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.

Guile & Deception as Kidnapping Tools

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Lome, Togo

 

Most people when they think of a kidnapping think of a violent, dramatic event. The victim is ambushed, dragged from his car, threatened with weapons and restrained before being moved to a location where he is isolated. Many kidnappings do follow this model or something very similar. Speed, violence, “shock and awe” are effective tools for the kidnappers – allowing them to gain control of the victim quickly and effectively, dramatically reducing the likelihood of resistance of escape.
There are however kidnappings that don’t follow this model. Circumstances where victims are lured into their captivity induced to put themselves in a vulnerable position and sometimes even controlled through duplicity as much as physical restraint. It’s important to understand and recognize this methodology to be able to protect yourself against it.
A number of these events evolve out of sophisticated scams. The victim is lured to a specified location with the promise of a lucrative business opportunity and then abducted. Many but certainly not all of these incidents have occurred have occurred in West and Central Africa. In March 2014 KR Magazine (www.krmagazine.com) outlined the case of an Australian businessman who was lured to Togo in West Africa, in December 2012 by an opportunity to purchase gold bars. He entered Togo by land from neighboring Ghana, did not get an entry stamp in his passport and was told by his “hosts” that he faced immigration and money laundering charges. He was then held captive “for his own protection” and forced to call his business partner and estranged wife for ransom payments. This incident was also controversial in the sense that after the victim purportedly escaped or was allowed to escape there were allegations that the entire incident was a fraud. Regardless – the case provides numerous examples of a modus operandi that has apparently become increasingly common. There was also a notable case in May 2012 off a US commercial airline pilot who was also lured to Lome, Togo by an opportunity to buy gold bars. The pilot was subsequently held captive in a village in neighboring Benin until a ransom was paid. Similar cases have been reported in Uganda, South Africa and numerous other countries.
The Colombian Facebook Gang – which we have previously discussed (https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/social-networks-and-the-threat-to-personal-security/) used social media to identify and target wealthy men. Using fake profiles depicting beautiful women the kidnappers enticed the men to “meet in person”. The victims were then abducted when they arrived for the meeting.
Even the well-publicized and tragic case of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan contains elements of the use of deception to lure the victim into captivity. Pearl went to what he believed was an interview with a Pakistani militant – Sheikh Gilani in Karachi. After being taken willingly to the safe house where the interview was to occur, Pearl surrendered all his personal items and allowed himself to be restrained “for security reasons”.
Kidnapping through the use of deception and guile, rather than a gun offers a lot of advantages to the criminal:
• They can get the victim to do the work for them by getting them to isolate themselves and in some cases willingly put themselves into captivity.
• It gives them deniability. If it goes bad and they are caught they can argue it was all a misunderstanding on the part of the victim. If no violence was used and the victim was not physically restrained they may very well prevail with this argument.
• It reduces the physical risk to they face. The victim is unlikely to fight back or physically resist and they are less likely to draw the attention of law enforcement.
• It creates an opaque environment they can manipulate to their advantage. Is the victim free to go? Does the victim know that?

 

Common Elements and Mitigation:
There are some common elements that occur in cases where guile and deception are used and ways to mitigate your risk:

• Many of these situations have the hallmarks of a scam. If it seems to go to be true then it probably is. That said it is worth noting that many of the perpetrators of these crimes can be very sophisticated and can work on developing the mark or victim over time – this is true for both kidnappings and straight out scams. It’s important to do your due diligence in these situations and know who you are dealing with as well as watching for some of the other indicators below.
• Many have an illegal or at least unethical component where the victim knows he or she is getting involved in something that is not legitimate. This allows the perpetrators to require a level of secrecy that would not be typical in most business dealings. It also provides the kidnapper with the leverage of reporting the victim to the authorities. You can mitigate this by not engaging in business deals or other activities that are questionable.
• Be wary of unsolicited approaches from people you don’t know or unsolicited calls or emails requesting a meeting or offering a prospective business opportunity.
• There may be a requirement to go to an isolated location or to accompany the perpetrators to an unknown location. Additionally there may be a change in plans or meeting places at the last minute that isolates the victim. To avoid this it’s important to insist on holding meetings in public locations – preferably that you are either familiar with or have time to assess in advance. You should not agree to last minute changes in meeting venues and if pressed its best to cancel the meeting. Criminals will try to create a sense of urgency to get you to go along with their plan.
• The perpetrators may say certain measures are “for your own protection” or are “security measures” to control you. Do not allow yourself to be willingly confined or restrained under these circumstances.
• There may be an attempt to isolate you and make you dependent. This may include surrendering your passport, mobile phone, etc. We strongly advise travelers – particularly in the developing world – to create multiple layers of contacts or parallel contacts. Do not allow one person or one group of people to control your agenda and activities. Have alternate means of transport, communication, etc. to eliminate this dependency. Also have check in procedures and let others know where you are going and who you will be meeting. We have discussed this in our article on dealing with local contacts (https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/?s=dealing+with+local+contacts ) and in the book Safe Travel Abroad (http://www.amazon.com/Safe-Travel-Abroad-Individual-Expatriates/dp/1484871987/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1402518982&sr=8-1).
Being aware of this type of crime is the best way to reduce your risk of being a victim. Recognizing the criminal modus operandi and identifying the signs will allow you to avoid these situations in most cases.

Safe Travel Abroad is now available in Paperback

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We are pleased to announce that Safe Travel Abroad – previously available as a Kindle E-book is now also available in a paperback version.  You can find it on amazon.com or by clicking here: http://www.amazon.com/Safe-Travel-Abroad-Individual-Expatriates/dp/1484871987/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1370690870&sr=1-1.

The cover has a slightly different look but the content is the same.  The decision to come out with a hard copy version was based on several requests to use it as a training text, an on-the-shelf reference and by several people who just prefer a paper book or who don’t use e-readers.

The paperback version has a list price of $14.00 but is currently selling for $12.56 on Amazon.  In comparison the Kindle version is only $2.99 and is available for free loan to Amazon Prime members.

Below is a brief description:

Do you travel or live abroad? Do you know how to protect yourself from criminal and terrorist threats? How do you decide which hotel to use? What are the risks of taking taxis in some cities? What do you need to know about dealing with the police and your local contacts in foreign countries? How can seemingly innocent items you pack in your suitcase get you into trouble with local authorities? Safe Travel Abroad goes beyond what is usually found in travel security books and government issued travel information and includes new information on protecting yourself overseas. Learn about assessing the risks associated with your travel, applying surveillance detection techniques and route selection. Learn how to choose hotels and residences overseas. Discover the common myths and pitfalls associated with travel security and learn how to avoid them. Understand ways to reduce your risk through proper planning and preparation. Integrated Protective Concepts applies over 20 years of experience working and traveling in more than 50 countries on 5 continents to bring you usable information that you can apply immediately to protect yourself overseas.

The Insider Threat & Risk of Kidnapping

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This is excerpted from the upcoming Integrated Protective Concepts book Kidnapping Prevention & Avoidance that will be available late 1st Quarter/early 2nd Quarter 2013:

 

Without a doubt the greatest threat you are likely to potentially encounter is the insider threat. Numerous kidnapping cases throughout the world have involved a person close to the victim or with inside knowledge of the victim’s activities and routine facilitating the kidnapping.

We all depend to a greater or lesser degree on other people and in order to do what we need to do with need to involve others in our activities and make them aware of our schedule and so forth. We can’t allow ourselves to be so paralyzed with fear that we become ineffective but we do need to recognize this vulnerability, be aware and watch those around us. There are several prominent cases that have occurred in the US where insiders or in some cases former employees with inside knowledge were involved in kidnappings. Recently there was a home invasion in suburban New York City where a former nanny orchestrated the event and directed her associates over a cell phone as they held the family hostage and ransacked the home. That said this is an even more critical issue overseas where expatriates and travelers may rely even more heavily on local employees. This may include drivers and domestic staff, office employees, local partners and so forth.

How do we address this threat? First it’s important to now who you are dealing with whether that means conducting a due diligence investigation on a business partner or a background check on a maid. These investigations do have their limits and in many places public records are suspect at best. It’s also quite possible that the subject has no identifiable criminal background or ties so it’s important to go beyond this. You should make an effort to know as much about them as possible: where they live, who their family consists of, tribal, ethnic and political affiliations in places where those things matter – this is especially true of domestic staff but also true for close business partners, local representatives and perhaps lead personnel in a local office. The more the person knows about you and what you do the more you should know about them.

You should passively monitor local staff and watch for changes in behavior or situations that may indicate they are having personal problems or are vulnerable to outside influence. You should listen to gossip and rumors – you shouldn’t necessarily believe them but based on them you may want to investigate further to de-conflict what you have heard.

It’s also important to engage these people in a polite and professional way. Too often local personnel and domestic staff are treated like a piece of the furniture. These contacts should be done professionally and over-familiarity should be avoided. In Safe Travel Abroad we discussed dealing with local drivers and the same rules apply here. It’s important to treat staff respectfully but you should not try to make them your best friend. Many societies have very clearly defined boundaries between employer and employees that are ignored by well-meaning egalitarian westerners. This should of course be modulated based on the particular relationship and the local cultural norms. Regular conversations – even about innocuous subjects like the weather – allow you to get a baseline on their attitude and behavior so that you can better distinguish changes in behavior that may indicate a problem.

It’s particularly important not to mistreat local staff. This should go without saying but obviously making an enemy of someone with inside knowledge of your patterns and routines is never good not to mention the moral, ethical and professional reasons to not treat people badly.

In some locations it’s important to understand that local personnel may be under pressures that we are not accustomed to. They or their family may be threatened by criminals or terrorists, they may be obligated by family connections and traditions to provide information if requested or they may otherwise be in a situation where they are compromised and vulnerable. We will likely never be able to know all that we can about people working for us and those with close knowledge of our activities but understanding the potential risks is a good starting point. Just being aware of the insider threat potential will make us more inclined to monitor others’ behavior, stop ourselves from providing too much information and taking similar actions to reduce risk.