnapping Myth

You don’t hear a lot about executive kidnapping, which at least partially explains its position at the bottom of Aon’s list of perceived threats.

But that’s not because kidnapping doesn’t happen, or because it isn’t really a threat to your company. It’s because nobody wants to talk about it when it does happen.

According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. State Department—as reported by CNBC contributor Dina Gusovsky—60% to 70% of overseas kidnapping of U.S. citizens go unreported. Even less is known about the percentage of these events that are premeditated (meaning they’re planned in advance), relative to those that are opportunistic (which occur spur-of-the-moment).

AIG confirms the dire nature of the Bureau’s report, stating in its Kidnap, Ransom and Extortion Broker Playbook that: “In 2013, there were 15,000 to 20,000 incidents of kidnap-for-ransom reported globally, and in 2013 over 3,000 reported incidents occurred in Mexico alone. Furthermore it is estimated that around 90% of cases do not get reported due to fear of reprisal and police corruption.”

The bottom line? The statistics we have about executive kidnapping—while scary on their own—represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the frequency and severity of actual kidnap, ransom and extortion occurrences.

How can something so big be happening, with so little attention paid to it? Remember that Aon survey respondents placed “damage to reputations or brands” at the top of their list of perceived risk. If you were concerned about your company’s image, would you really want word getting out that one of your top executives had been kidnapped while traveling?

Don’t underestimate the risk of kidnapping simply because you haven’t heard about it. You are not hearing about it because of how vastly underreported it is, which is why you owe it to yourself and your organization to better understand both the potential risk of kidnapping and the steps you can take to mitigate it.


Staying Safe During Executive Travel

Plenty of experts on the subject offer important best practices for minimizing the risk of kidnapping during executive travel. Knowing that 58% of kidnappings occur in transit, for example, highlights the importance of practicing positive identification with your driver before getting into the vehicle.

There are steps you can take to appear less desirable as a kidnapping target as well. Mike Clayton, Founder of TAC Group Solutions and guest contributor to the Pinkerton blog, offers these four travel safety tips:

  • Arrive at the airport dressed in a way that you will blend in and not call attention to yourself with signs of wealth.
  • Don’t have a company credit card in your wallet so that it is easily found by kidnappers.
  • Avoid taking calls on which you might be discussing important-sounding topics in public.
  • Have special business cards made that only have your basic contact information with no indication of the company or your title.

These are great recommendations, but here’s another reality to recognize: normal travel safety rules still apply, but if you’re an executive at a major corporation, or an ultra-high net worth (UHNW) individual or family, you are not a “normal person.”

Self-awareness and additional precautions are important. Because of who you are and how you travel, certain clues are likely to tip off a trained eye:

  • You fly first class or arrive on a private aircraft
  • You arrive from major international cities
  • You get into a luxury vehicle   
  • You wear nice shoes or accessories—even if the rest of your wardrobe is dressed-down
  • You stay at high-end hotels or eat at highly respected restaurants
  • You may travel with a team of associates, and their deferential behavior can give you away

These behaviors are not faults. You don’t have to fly coach wearing Crocs to avoid a kidnapping. But you do need to be hyper-aware of the fact that, while traveling, executives and UHNW individuals may come across as more obvious targets. This puts them at risk not just for premeditated kidnappings due to known travel arrangements, but opportunistic kidnap events based on visible signs of wealth as well.


Mitigating the Risk of Kidnapping, Extortion and Ransom

Travel is inherently risky—especially so for executive travelers. Taking the steps above is no guarantee of safety, though following them will make you a less-than-ideal target when on the road.

Stay safe by staying aware. Don’t assume a kidnapping event won’t happen to you; they happen every day, in every part of the world. Know when you’re most vulnerable, and seek out service providers and strategies that limit your risk of kidnapping, extortion and ransom during executive travel.

Are you concerned about kidnapping as a business risk? Or does the threat fall near the end of your list—as it did for most Aon survey participants? Share your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

Jon Hooton
Jon Hooton

Mr. Hooton serves as Savoya’s Vice President of Operations, giving him an insider’s perspective into the challenges faced by travel managers. His contributions are grounded in this insight, and emphasize travel and safety best practices for travel coordinators and the teams they serve.