Are You Really Prepared to Travel Overseas?
On March 3, 2023, LaTavia Washington McGee, Eric Williams, Shaeed Woodard, and Zindell Brown were kidnapped while traveling to a medical appointment in Matamoros, Mexico. Woodard and Brown were both killed in the attack. More than a block from the incident, a bystander was killed by a stray bullet.
“The attack came in broad daylight, with armed men ambushing the four friends,” reported CNN. “The group was driving when they heard a car horn behind them.
Brown looked back to see a gun and warned the others not to stop the car, Washington McGee recalled. Then, the shooting started.”
Woodard and Brown were shot but not killed as they tried to run away. The kidnappers, believing the four were Haitian drug smugglers, took them to another location where they were interrogated. While being held, Woodard said, “I love y’all, and [now] I’m gone.” He died moments later.
Brown died of his wounds hours later.
You might assume this was an isolated incident in an area of Mexico known for kidnappings and violence. However, as of November 2020, it is reported that at least 40 Americans are being held hostage or wrongly detained in 11 foreign countries—though the actual figure is likely higher. Many cases are never reported because media attention may hinder efforts to free detained travelers. Kidnappings, theft, and violence are real risks in any overseas travel, yet many professionals make international business trips without much thought or preparation for these situations.
Watch the video here and then keep reading below for more on this topic:
Understanding the risks
According to the FBI, international kidnappings and hostage cases generally fall into two categories:
- Criminals hold Americans overseas for ransom.
- Terrorist groups make similar demands for money or hold Americans for political reasons.
But hostage cases aren’t the only risks to be aware of. Johnathan Tal is a former military field intelligence officer for the Israeli armed forces and current CEO of TAL Global Corporation, an international security and consulting firm. Tal says aside from kidnappings for ransom, Americans traveling overseas can be jailed for breaking local laws or may be targeted for theft or violence. “Most often this happens because [travelers] have little if any security awareness, have not planned their visit ahead of time, know little about foreign travel, and don’t know how to protect themselves when traveling in a foreign country,” Tal explains. “This applies to people from most any country traveling to a foreign country, not just Americans.”
He adds that there are ways to mitigate the risks of being harmed or jailed in another country. “But too many people do not plan ahead [for overseas travel] to the extent that they can foolishly endanger themselves.”
Tal points to the Brittney Griner incident in Russia as an example: “She may have traveled throughout the U.S. carrying tiny amounts of cannabis oil with no problem or incident. But flying to Russia and many other countries with even insignificant amounts of cannabis oil can lead to an arrest and a very long prison sentence. Respectfully but candidly, I consider what she or her travel planners did was pure foolishness.”
Recently, a LinkedIn poll on ISSA’s The Cleaning Industry Discussion Group asked visitors the following question:
If you were to travel overseas for business, would you consider yourself completely prepared regarding your own personal safety?
- Of the 133 voters, 58% answered yes, they are prepared to ensure their personal safety when traveling overseas.
- 26% said no, they are not fully prepared.
- 11% indicated “they do not know how to prepare” to travel overseas.
- 6% indicated they do not travel to foreign countries.
“I question the high number that says they are prepared,” reflects Tal. “We work with organizations worldwide, and we find in virtually every case, their top executives and administrators have little or no idea what steps should be taken [beforehand] to travel safely overseas.”
Q & A with the expert
Recently, Tal conducted a webinar about the dangers of traveling overseas—including ways to mitigate or prevent the risks. After attending the webinar, I asked him the following questions:
Are Americans more likely to be the victims of crime today than in the past?
Yes. Crime ebbs and flows. But it has increased with the Ukraine war and the tensions, polarization, and uncertainties around the globe.
Why is travel more dangerous overseas than traveling in the U.S.?
When we travel in the U.S., we are often familiar with our surroundings and how Americans do things. But when we travel overseas, we are faced with different languages and laws, different culture and customs, and different phone services and ways to call for help.
Making airport transfers can be very confusing, as is taking public transportation. When getting in a cab, for instance, the driver may not understand what you are saying, may drop you off at the wrong location, or may even be a perpetrator themselves.
I was not aware of kidnapping insurance for individuals traveling overseas. Can you tell us more about this?
This is insurance that can be purchased before a trip. The cost depends on a host of variables.* The insurance coverage typically includes negotiations with the abductors, paying the ransom, and providing for emergency evacuation. In some cases, it is also life insurance, paying the victim’s family a specified amount if the victim is killed. While travel insurance may be necessary in certain cases and in certain countries, what is more powerful is prevention: taking steps to protect yourself and your family before and while overseas.
*According to Investopedia: “Some kidnap insurance policies cost as little as $500 a year, but the price rises quickly. It depends on the type of coverage, benefit amounts, destination countries, and the number of people covered.”
You mentioned “virtual kidnapping,” something I also have never heard of before. What is it?
This is when a victim, often traveling overseas, is told a family member has been kidnapped. They want a ransom paid for their release. They get travelers’ names using various methods, then contact the traveler by phone, email, or messaging services. According to the FBI’s El Paso, Texas, division, “On average, the family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.” Further, “perpetrators go to great lengths to prevent [victims and their families] from verifying the status and location of the kidnapped individuals. The perpetrators make their victims believe they are being watched and are personally targeted.”
Protecting yourself while traveling
When traveling overseas, whether on business or leisure, Tal has the following recommendations:
Preparation is key. Stay current about what is happening in the country you will be visiting. Notify the State Department in the United States (or the equal agency in your country) about your travel plans. In the United States, the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) will provide you with safety tips in the countries you will be traveling to, as well as advisories and warnings while there.
Have a travel risk assessment conducted. The risk assessment/security assessment firm will want to find out if the organization or specific members of the organization are the targets of threats, if they have been victims of attacks in the past, where precisely they will be in the foreign country, how often they travel, and even the private lifestyles of the travelers. This gives the security firm a sense of the risks involved.
Have protection available at the destination. This is especially true of executives traveling overseas. Agents should be available at the destination for several purposes: They deter threats just by accompanying the traveling executive; they can mitigate risks by planning primary and alternate routes to reach hotels or work destinations; and they can pre-inspect locations where the traveler will stay and work. In foreign countries, executive protection agents should be local, well-vetted, trained in executive protection, and fluent in both the local language and the language spoken by the traveler.
Airport pickup protocols. Typically, foreign business travelers are met at the airport by a driver. Do not have this person hold a sign with your name. Use a different name both you and the driver will know. It is one more way to keep a low profile overseas and stay safe.
Situational awareness. This is essential. When walking on a sidewalk, for instance, walk in the middle of the sidewalk. This provides greater visibility of your surroundings and those around you. In a restaurant, don’t look at the menu first; look for the exits and where you can hide in case of danger.
Confidence. When walking in a foreign city, walk confidently with your head high. Perpetrators are attuned to body language. They avoid confident-looking people, preferring those looking down or passive.
Finally, trust your instincts when traveling to a foreign country. If the surroundings do not look right, if you feel danger or are uncomfortable, leave. When traveling overseas, always listen to your instincts. Invariably they are trying to tell you something to keep you safe.
Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry. He may be reached at [email protected].