Money is not the only reason somebody can be taken hostage. It’s important to know the other motives for how and why targets are selected. Today’s guest is Rachel Briggs. Rachel has spent the last two decades as a writer, analyst, and strategist working with corporations, governments, and international NGOs developing security. She was the first director of Hostage International and the founding executive director of Hostage US. Rachel co-chairs the European commission's group that is working on tackling online extremism. The report she wrote, “The Business of Resilience,” has become the blueprint for corporate security management.“The most dangerous person or group to get taken by is a first time hostage taker.” - Rachel Briggs Click To Tweet
- [1:03] – Rachel shares her background and how a personal experience of a family member being taken hostage impacted her future.
- [2:50] – One type of hostage situation is political hostage taking.
- [3:49] – Economical hostage cases are what happens most often.
- [4:30] – Hostage diplomacy is a third type that creates negotiation pressure.
- [5:19] – Latin America is more of a hotspot for kidnapping and Rachel points out Colombia and Mexico as predominant locations.
- [6:26] – Political kidnapping is most common in Middle Eastern and African countries.
- [7:24] – Common targets are those who are the ones who run towards danger such as journalists.
- [8:50] – Rachel describes another type of target that applied to her family member who was taken in the 90s.
- [11:27] – People on vacation being picked up as a hostage are not as common, but it isn’t unheard of.
- [13:01] – The experience of being held against your will is never a pleasant experience, but the way you are treated varies.
- [15:00] – Hostage takers operate as a business in some situations.
- [18:07] – The statistics of hostage taking are very underreported.
- [20:33] – These crimes prey on the desperation to get a person home.
- [22:21] – Stopping the payment of ransoms is not the answer to stopping kidnappings.
- [24:05] – There are many different ways to make an exchange of money for ransom.
- [25:33] – It is rare and dangerous, but sometimes a hostage escapes their situation or is rescued by military operations.
- [27:21] – There are resources that list dangerous locations.
- [28:45] – Insurance for kidnapping and hostage is available.
- [30:59] – After the events in Syria in 2014, groups have been created to provide this insurance to freelance journalists.
- [32:33] – Every situation is different, but Rachel describes the commonalities in how families cope.
- [35:37] – There are issues that families experience that we don’t think about being a problem.
- [37:42] – There are now strategies being implemented in large corporations.
- [39:18] – What is virtual kidnapping?
- [42:27] – The psychological impact can be long lasting and significant.
- [43:22] – While underreported, kidnapping and hostage taking are more common than we think.
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Rachel, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.
Thanks for having me, Chris.
Great. Could you give me and the audience a little bit of background about who you are and how you got involved in what you currently do?
Absolutely. If you rewind back to about 1996—25 or so years ago—I was a first-year university student at Cambridge University and got the rather unexpected news that a member of my family had been taken hostage in Colombia.
We are a very, very ordinary family, so it was a shocking bit of news, and what followed was seven months of never knowing if he was alive or dead, or if we would ever see him again.
Thankfully, he did come out alive seven months later. It started for me what has turned out to be a life-long passion to work on hostage issues, to understand the crime, to support the folks who have been unfortunately affected by it, and to try to have an impact on public policy to help us make better decisions in the future.
I helped found Hostage International and Hostage US, two non-profits that help families and hostages as they’re going through and getting over hostage cases, have written lots and lots of stuff on hostage policy, and continue to do so.
That’s awesome. It’s an unfortunate way to get into the field, but I’m glad there are people in the field that are passionate about it.
Absolutely, and it’s a very tight-knit family. Those of us who find our lives touched by this brutal crime stick together and it tends to stay with you.
Let’s talk a little bit about different types of hostage-taking. What are some of the ways that this plays out?
I would really point to three different types of hostage-taking. I’ll start with political hostage-taking. For somebody who grew up in the 1980s, my TV, every single licensee was dominated by the Beirut hostage cases. In my case being a Brit, it was Terry Waite, John McCarthy. For many of your listeners, they would have been looking at Tom Sutherland, Terry Anderson, and […].
That’s a typical kind of political kidnapping. It’s where both Westerners and locals are taken by political or terrorist or political freedom fighter groups who take Westerners, either to draw attention to their cause, to perhaps look for political concessions from Western governments.
That’s what I was familiar with, and as I mentioned, my own personal experience in 1996 with a family member who was taken in Colombia opened my eyes to the second type of hostage-taking, which is economic […], and criminal, in one way or another, where hostages are nothing more than a commodity with a price on their head, frankly.
What I think most people don’t realize is that, actually, they make up the majority of cases. They tend to happen very quietly behind the scenes, but they constitute the majority of hostage cases around the world. The motivation is money. As long as someone is willing to pay, your loved one will come home. And if they’re not, the outcome may not be as great.The motivation is money. As long as someone is willing to pay, your loved one will come home. -Rachel Briggs Click To Tweet
The third type of hostage case that I would point to, which has had more and more publicity in the last few years, is state hostage-taking. We think about the Westerners who are held in prison in Iran, for example, in China, in Russia, for no other reason other than they are American, they are British, they are European. Those governments understand that if they hold those Westerners for no good reason whatsoever, it creates pressure and a negotiation point on the part of American, British, and other governments.
Political, economic, and now, I suppose we might call it hostage diplomacy is the third type.
Are there particular geographies where this happens more predominantly?
Absolutely. Latin America has featured right up there at the top of kidnap hotspots for as long as I remember. When I was going through this 25 years ago as a family, Colombia was the kidnapping capital of the world. Today, that unfortunate crown is held by Mexico, which I’m sure will be of much interest to your listeners who are holidaying in Mexico or they have family in Mexico.
It’s not to say that the whole of Mexico is experiencing this, but certain parts of Mexico. This is a really, really prolific crime amid thousands and thousands of folks taken per year. Mexico’s at the top, various parts of Latin America. And in those cases, those are mostly economically motivated.
When we look at the politically motivated, broadly speaking, you’re looking at certain parts of the Middle East and Africa. With the state hostage-taking, which I mentioned, the key protagonist there, the key governments that are engaged in that kind of activity are certainly Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, and a couple of others. It’s happening all over the place.
The thing that I would just mention is that it happens in countries like the United States as well. The FBI is busy retrieving domestic hostages as well as deploying its agents around the world to bring Americans home from other countries. Different in flavor and different solutions.
Are there particular people that are targeted as targets of kidnapping and hostage-taking?
There are certainly kind of usual suspects in this regard. I’ll start by talking about one particular group of hostages who are the sort of the brave folks who run towards danger while the rest of us hide under the table and run away.
I think in particular of journalists, of humanitarian workers, and of religious missionaries. It’s part of their job description to go to the ends of the earth, to places that are most dangerous, whether that’s to bring stories back, to help us understand the world, whether that’s to bring aid and relief to folks who are suffering or to sort of share their fate with the rest of the world.
The interesting thing about that—some of your listeners would have been—I guess sort of—very interested in the case from Haiti with the missionaries recently—is if we were around 30 years ago, there were some cases involving those types of victims. But on the whole, it wasn’t the thing to do.
If you’re a self-respecting hostage-taker, you left journalists, humanitarians, and missionaries alone. They were good people doing good stuff. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t hold anymore, so they find themselves targeted.
One of the famous cases was the American and British hostages who were murdered by ISIS eight years ago, 2014. Journalists and humanitarian workers simply just trying to do the right thing in a dangerous part of the world.
That’s the first group. There’s also a lot of what you might call unlikely hostages. But somebody who’s in the business, I would know that they are very, very often and unfortunately picked up. My family member would fall into that category. He was an engineer working for a Danish company, going to Colombia to look at the facilities they were operating out there. A businessman, an engineer, a contractor.
You think about the folks who went into Iraq after the fall of the regime there to help rebuild the country. There are folks doing that from the US, from Europe, going to those places all over the world to take their skills and their knowledge for the benefit of the folks that are living out there. Business people, business travelers in Mexico. It’s a real variety, and I think the idea that there is a certain type of person that’s taken—that doesn’t just hold true anymore.It’s a real variety, and I think the idea that there is a certain type of person that’s taken doesn’t hold true anymore. -Rachel Briggs Click To Tweet
The one thing I would say is that for some reason or another, there are many more men who were taken than women, so I think we can say that this is a crime that targets predominantly men rather than women. It may be because men take themselves to those parts of the world more often than women. I simply don’t know. But I think that would be the only rule that I could really find in all of this.
That’s kind of interesting. I would have thought it would be the opposite. That if you’re trying to elicit sympathy and attention, that female targets would be more newsworthy. I hate saying that but they […] more attention and more publicity.
I’m sure there are cases where that is so. For example, Ingrid Betancourt was held by the FARC in Colombia for, I think, six years. There was a real power to holding her. She also was a politician running for office in Colombia. For many people, that was shocking, and it keeps the story alive maybe in a way that it wouldn’t have as emotionally if that had been a man. But yes, women feature less often as hostages than men, as a whole.
Maybe this is less frequent like families traveling, people on vacation, the hiker who gets picked up crossing the border in Iran while hiking inadvertently. Is that a much smaller contingent?
It’s not to say it doesn’t happen. I can happily give you examples of people I know who have found themselves in that situation. It’s a much smaller proportion.
One of the cases I’m very familiar with is a British woman called Judith Tapert who was a […] in Kenya. Somali pirates traveled up the coast and picked her up from her idyllic holiday home, then took her back to Somalia. That’s really putting quite a lot of effort to find her a hostage.
Of course, the American hikers who were picked up in Iran 10-15 years ago, wandered into the wrong place and then suddenly found themselves locked up and pawns in that hostage diplomacy struggle between the US and Iran.
That’s not a good place to be—in between governments arguing over things.
You become very small when those kinds of governments are on the table arguing.
Once someone gets kidnapped, what can they expect on how they will be treated and how the money is requested?
In terms of how hostages are treated, the first thing to say is, of course, it’s never pleasant to be held by bad people because it’s bad folks who hold you against your will, never knowing whether you’ll see the next day or not, not being able to leave with your own free will. It’s never a pleasant experience.
Exactly how you’re treated really depends on the group that is holding you, how experienced they are, and so on and so forth. There are certainly many hostages I have spoken to who have dealt with very severe malnutrition because they had been fed very meager rations. There are those who’d been tortured. There are those who’d been beaten. There have been some pretty nasty experiences. It’s not a great place to be in.
I know with electronic ransomware, there is this level of, “For us to be trusted, for people to pay the ransom, there has to be some level of ethics”—that sounds weird—“and that if you pay the ransom, we’re going to release your data, we’re going to unencrypt your data.”
Does that same sort of thing exist with hostage-takers? Like, “We understand that we’re doing this for economic purposes. We can’t send our targets home super sick because then people won’t pay us.” Are there considerations on how they treat their hostages based on why they’re taking them?
It’s a really good question, actually. We start with the economically motivated cases. They will all be not like this, but essentially, it’s really hard work to hold somebody for a prolonged period of time without getting caught.
If you want to move from being a one-time hostage-taker to a professional hostage-taker who cannot just do this once but do this over and over again, perhaps holding multiple hostages at the same time, you need to operate as a business. You need to generate a reputation that if I negotiate fairly for hostage A, that I have some expectations that hostage A is going to come home. Because then if I’m also negotiating six months later for hostage B, I have to trust that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do.
Again, if I take this back to my own family’s experience, I remember at the time—and certainly I’ve had this many times since—negotiating to get Western hostages out of Colombia was not always easy, but there were rules. There was a dance between the hostage-takers, the negotiators, and the diplomats where everybody kind of knew how it’s going to play out.
I remember at some point being told by the negotiators that were working to free my relative, “We’re expecting one to two months of silence now.” I remember being horrified. It’s one of the worst things you deal with as a family is hearing nothing, but sure enough we had two months of silence. They knew how it worked. There was a pattern and everybody had to play the game. That’s how you build up trust.
It’s the same as when you run a business. You have to be predictable and so on and so forth. The extent to which that extends to a hostage’s treatment. If I don’t end up coming out because I’m injured badly, that would be a consideration. But certainly, for many groups who want to sustain this as an ongoing activity and want to be paid for it, as absurd as it sounds to have a conversation of this nature, there are rules of the game.The most dangerous person or group to get taken by is a first-time hostage-taker who’s scared, terrified, overreacts. -Rachel Briggs Click To Tweet
The most dangerous person or group to get taken by is a first-time hostage-taker who’s scared, terrified, overreacts, and is trigger-happy. That’s the most dangerous place you’ll find yourself as a hostage.
Someone’s who’s trying to figure it out for the first time.
Yeah and who’s very scared. Their adrenaline is going and they’re jumpy. They’re not thinking about the next case. They’re just thinking about this one. They’re taking risks and so on.
Once there’s some negotiating going on, do you know the percentages of people that don’t survive versus those that were released versus those that are actually able to escape? I think in Haiti, some of them are able to escape at the end.
Unfortunately, the statistics on hostage-taking are really poor. All crime statistics are underreported, but this is one of those crimes where the statistics sort of very much lie behind the scenes.
Governments have a disincentive to reveal to the world how many of their citizens are taken each year because it’s something they’re not exactly proud of. The private negotiating firms that exist very legitimately don’t have an incentive to necessarily share their own statistics. Families who handle it on their own have nowhere to report their statistics.
The statistics are not great. I would say that certainly, we do know that if you’re an American who’s taken by a terrorist group, your chances of coming out alive are considerably low than if you’re a European held by a terrorist group.
Let’s go back to the cases in Syria in 2014. It’s widely understood that the European government paid, and the Brits and the Americans didn’t and they don’t. They do tend to hold firm on that. Unfortunately, we as British and Americans do not tend to fare as well in those cases. And if you’re working for a company that has all the right resources and support on hand, and a relationship with a negotiation company, you were taken in an economically motivated case, your chances of coming out are pretty high.
How much of an impact, and to your personal opinion, is it a good policy for, let’s say, UK and US governments having this official policy of “we don’t negotiate”?
Their position is they don’t offer concessions to terrorists. There can be dialogue, but for Americans and Brits, there can be no payment. That’s the government policy,
I understand where it comes from. As a position and as a theoretical response to hostage-taking, it makes all sense to me. If hostage-takers are economically motivated and we start paying them, it will end hostage-taking. It makes inherent sense.
The problem is that ransoms are the hardest thing to control in a hostage case. Why is that? Because of the nature of the crime. If, God forbid, somebody takes my husband, I will do anything I have to to get him home. I will sell our home, I will remortgage, I will beg, borrow, and steal from friends and family, and that’s what pretty much all of us would do. It’s that kind of crime. It’s playing on our vulnerabilities, our love, and the very essence of being human and right.
What happens is—and we know this because there have been controlled experiments of this—the governments of both Colombia and Italy went through the process of making ransom payments illegal to stop the proliferation of hostage-taking in their own countries. Surprise, surprise, it didn’t work.
What happened was if you were a family who had somebody taken, you just didn’t report it to the authorities. You dealt with it off the book and you had to go underground to deal with it, so it made it more dangerous for the hostage and the family, and there was less understanding of the crime.
My starting quip is, “Do I understand why the policy is in place?” I do completely agree that it’s distasteful, to say the least, the idea of paying money to terrorists. It abhors me as much as it does anybody. If the question is, “What could we do to stop kidnapping?” If that was our starting point, I don’t think we would go anywhere near the issue of ransoms.
The countries that have successfully ended their own domestic issues have not done that by stopping ransom payments, because it doesn’t work. They’ve done it by dismantling the groups. They’ve done it by cutting down the groups’ areas of operations. They’ve done it by creating different incentives so that local communities have different ways of making money, and have an incentive of getting involved in the legal economy rather than the illegal economy. You push the problem away by offering incentives rather than trying to limit that.
I understand where it comes from, but it just doesn’t work, unfortunately. If we’re serious about ending hostage-taking, we have to look at this from a different angle. Learn from what has worked and not worked elsewhere. While I completely understand why those governments will continue to have that stance publicly, I think behind the scenes we need to start getting a lot more creative with the effort we put into tackling the factors that could really make a difference.
The underlying reasons of why the kidnappings are happening in the first place.
Yeah. The causes rather than the symptoms.
When it comes to hostage releases, without the specifics of how the negotiations play out, what are the different ways that hostages are released? What are the mechanisms that might happen?
I guess the first and foremost would be the handover of money. In the old days, that would have been a hold all of the cash. In some parts of the world, that was still the way to do it. In others, there would be electronic means or cryptocurrencies. All sorts of new criminals are using technology, I suspect, more effectively than the rest of us are. That would be one and that would be the predominant way that that point of release happens.
We also, in some cases, see good, old Christmas swaps. Just last year, I think there was a Canadian academic who was released from Iran. It was reported very publicly that she had been released in exchange for some Iranians who were being held elsewhere. Those kinds of Christmas swaps most certainly still do happen.
And they generally tend to be more when it’s state-sponsored or politically oriented, right?
Almost exclusively. Absolutely right. There are also these strange outlying cases. You’ll remember the Americans who were released from Iran at the start of 2016 when the Iran nuclear negotiations came to a conclusion and there were a bunch of Americans who came back. There are also examples of policy negotiations that can bring people home as well.
I should also say that there are some folks who escape. It’s very rare, it’s very dangerous, but I could certainly name some former […] I know who managed to find their way out.
And I assume there are maybe television programs that play it up a bit, but I’m sure there are those that are rescued by military operations.
Absolutely. Actually, right now we’re about to mark the 10th anniversary of Jessica Buchanan being kidnapped in Somalia, an American who was an aid worker in Somalia. You might remember she was rescued by SEAL Team Six. She was held for a couple of months, and then the US SEAL Team Six bravely went in and secured her release.
Again, those are the kinds of resolutions that also are very dangerous, which is why they don’t happen very often. Yet the amount of intel SEAL Team Six would need to be really confident that not only could they get the hostages out safely, but they can safely send those guys in without putting them an undue and unnecessary risk to folks who face quite-enough risk in their jobs anyway.
It makes for a sexy television plot but probably not so much in reality.
Very scary, as I understand it.
What are some of the things that people can do to reduce their chances of being kidnapped?
There are some really basic things you can do. The US government, like the UK and others, have really good travel advisories, actually, and they’ve gotten more and more detailed over the years. They do routinely list the risk of kidnap by country.
There is some information you can consult. We talked earlier about Mexico. Now, clearly not every single place in Mexico is a kidnap hotspot. Go to the State Department’s website and it will help you figure out where is a nice place to go and drink cocktails on a beach, and perhaps where is part of Mexico where you may not want to be traveling independently.Go to the State Department’s website and it will help you figure out where is a nice place to go and drink cocktails on a beach. -Rachel Briggs Click To Tweet
So consult these information sources. These are really basic stuff that doesn’t just apply to hostage-taking but to crime in general. Don’t wear an expensive watch, don’t wear loads of expensive jewelry that makes you stand out as being a wealthy foreigner. Don’t drive around after dark in dangerous areas.
Some of this is, in a sense, basic personal safety and security. Once, of course, you’re being sent to certain parts of the world where the risk is part of what you take on, then of course you definitely need much more specialist help. Potentially some security guards and very specific security protection to make sure you stay safe.
What kind of services, I assume, would be super-specialized? Are there insurance policies for kidnapping and ransom?
There is a thing called kidnap and ransom insurance. The market has been going for decades, actually sprang up in the 1930s, not long after the Lindberg baby was kidnapped in the US. That insurance market was created but really didn’t take off until the 1960s and 70s when Western companies were really starting to move out and about in the world and take themselves off to more interesting parts in search of business expansion and so on.
Yes, there is a thriving kidnap-for-ransom insurance industry. It also has, alongside it, specialist negotiators who tend to be tied to particular underwriters. So if you get a policy with this underwriter, you will be guaranteed that you’ll have the help of a particular kidnap response firm. There’s quite a well-developed market here. It seems controversial in some ways, but in others it’s one risk just like I have home insurance in case we’re broken into, we take travel insurance, et cetera. It’s about protecting yourself and your employees if they’re doing business around the world.
And I assume that would be more common for, let’s say, oil exploration companies that have large bankrolls that can afford to pay for an insurance policy, as opposed to some local church that is sending a single missionary to […], something like that.
Yeah. These are not cheap policies. A very large majority of Fortune 500 companies have this insurance; we know that from the market.
Interestingly, one of the things that has been emerging since the Syria cases in 2014 is there are a number of groups who are trying now to provide kidnap-for-ransom insurance, but freelance journalists, for example, ensuring that lone journalists and lone missionaries, very small organizations are not priced out for protection that larger organizations can get. That’s a really, really great development.
Yeah, kind of a group policy for […] journalists.
I don’t know exactly how it works, but I think it’s great. One of the important things about those policies is that you get some of your premium back each year to spend on security and security training. They are not perfect but they’re an attempt to both secure and educate the policyholders, which is a win for the underwriters of course because it minimizes their risk, but it’s also a win for you as a policyholder because you get access to that expert, security, training, and education.
From your personal experience, once your uncle was released and during the process, what’s the impact on the family? Does your organization help with the emotional, psychological support of the family and the victim?
Everybody’s different, every case is different. What I came to understand having gone through this myself with my own family and then working with hundreds and hundreds of families, both with Hostage International and Hostage US, which I don’t work with anymore but their excellent work continues, is that there are so many commonalities. Each case might be unique but there are common threads.
When you try to imagine what it would be like for a family going through this, you can immediately imagine it must be scary, and of course it is. That’s not to underestimate how scared you are when you’re going through this.
But actually, human beings can’t be scared all the time. Our brain does wonderful things that help us carry on with life, so we can’t be scared all the time. The way in which I think that really impacts us, though, when we go through something like this is that it does things like it stops us sleeping.
There is a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture because it is devastating. If we just consistently, for weeks, months at a time, do not get enough sleep, it actually has a physical impact on our ability to concentrate, our ability to operate heavy machinery, as we all know—I joke. It really is quite debilitating.
Your ability to hold down a job might be impaired. Your ability to manage your family’s finances may just go out of the water. By the time you have your hostage home, you’ll be very pleased to have him or her home, but you’re facing all sorts of financial problems because you won’t be able to concentrate on them.
It’s a very unique experience. Also, we talked earlier about the not knowing and the silence. I mentioned our experience of having months of silence. That is rattling. It really rattles you. When you’re not being told anything, when there’s no news, your brain starts filling the gaps. Usually, your imagination is worse than reality and that’s a form of torture in its own right.Usually, your imagination is worse than reality and that’s a form of torture in its own right. -Rachel Briggs Click To Tweet
Then you notice there’s the boring but essential realities of everyday life that can be really difficult to manage. Folks who have kids, folks who have to hold down a job, folks who have to look out the finances. There are really weird things that can happen, and for a lot of families, the main breadwinner might be the main signatory on the bank account and insurance policies.
As silly as it might seem, the number of families I’ve helped where the husband was taken hostage and the wife has a maybe just a very minor car accident. Of course, the insurance company, the first question they ask you is, “Can I speak to the policyholder?”
And the answer is, “No, they’ve been kidnapped.”
The answer is, “No, and I can’t tell you why you can’t speak to them.” It’s that double whammy. Unfortunately, there’s no, “Press three if the policyholder is a hostage.” It’s not one of the options on the drop-down menu.
I suppose the easiest way for people to relate to it is imagine a member of the family is suddenly in a coma and not be able to sign anything, not being able to be part of dealing with financial issues, mortgages, and policies.
So it’s some of that stuff, which would be difficult to deal with at the best of times, but if you’re also not sleeping, you’re terrified, you’re anxious, you’re worried that your kids aren’t doing well and you’re worried about the impact on them. It’s a perfect storm, really, for a family collapse.
And do some of these companies help provide support and resources for the families?
Yeah. The first thing I would point to is organizations like Hostage International and Hostage US. They go through this every day of every year with multiple families. There’s always a day in the office when a colleague from those organizations comes across a challenge that they haven’t seen before. They’ve seen most of it before and they really do help families to anticipate what might come next, to anticipate what you could do today that might stop a problem from becoming a problem in a month’s time or six months’ time. They also have access to all sorts of specialists who can come in and help families.
One of the privileges I’ve had over the years is going into big multinationals and training them on how to look after a family if you have an employee taken. There are some really good practices that are emerging within corporate America. Big corporations realize it’s a risk and wants to ensure that they’ve got all of their resources aligned so that if it does happen to one of their employees, they really can do their best by the family that they are supporting back home.
And they’ve thought about it in advance so that they have the resources immediately available, as opposed to, “Let’s go out and find a good resource.”
Exactly. For any big organization, they have employee assistance programs, which gives them a sense of comfort that they’re covered. But of course, the psychologist on your employee assistance program probably hasn’t dealt with a hostage case previously. They’re great at what they do, but they’re not set up for these kinds of very specialist problems where you need very specialist solutions.
That’s where organizations like Hostage International and Hostage US bring gold dust. They’re like gold dust. They’re so important in these scenarios.
I’ve seen a lot of reports about the rise of virtual kidnappings, whether it’s blackmail or were they actually blackmailing the person into saying they’ve been kidnapped, so to speak, or it’s just the, “I’m calling grandpa and I’ve kidnapped your kid from college.” The kid’s happily in his science class. Have you much familiarity with the virtual kidnappings and how those play out?
These are extraordinary cases. My time with both Hostage International and Hostage US, I didn’t deal with any of these directly. I have no idea if those organizations have since.
But we heard a lot about these kinds of cases. You hear them quietly behind the scenes. They are covered by some of these insurance policies because, of course, they generate losses and they have costs associated with them. But they’re really underreported because often, the folks who are impacted are then so embarrassed that they don’t want to come forward because they feel really foolish that they acted out of love and emotion because they thought a loved one was in danger, and it turns out, as you say, they’re in a math class, or on a flight, or they were driving to visit a friend.
It’s a really pernicious crime. It’s definitely rising. The FBI doesn’t explicitly record statistics on virtual kidnapping. It would sit within extortion numbers set. But between 2019 and 2020, the number of extortions that the FBI recorded went up by 76%. You have to imagine this is part of that. Certainly, the trends that we’re seeing is that what started as an occasion, is getting more and more elaborate and it’s getting more organized.
The thing about it is because there’s a speed element to it. Within a few hours I’m going to figure out that my son is in his math class. It’s usually lower amounts of money trying to get a transaction very, very quickly. I think it’s something that we all need to watch and that will only increase in the years to come.
I suspect that that sort of thing will be rising over the next few years as just another means to a financial end for people. It’s one thing if you’re a first-time kidnapper and you’re taking someone hostage physically.
You got the person, you’re trying to deal with negotiations, you’re worried if it’s a reality or not. You’re worried about the police or SEAL Team Six showing up at your front door. If it’s a virtual kidnapping, you could be anywhere on the Internet and the person’s not physically with me, so no one should be beating down my door.
Exactly. Here’s a thought to leave you and your listeners about virtual kidnapping. It seems like it’s almost a victimless crime just in that. Somebody is losing a few thousand dollars, so of course there is a victim in that sense. But it feels like there’s much less victim that’s involved in that.
What I do know—and I have heard from the folks who’ve worked on these cases—is that the psychological impact on those people who have been duped can be quite significant and long-lasting. Partnered with the fact that they then don’t feel able to speak about it because they’re embarrassed and ashamed.
I think more awareness of this and more understanding. It could happen to any of us. We’re all human. We all would jump to help our loved ones if we thought they were in danger. The more we talk about this, the better.
Absolutely. As we wrap up with this episode, any parting advice for the audience?
I would say bear in mind that this is still thankfully a very rare crime. It’s more common than we think that about 200 Americans are taken overseas each year. It’s not a hugely common crime, which is a good thing. The aftereffects do last a long time.
I would encourage your audience to get curious. This is how I used to be. I would read the stories in the newspapers and you sort of give it a cursory, surface-level read. But when you read those stories, pause and just give it a moment’s thought for the people who are behind them and imagine what they’re going through.
That’s great advice. Where can people find you online, or what are you doing these days?
Awesome. We’ll make sure to link to all those in the show notes.
Rachel, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast.
Thanks for having me, Chris. Take care.