Security Considerations When Working with Local Contacts

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If you are working overseas or traveling internationally for business then you probably deal with local contacts of some type.  They may be local representatives, partners, vendors or suppliers, customers or others.  While most interaction with local contacts will be valuable and productive there are potential security concerns to be aware of and to think about.

For this discussion we won’t be looking closely at fraud or compliance issues associated with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or similar legislation.  Those are very worthy issues to examine but well beyond the scope of this post.  Instead we’ll look at some of the other concerns that can arise.

It goes without saying that you should do a thorough due diligence on local contacts but the reality is that you may not be able to achieve it in every situation based on the timeline or other factors.  Also — to be frank — the ability to do an effective due diligence in many locations is very limited – especially on short notice.

Its reasonable to expect that at a minimum your contact will have a different perspective and world view than you do.  There will likely be different expectations or what is acceptable.  In some cases though the contact may have a separate agenda or hidden motives that can put you at risk.

Some situations that can occur that you should be aware of:

  • Misrepresentation: Local contacts that misrepresent themselves or their affiliation with your organization.  If they engage in illegal activity while misrepresenting themselves it can have direct and severe implications for your and your company.
  • Allegations of criminal or unethical conduct against you or your organization:  customers, vendors or others can put pressure on you by alleging misconduct to local law enforcement authorities.
  • Honey traps: Local contacts may try to put you in compromising positions with local women — either to create a situation where they can blackmail you outright or at least make you vulnerable to them.
  • Unlawful detention: In some cases local contacts may detain you — either physically or through use of threats — to get you to agree to their terms.
  • Kidnapping:  In extreme circumstances your contacts may set you up for kidnap for ransom.  There was a notable case in Mexico about 10 years ago where a US businessman was set-up for a kidnapping by his Mexican partner.
  • Guilt by association:  In some instances your contacts may be involved in activities that make them a target of law enforcement, criminal groups or both.  If you are with them you may be the victim of arrest or a violent attack.
  • Hidden ties: In some cases your local contacts may have ties to foreign intelligence services or extremist groups.  Even though they may not act against you immediately they may be gathering information about you or your organization.

How can you mitigate your exposure to these potential threats?

Of course the first answer is know who you are dealing with — but as we discussed earlier that is not always too easy.

One thing you can do is not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s not uncommon for local contacts to make some or all of your arrangements when you are visiting their country — often everything from your hotel to your ground transportation.  I suggest you may not want to always let them do it.  It takes more work but if you make your own arrangements it gives you greater flexibility.  If you have your own ground transportation set up apart from them it is easier to come and go as you please.  You should also consider making other appointments and establishing other contacts while there.  This gives you a legitimate reason to excuse yourself if a situation becomes uncomfortable and it reduces the control they have over you.  Many of the scenarios outlined above are more likely to occur if you are completely dependent on them.  If you have other contacts and your own transportation it goes a long way to keeping them off-balance.  They don’t know who you know or who you may be able to turn to for assistance.  It may sound excessive or paranoid but compartmentalizing your activities gives you more control and if your contacts have bad intentions it can make it more difficult for them to act against you.

You should also make sure that someone in your head office, your family or both has all the names and  contact information for the people you are planning to meet with and any itinerary you may have.  In a worst case scenario if you go missing there will at least be some baseline information to use in initiating a search.

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