Travel begins with the excitement and the joy of being able to fulfill our inner wanderlust. We all dream of having the ability to travel and experience the enchantment of seeing new places, enjoying new foods, and taking in new cultures.

In most cases, however, most of us are not fully prepared for the potential dangers involved with travelling abroad. The risks we see happening in movies do happen in real life.

Person traveling kidnapped

The movie Taken is about a father who is trying to save his daughter who was kidnapped while on a trip to Paris. Depending on where you travel, the risk of being kidnapped can be low to high. In fact, kidnapping is becoming so prevalent that the U.S. Department of State is now issuing kidnapping risk alerts by country. Kidnap and ransom while traveling abroad is something to be taken very seriously. ThoughtCo describes elements of kidnapping as the unlawful abduction, confinement, and restraint movement with unlawful intent. Let’s look at what you need to know about kidnap, ransom, and extortion risks when you go abroad.

What are the different types of kidnapping?

Depart Smart’s strategic sponsor, AIG Travel, says in their 2017 publication Kidnap, Ransom, and Extortion Broker Playbook, “Kidnap-for-ransom, the most recognized form of extortion, is prevalent in areas with a high disparity of wealth, active criminal and terrorist groups, under-resourced or inefficient law enforcement, and high levels of corruption. Accurate global statistics do not exist because many incidents go unreported, but sources cite tens of thousands of cases each year. “In some parts of the world, short-term or ‘express’ kidnappings are an everyday occurrence.”

“In some parts of the world, short-term or ‘express’ kidnappings are an everyday occurrence.”

Man sitting in building alone

Forms of Kidnapping:

According to ThreatRate Risk Management kidnapping can take several different forms:

  • Basic Kidnapping
    • This is the most common form of kidnapping. Kidnappers target individuals or families with some notoriety or who are well-off. They demand a ransom as a trade for the victim. Reported by Inside Crimes, “Ronquillo had been kidnapped. The kidnappers demanded about $260,000 to free him, which his parents paid.”
  • High Net Worth Individual Kidnapping
    • Most of these kidnappings are done by gangs who have researched, studied, and followed their victim for an extended amount of time.They will watch the behavior of their victims and when the time is right they will abduct them for ransom. “The high-profile kidnapping in 1994 of Alfredo Harp Helú, a Mexican entrepreneur whose family paid $30 million for his release, typifies this trend,” says VOX. VOX also reports a rise on the number of people kidnapped in Mexico in the last decade.
  • Tiger Kidnapping
    • Entails a hostage situation where victims are coerced into committing illegal and high risk crimes, such as theft. They are called tiger kidnapping because a tiger stalks its prey before it attacks. Tiger kidnaping is adapted Irish Republican Army tactics. “These kidnappers don’t demand payment, they demand action by the victim,” says Crime Museum. Involvement in a crime helps ensure the victim won’t report the incident to authorities.
  • Express Kidnapping
    • These kidnappings can be short and violent in nature. A victim is detained while a demand for money is made, often clearing out the abductee’s bank account. Upon receipt, the captive is released. ATM machines are frequent hotspots for express kidnapping but some occurrences may include an abduction. At an ATM, demands for cash are made, often at knife or gunpoint. “Express kidnappings are one of the leading threats travelers face abroad” says Nu Property Casualty 360.
  • Virtual Kidnapping
    • This is a hoax implying an actual kidnapping, but it is a scam. On a recent episode of The Today Show a father reported receiving a ransom call for his daughter demanding money or she would be murdered. Luckily, the dad didn’t give into the ransom demands because his daughter was safe at home. He was scared, but he asked his wife to check on their daughter. The wife reported she was safe. According to the FBI, this scam has been going on for some time and is spreading.
  • Political Kidnapping
    • Political kidnapping is conducted to extort concessions from the government and its security forces. An example is the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, during which 60 U.S. hostages were kidnapped from the American Embassy in Tehran. The reasons were politically based.

Who is at risk?

Most kidnappers are looking for their next payday. They will target individuals who look like they can pay. Aetna reports express kidnappings are “perpetrated by young criminal gangs who target tourists, the extravagantly wealthy, and the intoxicated, usually at ATMs.” Kidnappers will survey airports and look for people who fly first class, rent luxury vehicles, have drivers holding signs, and who wear expensive jewelry and clothing.

Pinkerton says executives are mostly targeted because “It can be easy to spot an executive, especially at an airport. They wear suits, watches, shiny shoes, jewelry, or tailored dresses. They carry expensive looking briefcases. They have multiple electronic devices. They often come off the plane first having flown in first or business class. Executive travelers may also have a car waiting for them with a driver holding a card with their name on it.

Areas of heightened risk

Recently, there’s been elevated awareness around kidnapping in foreign countries – although it’s always been an issue!

“After the following event happened, the US State Department began to raise awareness of the risk of kidnapping in other countries by identifying countries using an existing coding system.
In April 2019, Kimberly Sue Endicott thought she was taking a trip of a lifetime. She was on a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda when her vehicle was ambushed by armed gunman. All the vehicle passengers were robbed. Kimberly and her safari guide, Remezo, were taken hostage. The kidnappers demanded a $500,000 ransom. According to CBS, “After five days of negotiations a ransom was paid, but the amount and the donor were still unknown. Wild Frontiers, the company that organized Endicott’s safari, sent a statement later to CBS News producer Sarah Carter in which it referred to the process as a “negotiated handover, conducted between the Ugandan and U.S. authorities in order to return Kimberly unharmed.”

Fodors Travel reported that after the kidnapping and ransoming of Endicott and Remezo, the U.S. announced it was adding kidnapping indicators to travel advisories.

The U.S. Depart of State uses one letter threat indicators to countries with travel warnings. Now the letter “K”, have been issued added to 35 countries.

Example of State Department warnings for Afghanistan: C T U K O

The circled letters indicate Crime, Terrorism, Unrest, Kidnapping, and Other. Other designations can also be used: Health, Natural Disaster, and Time-Limited Event.

You can also check U.S. State Department travel advisories descriptions for more information.

Mexico, one of the top 35 countries known for kidnapping, has been seeing a steady increase in severity of incidents. “While the majority of victims are locals, criminals are increasingly targeting more and more travelers for secuestro exprés or express kidnapping, particularly in urban areas,” says World Nomads. They also state, “This crime is not exclusive to Mexico, as the risk is widespread across Latin America. Authorities believe drug cartels are choosing express kidnappings as a way to get high volume, low reward income compared to long-term hostage-ransom situations.”

Woman looking out window

Savoya wrote, “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 are premeditated (meaning they’re planned in advance), relative to those which are opportunistic (which occur spur-of-the-moment).”

Does travel insurance cover ransom demands?

Although the vast majority of U.S. American travelers do not protect themselves with travel insurance, asking a carrier for a specific policy on kidnap, ransom, and extortion can protect your assets. Most travelers would be wise to consider a supplemental kidnapping policy in countries where the prevalence of kidnapping is widely reported.

Do you know the difference between trip and travel insurance? Trip insurance protects travelers from financial loss due to cancellation, interruption, or delay; missed flight connections, or lost baggage. Travel insurance provides for medical expenses and in many cases fills the medical coverage void when traveling outside the U.S. It also provides emergency medical evacuation. In any event, neither one will generally cover kidnap, ransom, and extortion. Please note: Every insurance policy and its coverage varies by provider and proper documentation must be provided to be able to be covered. You can always (and should always) pick up the phone and ask what your insurance covers.

How does kidnap and ransom insurance work?

“Kidnap and ransom or express kidnapping insurance is a rider you must purchase separately. It’s something you never want anyone else but your carrier and emergency contacts to know you have. It can cover up to $10K of extortion, in my research,“ says Sheryl Hill, Depart Smart founder. “Kidnapping and ransom ‘rider’ travel insurance can cover death and dismemberment, ransom and extortion payments, financial losses, ransom demands, support services, and corporate liability protections. A traveler should pick up the phone and discuss kidnap and ransom insurance with the provider, and then get it all in writing so it is binding,” she adds.

You cannot predict if venturing overseas could land you in a kidnap, ransom or extortion situation. Having the right insurance rider will cut your losses. Whether you’re vacationing, working, or studying abroad, take the time and effort to educate yourself and acquire the best insurance to protect your welfare.

“[Kidnap and ransom insurance is] something you never want anyone else but your carrier and emergency contacts to know you have.”

What can you do to avoid being a kidnapping target?

Travel like a HERO! Most experts agree avoiding problem areas and keeping situational awareness high are keys to avoid becoming victimized by perpetrators. Blend in with local fashions, leave the designer jeans and shoes at home with the expensive jewelry. Avoid ATM machines if possible. Keep a low limit on your credit cards and bank accounts. Do your homework.

Developing tools and super skills to identify and avoid risks takes education and planning. Depart Smart provides online travel safety certification with personalized emergency travel safety plans. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you become a victim of kidnap, ransom, or extortion you’ll need an emergency plan to get the best help and return home safely. Get insurance to cover any losses you might experience. Take Travel HEROES safety training to help you avoid trouble. Save a LIFE!