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May 3, 2006 | 22:40 GMT

9 mins read

HVT Kidnappings: Going for the Big Money

Editor's Note: This is the third analysis in a series on kidnapping. In 2003, four gunmen kidnapped U.S. billionaire Eddie Lampert as he left his Connecticut home, and held him bound and blindfolded in a bathtub in a cheap motel outside of New Haven. After two days, Lampert succeeded in convincing the increasingly jittery kidnappers to let him go. A short time later, the men ordered a pizza using Lampert's credit card, leading police right to them. This case is noteworthy because it demonstrates that even bumbling criminals can abduct a high-value target (HVT) in the United States if proper security precautions are not taken. It also demonstrates the importance of the victim's role in securing his or her own freedom. HVT kidnappings, those in which a person of significant personal wealth or status is kidnapped for ransom, are complex — and risky — crimes. These kidnappings are often led by professional criminals and carried out by crews chosen for their specialized skills, such as drivers, gunmen and physical-control specialists. Such kidnappings are also characterized by much more thorough planning than goes into most crimes. In addition to the extensive research of the target, pre-operational surveillance and escape plans that might be performed by bank robbers, for example, kidnappers must make arrangements for holding the victim for a prolonged time, making ransom demands and successfully collecting payment. Because of the complexity of HVT kidnappings — and the high stakes involved — the perpetrators will conduct research on the Internet and use other means to determine the target's assets, behavioral patterns, security measures and vulnerabilities. Plotters might also attempt to enlist the help of someone close to the target, such as household staff, especially workers with access to restricted areas or with knowledge of the target's security. Enlisting the help of insiders is important to kidnappers because insiders can provide valuable information about the target, or even give the kidnappers direct access. Moreover, long-term surveillance of the target will enable the kidnappers to determine when and where he or she is most vulnerable — that is, when the kidnapper has the best chance of carrying out a successful abduction. During the abduction, kidnappers will display an overwhelming show of force to minimize possible resistance. Once the victim is in their control, the kidnappers will take the victim to a safe-house, a location out of plain sight that they can control and operate in with relative freedom. In a prolonged kidnapping, the safe-house must be stocked with provisions to hold and feed the victim, as well as staffed with personnel who can provide around-the-clock security for the facility and guard the victim. In addition to the safe-house, kidnappers must make elaborate arrangements for communicating amongst themselves and with the victim's representatives. These communications are used to negotiate the ransom and arrange for the ransom's delivery and release of the victim. Planning for the ransom-victim exchange requires the abductors to make elaborate arrangements to ensure their security and maximize their chances of escape. These arrangements may include surveillance of the area to check for law enforcement and ensure that the victim's representatives are complying with instructions. In most cases, the kidnappers must also determine a rendezvous point where they will meet after the operation. In the United States, things often go wrong during this delicate exchange, resulting in either the capture of abductors or the abandonment or death of the victim. Professional criminals prefer HVT kidnappings to the kinds of express and virtual kidnappings carried out by less proficient criminals for several reasons, primarily because of the potential for a large payoff. They also like the challenge of pulling off a dangerous HVT kidnapping. For career criminals, this challenge is akin to climbing Mount Everest or robbing Fort Knox. Also, unlike armored car heists or bank robberies, kidnappings in the Third World are very rarely reported to the authorities. However, HVT abductions often involve targets with more resources, which allow victims to enlist professional help in tracking the kidnappers. When law enforcement gets involved in HVT cases, police forces in many countries will also devote more resources to capturing the kidnappers. In the United States, the FBI handles kidnapping cases and has highly sophisticated resources to devote to these problems. Because of this, the overwhelming majority of kidnappers who ask for ransoms — between 95 percent and 98 percent — are caught and convicted. Therefore, kidnapping for ransom is rare in the United States, and HVT kidnappings are even rarer. Most kidnappings for ransom in the United States occur within immigrant communities and are perpetrated by other members of the immigrant group, such as Chinese Triad gang kidnappings of the families of Chinese businesspeople. The real risk for most U.S. HVTs is overseas, especially in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Iraq, where kidnapping is a well-developed cottage industry. In these places, the industry thrives due to lack of law and order and corrupt, often complicit, police. As in any kidnapping situation, danger to the HVT kidnapping victim is high — and the victim's ability to respond appropriately is vital. In a well-planned kidnapping, as most HVT abductions are, the rapid execution and seemingly overwhelming force displayed by abductors will leave the victim believing there is little or no choice but to comply. During the initial abduction, resisting the kidnapper sometimes works, but fighting back is probably not worth the risk unless there is a clear way to escape. If the victim notices the threat as it develops — and acts immediately — he or she stands a better chance of escaping. Conversely, if the victim is caught totally off guard, the kidnappers have all the advantages. Potential victims can take precautionary measures to avoid an HVT kidnapping. The most effective and obvious measure is to employ a personal security detail. HVTs with security details are seldom kidnapped, and security details that add route analysis, protective surveillance and variance of routes and schedules to their repertoires seldom lose their charges. Security details and HVTs should maintain a high level of situational awareness about their surroundings, especially near home and work and at any regular appointments or announced public events. On the route itself, attention must be paid to choke points and other stops that would make ideal locations for attack. By being aware of anything unusual or out of place, the security detail and the HVT have a good chance of spotting hostile surveillance or preparations for abduction. In addition to maintaining physical security, other precautions can be taken to make an HVT a more difficult target for kidnappers. The first is privacy protection. By minimizing the amount of personal information available to the public, such as information on the Internet and in newspapers, HVTs can frustrate the planning efforts of potential kidnappers. To this end, household staff and employees should be briefed on the need to protect privacy and educated as to what kind of questions constitute attempts to gather sensitive information. Household staff, as well as contractors and temporary employees, should be thoroughly vetted. Security directors and HVTs should also learn about the personal lives of staff members, and be aware of new people in their lives. These measures can mitigate a kidnapper's ability to infiltrate the household. Keeping the HVT's car in a secured parking place, concealed if possible, prevents kidnappers from tampering with it or determining whether the HVT is visiting a particular location. HVTs and their drivers should also consider being trained in escape and evasion driving. All of these measures should be practiced aggressively in countries where kidnapping is rampant. HVTs who fall victim to a kidnappings have some options to mitigate the risk of death. One useful approach is to humanize themselves to their captors. By appearing more like a person and less like an object, the victim could reduce his or her chances of being killed, or cause the captors to hesitate at the crucial moment. To accomplish this, the victim should establish a rapport with the kidnappers, being careful to avoid undermining captors' efforts to preserve their anonymity. Victims should try to maintain physical health and vigor by eating, drinking and exercising whenever possible. It is also important to keep the mind sharp by reading books or performing other kinds of mental exercises because, in the event of a rescue or escape attempt, events could unfold very quickly and the victim needs to be lucid enough to react accordingly. Once the escape window has closed, the victim should cooperate with the kidnappers but continue to look for every viable opportunity to escape. During a rescue attempt, the victim should be prepared to assume a position that eliminates the chances of being mistaken for a kidnapper or caught in cross fire between rescuers and kidnappers. High-profile individuals, especially those traveling to high-risk countries, should plan for the worst. HVTs should obtain kidnap and ransom (K&R) insurance, including negotiation services if they are offered. The professional negotiator — as opposed to family members or friends — will know how far to push the kidnappers without risking the victim's well-being. However, HVTs should never disclose the fact that they have K&R insurance to anyone. If potential kidnappers know an individual is covered, that person becomes a more attractive target because of the almost-guaranteed payoff. It is important that the negotiating team has a clear plan and speaks with a single voice. If there is the slightest chance that disputes will arise over how best to deal with the situation, this should be discussed ahead of time. One person should be appointed to make decisions and speak for the family. This is especially important in the period before the ransom delivery and hostage release, when events begin to break rapidly. Additionally, these discussions should include a decision on whether to call the authorities in the event of kidnapping, especially in a foreign country. Because of corruption and ineptitude among police and security forces in many countries, reporting a kidnapping could get the victim killed. The risks here are that corrupt police officials could be cooperating with kidnappers, or ill-equipped security forces could bungle a rescue attempt. Under such circumstances, it is best for the victim's family or employer to call the insurance company first — and perhaps consider not involving the local authorities at all.

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