How to get yourself kidnapped

This article was originally published in Expatria, Bellwood Prestbury's online magazine.

$500 million dollars. That’s what’s earned by criminal gangs every year through kidnap and extortion with up to 30,000 people are being kidnapped every year, Steve McCann our Security Director tells me. (

Reliable data is hard to come by, and the type of kidnap can vary greatly, making the numbers almost meaningless on their own. But only one kidnap really matters anyway. Yours.

Choose Your Kidnap Experience

If you want to get yourself kidnapped, you have a choice. There are planned kidnaps and express (opportunistic) kidnaps. It’s the planned ones that make the headlines.

But when it comes down to you, which kind of kidnap would you prefer? The initial experience is similar, but after that you might find yourself locked in a room full of mosquitos for a day or two, or tied to a radiator for five years like Terry Waite. Or losing your head. Literally.

There are many similarities on the way to achieving either, but some differences too.

If it’s the Express Kidnap you prefer, that’s quite easy to arrange. In an Express Kidnap you’ll be taken and forced to extract money from an ATM with your bank card, often over several days, taking ‘the max’ each day of your ‘millionaires tour’. You probably won’t get the chance to check out the sights – but you will experience the all-too-real life of some local people.

It all started in the USA in the 1980s, but to book a place on this tour nowadays head over to Latin America. Mexico is best, but Venezuela, Peru, Brazil and Argentina are satisfactory alternatives. Nigeria is watching and learning.

Just identify the most lawless part of the city at night, and between 11 and 12pm, and wander around, looking lost, on your own, ideally a bit drunk, and approach an isolated ATM without looking around you first. There is a good chance that quite soon you will find some new friends who will host you for a couple of hours or even a few days, emptying your bank account.

The risk of you being kidnapped is always the happy coincidence of the level of threat combined with your vulnerability to that threat. Where you go, who you are, and how you behave are the factors that will establish your likelihood of successfully being kidnapped. The table above is a guide, but as ever you need to look into the data, to understand who is being taken and why, for it to be useful. Bangladesh has jumped from 26th in the table to 8th. Kidnapping is becoming big business, but so far the victims are nearly all Bangladeshi nationals. At some point that will change, but knowing when is the tricky part.

When you want to choose between an Express and Planned kidnap, where you travel to is a critical factor.

To succeed at being the target of a planned kidnap, what you really need is a failed state or post-conflict country, where the effective authority of the state is undermined. Libya would be a great choice this year, as Iraq was earlier this decade (and it’s still a not too shabby choice!)

Once there, you can make it easy for the kidnappers with poor personal security. Being predictable in your travel and accommodation routines will help them to know when and how to most easily take you. Having established yourself as a high economic value target, make sure you take no precautionary measures such as using an armoured car or even close protection – which can be very effective in some circumstances be it armed or unarmed.

To top the target list, these are the behaviours likely to get you kidnapped… one way or another:

  • Travel alone. This always seems to improve your chance of successfully being taken

  • Appear wealthy and high profile

  • Make it obvious you don’t know your way around

  • Appear drunk, or better still, be drunk

  • Go looking for drug dealers or sex workers late at night

  • Adopt a very regular and predictable routine in travel and accommodation

  • Stay ignorant of where the threats in your environment are, and what time of day they are most likely to be at their greatest

  • Broadcast to the world where you are and what your plans are on social media, make sure to include very personal information that only your close friends and family would know.

Carefully research your destination to expose yourself to the kind of kidnap you prefer - Latin America for the opportunistic variety and Libya or Syria for the planned version, where it will likely be criminals who take you and sell you up to a more political entity. (for this one, a one-way flight ticket will suffice, to avoid wasting your legacy…)

Alternatively, you can choose to minimise your chances of becoming a kidnap victim.

The principles are similar, but the behaviours will vary from the above. When you know the threat and understand your individual vulnerability, you can manage the risk.

So to minimise your chances of being kidnapped:

1. Find out about where you are going, not just at country level, but at the local level. What is the profile of crime, where? Who is targeted? Where are the dangerous places?

2. Follow a sensible process of minimised exposure. Be low profile, don’t look like a target and don’t make it easy

3. Vary your routines, your routes, your timings. Don’t stay in the same place long enough to be ‘cased’

4. Be very thoughtful about who knows your itinerary

5. If the risks are high, consider whether you have to be there in person

6. Be thoughtful about what you say in your social media – it can make you more vulnerable and provide vital insights for a planned kidnapping

Don't become a kidnap statistic. Use your common sense and don't stand out in a crowd.

About the author : Steve McCann is Bellwood Prestbury’s Security Advisor and a non-executive director of Safer Edge with more than 21 years of practical security industry experience across the humanitarian and development sectors along with extensive UN and military experience. Steve’s army career saw him responsible for troop logistics whilst his post-military life has included further work in logistics and security for the UN.

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