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Global Regions, Kidnapping

The Psychology of Kidnapping and Abduction

I was startled to read that in 2010 the United States was ranked sixth in the world for “kidnapping-for-ransom” crimes according to the available statistics (after Columbia, Italy, Lebanon, Peru, and the Philippines). In June 2010, Senator John McCain stated that Phoenix, Arizona was the “Kidnapping Capital of America.” With 370 cases in 2010, Phoenix is ranked second in the world only to Mexico City. The increasing frequency of these types of headlines caused me to investigate kidnapping further to better understand the overall risks of abduction, how to avoid being kidnapped and what to do if being held captive for any period of time.

What I have come to learn is that kidnapping is a growing global epidemic with no realistic solution.

By definition kidnapping is “the taking away or transportation of a person against the person’s will, usually to hold the person in false imprisonment, a confinement without legal authority.” This may be done for ransom or in furtherance of another crime, or in connection with a child custody dispute. Non-custodial parent abductions of children were, by far, the number one type of kidnapping occurring across the globe in 2010 and often does not get included in the most common statistical reporting of abductions.

Kidnapping for ransom is certainly a common occurrence in many parts of the world today (especially in Latin America) and certain countries are often described as the “Kidnapping Capital of the World.” In 2010, Mexico clearly earned the title but very few abductions were for financial gain; it is estimated that over 90% of the kidnappings in Mexico were due to the wars being fought among and between the various drug cartels and the Mexican government. Statistically, nearly all of the victims in Mexico were killed. In 2007, the title “Kidnapping Capital of the World” belonged to Iraq with possibly 1,500 foreigners kidnapped; estimates break that number almost in half between kidnapping for ransom and kidnapping for ideological purposes. In 2004, Mexico held the title and in 2001, it was Colombia.

How does a kidnapper choose his victim?

Kidnappers tend to develop a profile of their likely target before making an abduction based upon their overall goals, which usually falls into one of three categories: financial gain, extremism or emotional disturbance.

If a kidnapper is going to take a hostage for ransom, he will target the victim based upon an outward appearance of wealth or information given to him from someone who knows the victim intimately, such as a household employee, a bank teller, a waitress at the victim’s favorite restaurant or someone else that suspects that the victim has a lot of cash.

Have you ever inadvertently “flashed” a lot of cash while digging through your wallet or purse to pay for something at the local market? If you are a regular, that sort of gossip tends to get a lot of attention from minimum wage workers and the dollar amounts often gets blown out of proportion the more times the “story of your wealth” gets told!

The good news is that hostage-for-ransom victims tend to survive their ordeal. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash or wearing expensive jewelry. Be discrete about how much money you have and where you keep it. Hire domestic employees carefully and do not give your trust to them easily.

Zealots, extremists and terrorists tend to target their victims based upon such things as nationality, ethnicity, religion, social status or organizational affiliation (i.e. employees of a specific company or political party might be targeted). Unfortunately, because the primary aim of these types of abductions is to create sensationalism, be visible or to make a statement, the percentage of hostages that are killed can be quite high.

Strong emotion and mental defect also play a large part in the overall number of kidnappings. The kidnapping of a child by a non-custodial parent or other adult is usually based upon an emotion upheaval created when the kidnapper feels that the child’s welfare and best interests are at risk or that the child will be gone completely from their lives. Non-custodial parent kidnappings also occur out of spite or revenge. People take hostages during periods of rage and profound loss, too. One classic example is that of a man taking an ex-lover hostage because he is emotionally unable to let go. The feeling of loss festers into the irrational thought that he might be able to convince the victim to reconsider resuming their relationship… if she could just be made to listen. Gender-based kidnappings occur as well; the mentally disturbed who have sexual deviancies often target people just because they are male or female.

There really is nothing one can do to avoid the attention of a would-be kidnapper who is either an extremist or otherwise mentally disturbed. Apply standard personal safety precautions to lessen the chances of becoming a victim; situational awareness is of paramount importance.

Tips for avoiding being kidnapped.

It is critical that you pay attention to your surroundings and maintained a sense of privacy.

If you are a tourist or business traveler dress like the locals. Blending in helps avoid the attention of people who are looking for obvious or lucrative targets. Avoid wearing extravagant jewelry, expensive clothing, company logoed apparel and religious garb that identifies a specific faith if it is not appropriate for your surroundings. Don’t wear clothing with your name on it – the same applies to your children. Keep your itinerary and travel plans to yourself!

Are you being watched or followed? Does it appear that you are about to be approached by a stranger or group of strangers? People who are surveilling or following others tend to fixate on their target, which causes them to stare. Personally, I like to spin around really quickly every so often while I am walking just to see who instantly averts their eyes. Likewise, when I am driving I make a random a series of turns or make two abrupt u-turns to see if I am being tailed.

Targets are especially vulnerable while travelling. An abductor tends to surveil his victim while planning his attack because he is looking for a weakness in the victim’s routine. People get comfortable and settle into a predictable pattern of daily activities from which the abductor can study and choose when and where he will have an advantage over the target and have the least risk of being caught in the act. The best defense against becoming a victim to your own routine is to consciously change your routine every day: Vary the times that you leave and return home. Use several different routes during your daily travels. If you travel by bus, try and limit the amount of time you are waiting at bus stops and only use stops that are well-used during the times you are typically waiting there. Only use clearly-marked and licensed taxis and never except a ride from a stranger.

If you are driving a personal vehicle make sure that it is well-maintained and has plenty of fuel; the last thing you want to have happen is to run out of fuel at night! You don’t want to become a “target of opportunity” because you are helpless on the side of the road. Keep your car doors locked and a mobile phone where you can get to it quickly in an emergency. Don’t be afraid to call for help if you are stranded, uncomfortable or need any type of assistance.

Carry and use a “GPS-aware” mobile phone. It is absolutely possible locate your phone through a process of pinging or triangulation. Many fugitives and abducted children have been recovered through the use of cell phone pinging by various State and Federal law enforcement agencies. You can learn more about that process at http://pursuitmag.com/locating-mobile-phones-through-pinging-and-triangulation/.

If you have a flat tire or are in an automobile collision (we don’t call them “accidents” because the collision could have been planned) and your vehicle is still operable drive to the nearest public place before exchanging information with the driver. Always call the authorities who are responsible for investigating collisions whether or not the impact felt “minor” if it is dark or you are unfamiliar of with your surroundings. One important consideration to take into account about your mobile phone: if it is resting untethered on your car’s dash or center console when you are in a vehicle collision the phone will probably be thrown about the car’s interior and can be nearly impossible to find, especially if you are disoriented, injured or the car is badly damaged.

Self-defense classes, personal safety equipment and concealed firearms (where legal) really can make a difference!

Most importantly, darkness and isolation are tools that abductors leverage to their best advantage! Concealment offers him the ability to catch a victim off-guard with very little chance of interference from bystanders. If you must be alone, remain in well-lit places with a lot of people around.

What to do if you are being abducted:

Fight your abductors like your life depends on it and make as much of a commotion for as long as you are able. Oftentimes an attacker will give up if there is a perceived risk that the attacker might be hurt or caught during the process or if you are more trouble than you are worth. The longer you can drag out the instance of being abducted, the better your odds become of avoiding the eventuality of the attacker’s success. If you believe that you are the victim of a hate crime, a target of an extremist or are being moved to facilitate a violent sexual act against you, then you MUST fight with everything you’ve got. Your chances of survival after being moved under these circumstances are almost zero percent. Personally, I would rather die at that moment and location where I had a chance of survival than be drug away where I do not; the probability of an excruciatingly painful death is almost certain, too.

Screaming “Fire!” is better than screaming an unintelligible sentence like, “Help, I’m being kidnapped!” and do it in the language spoken by likely bystanders or others who may hear you; for example, you’ll want to know the correct words or phrases in Spanish if you are in Latin or Central America. Learn and practice those words and phrases ahead of time.

If you are subdued and can no longer fight or scream, stop struggling and calm down. You need to be able to think rationally and strategically. You must clear your head of the clouding effects of adrenaline. If you believe that you are the victim of a hostage-for-ransom scheme, then work with them through negotiations and giving them points of contact. People often die while trying to escape; the longer you remain in captivity the better chance you have of eventually being freed or rescued.

Be overly courteous to your abductors and mind your manners! Don’t argue with, complain to, or threaten your captors. Listen to them when they speak and follow their instructions if you are not in imminent danger.

If your abductors let you speak, do so in a gentle voice. Project humility and gain empathy; talk with your captors in a manner that might suggest you understand their circumstances and the reasons that led them to target you because “you are human and face difficult situations as well.” Find commonality, sports, children, religion, shared experiences, etc., and convince them that there is no real reason to hurt you physically. If you are unclear as to your captor’s motive for taking you, then you might suggest that you are worth more alive than dead to buy you some time.

If you learn the abductor’s name, your location or potential plans DO NOT use their name or talk about them unless they shared that information with you directly. There is no need to make the situation worse because you “know too much.”

Do not tell your captors anything that will endanger the lives of others or that can be used against you to further their crime.

Most importantly, retain your sense of dignity and self-worth. Maintain your hygiene the best you are able. Find religion and pray regularly; studies have shown that people who pray regularly and thoughtfully have higher confidence levels, elevated endorphin and serotonin levels within the body and are able to deal with traumatic experiences more effectively. P.O.W.s have often related that prayer emboldened their spirit and maintained their will to live.

About the Author
author photo

Scott Harrell, the founder of CompassPoint Investigations, has been a professional investigator for over 17 years. He began a career in the intelligence and investigations tradecraft when he was selected to work with several intelligence units while serving in the United States Navy. Since his discharge, Scott has continued to apply the very special skills honed in the military through his own private investigation practice and service within the private security industry. Scott is a sought after industry trainer, speaker, and author. Connect with him via LinkedIn, http://linkedin.com/in/scottharrell or twitter, @lscottharrell

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