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If you’d been abducted and your family was notified by the perpetrators that you’d be released in exchange for ransom money, what course of action could ensure your safe release? Who should your family call or not call to assist them? How could they verify if it’s a hoax or not? There are so many variables to deal with that it’s difficult to know if steps taken to meet the kidnappers’ demands will be successful or trigger additional problems. The truth is, even if you’re not wealthy, recognizable, or associated with any illicit activities, all that kidnappers need to do is make an assumption that you’re worth something to someone. The longer the clock ticks on any kidnapping, the greater that victim’s level of incarceration becomes and the less likely it is that they’ll ever be recovered.
In Issue 25, we asked counter-custody expert Ed Calderon, “What’s the usual outcome for the victims if the kidnappers’ demands aren’t met?” Ed’s answer was rather morbid. “Death is usually the immediate outcome. Body disposal in Mexico occurs on an industrial level, and you will likely never be found. They’re very professional when it comes to body disposal. Caustic sodas, pig farms, and mass graves are all over the place, and the forensic science isn’t at the level where you will be identified post-mortem.” That being said, we asked trained hostage negotiator Kris Southards and Arizona detective Cory Fechtelkotter to weigh in on what to do if they were confronted with a possible kidnapping for ransom situation.
Illustrations by Robert Bruner
You, your brother, and sister-in-law
Snowy; high 27 degrees F, low 12 degrees F
The Setup: From the Lindbergh kidnapping to the crew of the Maran Centaurus oil tanker to John Paul Getty III to Patty Hearst, ransom kidnappings are nothing new. However, don’t think you have to be a business magnate or famous individual to be a target. If a kidnapper thinks someone — whether it’s a government, employer, or loved one — would pay in exchange for your life, that’s all the motivation they’ll need.
While some engaged in this activity may be unsophisticated individuals hoping for a quick buck, others are international criminal syndicates or drug cartels that have turned kidnappings into a cottage industry. The bottom line is you don’t know who you’re dealing with until the wheels of the crime are in motion. If someone you know is taken under the auspices of a kidnapping and the perpetrators are demanding a ransom in exchange for the kidnapper, how should you handle it?
There’s a common assumption that ransom kidnappings only happen to the families of billionaires and politicians, but this isn’t the case. After all, why would criminals only target high-profile individuals who have enough money and power to instantly trigger a nationwide manhunt? In reality, it’s much easier to choose lower-profile targets who can’t or won’t alert the authorities and the media. For example, a June 2022 report by the FBI’s El Paso Field Office stated that the agency has seen “an increase in crimes involving kidnapping for ransom and extortion crimes directly affecting undocumented immigrants who have paid human smugglers to bring them across the United States-Mexico border.”
It’s likely that many ransom crimes go unreported, since victims involved in any illegal activity — drugs, gambling, and prostitution, to name a few — typically fear the authorities just as much as the kidnappers. And even if you’re not breaking any laws, a less-than-reputable friend or family member could easily drag you into one of these terrifying situations.
The Complication: It has been three days since you last heard from your 22-year-old brother. Your sister-in-law called you in hysterics saying that he didn’t come home from work. In the days that followed, you began to suspect foul play is involved. Although he’s known to be an impulsive party animal, a recreational drug user, and run with a rough group of friends, he hasn’t been in any serious trouble before. Now he’s not responding to emails, texts, or calls, and your concern is rising. His phone is still ringing for now, which tells you that either he lost his phone, is deliberately trying to avoid contact, or has experienced some kind of major emergency.
On the fourth day, a note appears in your sister-in-law’s mailbox. It states clearly that he has been kidnapped and threatens the death of your brother if authorities are notified. It also says that a ransom payment can be made in exchange for his life with more instructions to follow. The next day, you’re with your sister-in-law, and a call comes in on her phone with a muffled gravelly voice issuing demands for thousands of dollars. The voice says that screams audible in the background are coming from your brother, but you can’t be absolutely sure it’s him screaming.
Since his wife comes from a wealthy family and there’s a possibility of drug dealer involvement, you could see that a ransom kidnapping may be a valid threat. Is it someone who may have found out about the situation and is attempting to profit off it, even though they have nothing to do with his disappearance? Could your brother be a willing participant, working with shady friends for a cut of the ransom money? Or is this an actual kidnapping perpetrated by people with sophisticated enough surveillance to discover whatever recourse you’re planning? What should you do?
The odds of someone you care about falling victim to a kidnapping and ransom scheme are low, but the stakes are so high that turning a blind eye to the possibility could be a horrifying mistake. True kidnappings are no trivial crime. The idea of families going through a harrowing, but brief period of strife before being happily reunited is the exception, not the rule. More often than not, the story ends in tragedy. A bad ending is common enough that in some states, such as my home state of Arizona, deadly force is explicitly authorized by law to stop a kidnapping (Arizona Revised Statutes 13-411A, ARS 13-1304). The basis for this is simple — kidnapping victims wind up dead often enough that using deadly force to stop a kidnapping may very well prevent a murder.
Due to the potentially lethal outcomes of a kidnapping, there should be a strong focus on prevention. Whenever I think about crime prevention, I reverse-engineer my strategies by thinking from the perpetrator’s perspective. I imagine the ideal target, setting, and circumstances to accomplish a crime, then brainstorm what would be most disruptive to those criminal objectives. Security experts often call this an “adversarial mindset” exercise.
In trying to identify the ideal target to hold for ransom, I’d select someone who had family or business connections who wouldn’t blink at paying thousands to help one of their own. To this end, discourage your loved ones and those close to them from ostentatious displays of wealth, especially on social media. Stylistically, it’s better to give off the vibe of a dorky software developer or milquetoast middle manager than a club-hopping Kardashian. In addition to keeping a low profile, there are numerous privacy services, and even ransom insurance, which could be considered. The degree to which any of those makes sense for you or your family depends on how high your risk is. If you aren’t a celebrity or a prominent executive (or a relative of one) working in dangerous locales outside the U.S., such precautions are likely unnecessary and almost certainly cost-prohibitive.
To facilitate the kidnapping itself, I’d prefer a victim who is impaired and isolated, making them less able to protect themselves and less likely to get help from bystanders. To mitigate this, avoid public drunkenness or being alone, especially in transitional spaces like parking lots. Well-lit public places, crowded with plenty of witnesses, aren’t a good setting for any crime where the suspect needs to avoid detection or interruption.
Once the plan is in motion, I’d commit to a victim who doesn’t put up much of a fight when the abduction happens. If there is too much resistance, the best option for a suspect would simply be to cut bait and move on to a more docile, less-prepared target. Being a tougher target is actually quite simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To counter an abduction attempt, you must be prepared, and that preparation usually comes in the form of training coupled with the right equipment, and just as important, the willingness to use them when justified.
Being armed is a good start, but not enough. Actual combatives training incorporating empty hand techniques and weapon retention skills is also a must. If you’re armed, but can’t maintain control of your weapon, you’re nothing more than a walking holster for your attacker. If you’re otherwise prepared, but are caught off-guard, or are simply unwilling to act, you’ve likely already lost. Regardless, if an attacker tries to move you to a secondary location, don’t give up. You must fight as if your life depends on it because it very well might. Do everything in your power to avoid being taken to a secondary, secluded location. If you’re in a vehicle, this may mean deliberately crashing the car; if you’re on foot, run or attempt to draw the attention of bystanders.
Thankfully, these strategies aren’t unique to preventing an abduction, but are also viable techniques for preventing or stopping more common street crimes like robberies and carjackings. And the “think like a criminal” approach to prevention is a great exercise not just for serious crimes, but even commonplace crimes like car break-ins and pickpocketing.
Unfortunately, we’re presented with a scenario in which attempts at avoidance, deterrence, and disruption have failed. So, the first step is verifying if this situation is what our “bad guy” says it is. After all, many ransom schemes are just that — schemes. Remember that the “con” in con-artist or con-man is short for “confidence.” The criminal may not be a kidnapper at all, but a skilled liar who presents themselves so convincingly that the target believes what they’re told despite the lack of solid evidence.
An unfortunately common scam is for con-artists to call unsuspecting families and claim a relative is imprisoned in a foreign jail, and a large sum is needed to secure their release, when in fact the loved one is just fine, but perhaps not immediately reachable by phone. Oftentimes, the perpetrator will want some form of difficult or nearly-impossible-to-trace payment, such as a money order, cryptocurrency, or gift card serial numbers. These forms of payment aren’t unique to common scammers, however, and just because they want payment in this manner doesn’t necessarily indicate this is a scam as opposed to a real ransom.
So how do you go about determining if this was an actual ransom, or just some scam? With any luck, the suspect will make that much clear. Even the most ignorant, uncooperative, unsophisticated criminal should be willing to share some information if they can be convinced it’s in their best interests to do so. My approach to this would be making sure our perpetrator believes I’m willing to work with them — even if that isn’t the case at all — but I need assurances my brother is alive and well. If the kidnapper believes they can still get their payday by providing proof of life, they’d have a very strong incentive to do so.
Even though this is a criminal we’re dealing with, self-interest is a powerful motivator, and it’s what I use as a common focal point when communicating with any criminal. Though the possibility exists that the kidnapper may be completely unreasonable, refuse to provide any information whatsoever, and require you to follow all their demands without question, such a scenario seems improbable. Whether it’s a genuine kidnapper or just a con-artist, they want their payday and will usually give you something to work with if they think it will advance their position.
If they refuse to provide any proof, there isn’t much incentive to continue communicating with them. It seems very likely it would just be a hoax, and even if it wasn’t and you decided to cooperate, I’d have no reason to believe they’d stick to their own terms. If they can get money out of you without even providing proof of life, there’s nothing stopping them from demanding more and more without giving anything to you in return. While the inflexible “we don’t negotiate with criminals” approach probably isn’t the right one, you can’t be a doormat either.
If they provide proof of life, you need to decide whether or not to get the police involved. For me, this decision would be easy, even if the extortionists explicitly stated not to contact police. For most ordinary people, the risks of involving law enforcement will tremendously outweigh any potential downsides. Most of us simply don’t have the resources to give the kidnapper what they want, even if we wanted to. And even those with those resources may simply not be willing to work with an extortionist. Not out of a callous disregard for their loved one, but because of one simple truth: criminals as a whole tend to be untrustworthy and unreliable.
Add to that the understandable lack of experience most people have in bargaining with criminals, let alone facilitating a prisoner release. For most, it just makes sense to try and get help from someone with some actual experience or resources to employ. Even the police recognize how important it is to get help when they’re out of their depth; it’s routine for agencies to call on assistance from others when met with a crisis they don’t have much experience with.
If you aren’t sold on going to the police for help, but recognize the need for other assistance, you could look at other options. Even if you could find such an individual or organization that specializes in resolving ransoms, the cost of employing them could be as expensive as just paying the ransom outright. Additionally, involving any outsiders at all could be seen as a provocation nearly as bad as getting the actual cops involved.
Provoking the perpetrator may be too much of a gamble for some folks, and they decide they want to go it alone. Considering the stakes, reluctance to involve police is understandable. If you choose to go that route, here are some things to keep in mind. You have essentially entered into a crisis negotiation, and crisis negotiations largely center on these key factors. You must build trust and rapport, so you have credibility when trying to reach a mutually beneficial conclusion. In the case of a ransom, the mutually beneficial conclusion is the extortionist gets their money (and faces no legal repercussions for their actions), and you get your family back. This is no ordinary crisis negotiation, however.
If you’ve decided not to involve the police, your only leverage is the money the suspect is after. It isn’t a very good bargaining position. By comparison, when I’m working as a police crisis negotiator bargaining with a barricaded suspect, I usually have towering, insurmountable leverage. They are surrounded by a police special-response team and have been cut off from communicating with anyone besides the negotiators. They eventually accept we’re just waiting for them to calm down rather than use the overwhelming force available to us. Even then, negotiations can be fraught with fixations on small details and take hours to resolve. In over a decade of crisis negotiations, some of my most difficult calls were those where I didn’t have the extreme position of advantage I normally do. If you decide to go it alone, you would be working from an even weaker position.
There are approximately 100 kidnappings in the United States per year. Kidnapping will be defined, for this article, as the taking and holding of an individual against his or her will, with the stated purpose of exchanging that person for something of value to the kidnapper(s). According to one source, the average worldwide ransom demand in the past year was approximately $250,000. The source expected the average to increase to over $325,000 in 2022.
Abductions are, for the purpose of this article, significantly different from kidnappings. Ordinarily, there’s no intent to return the person abducted to his or her loved ones. Abductions happen much more frequently than kidnappings and ordinarily the targets are young women and children.
Very little information is out there on kidnappings in the U.S. — certainly on recent kidnappings. No information was found regarding circumstances, victim, and outcome. News media and the internet have numerous stories on abductions. The two most recent stories on kidnappings found indicate they were ill planned and or almost accidental attempts.
The ill-planned kidnapping involved four people taking the victim over a supposedly stolen cell phone. The actual taking of the individual was caught on a hotel security camera. The perpetrators were caught just a few hours later, and the victim was safe. The other case involved a lone actor who attempted a carjacking but kept the driver, demanding the victim’s phone and money before placing the victim in the trunk. The victim escaped from the trunk and authorities apprehended the guilty party shortly thereafter.
Though rare, they do happen. It has been said the best fight is the one avoided. The same can be said of kidnapping. A cursory review of the internet will show you several companies and or individuals advertising kidnap prevention and escape courses. Basically, these courses can be broken down into two approaches. The first involves a combative approach. The second is based on avoiding dangerous situations.
According to SBS Training Solutions, “There is a place for combative-style training, there can also a few drawbacks. First, it is unrealistic to assume that even a skilled person with actual combat experience will be capable of overcoming attackers who have the advantage of surprise and superior numbers. Furthermore, given that many countries (and some places within the U.S.) prohibit the carrying of weapons, the idea of self-defense weapons training in these instances is questionable, and its ability to protect against an attack is unlikely.” Avoiding the situation in a nutshell is having a realistic assessment of threat level. Being aware of those in your environment and of leaving at the first signs of trouble.
Home-security solutions are abundant and relatively inexpensive. Whether you can have a camera viewing your mailbox is dependent upon where your mailbox is located. In many urban areas and even small towns, mailboxes are clustered in a tower arrangement, and it can be located some distance from your home. The flip side is that it’s difficult for bad actors to gain access to your mailbox.
Finding an individual by tracking the location and movement of their cell phone or car is possible. Contrary to the impression given in movies and television, tracking the location of his or her phone isn’t as simple as they make it. There are a multitude of apps for both Android and Apple devices to track your phone — repeat, your phone. There are just as many to track someone else’s phone. But (and this is a big but) unless they are dependent children, the owner of the phone must give his or her permission. Sure, there’s probably the opportunity to put the tracking program on the phone without his or her knowledge. You decide if the consequences are worth it. So, unless you have or know an IT person with the skills to get into the carrier’s system, this is a significant obstacle.
Tracking a car isn’t like the movies. While many cars, at least those in the past 15 years or so, have a GPS program in their software. Accessing that information isn’t easily done by most. The simplest solution is to put a tracking module on the car. There are many devices on the market that are inexpensive. Again, the difficulty is convincing the owner/driver of the car that you’re doing this with the purest of motives.
Credit cards and ATM cards don’t have any GPS capabilities. If you’re on the account, then it’s a simple matter to find when and where it was last used. If you aren’t, it’s highly unlikely that the company that issued the card would grant you access. Whether the information gained from last use of the card is useful is dependent on when it was used. Initially, based upon our scenario the only things known for certain is the subject left home for work and didn’t return home. At this time, it’s too late to try an obtain Kidnap and Ransom (K&R) insurance.
K&R insurance is generally marketed toward companies and foundations whose personnel travel overseas. They also tend toward individuals of high personal wealth to include sports figures and those in the public eye or anyone traveling outside of the United States. But anyone can purchase thus insurance.
K&R insurance costs are estimated to range from $400 to $3,000 per million dollars of coverage depending on coverage. Most companies offering such insurance will provide crisis management teams to help in negotiating with the kidnappers and obtaining funds to pay ransom demands. Some also offer a tactical response team to rescue the kidnapped. K&R insurance companies can require that you don’t tell anyone you have such coverage. Telling your best friend or mentioning it at the neighborhood picnic will void the policy.
After talking with the sister-in-law, you both begin to keep a written record of what the two of you do. People will say they’ll remember, but the truth is no they won’t. Have her write down what he was wearing that day if she can recall the attire. Also, write down any distinguishing marks or tattoos. Print the most recent photo available of him. This information will be important when/if you file a missing person report. Make contact with the brother’s friends and work associates; write down what they tell you.
Given our scenario, after 24 hours, file a missing person’s report with the police. Most law enforcement agencies will not declare him a missing person at that time, but the report will be on record. Also, consider hiring a private investigator (PI). The PI will be dedicated to your case. He/she will certainly have the experience in tracking missing person that you lack.
Once foul play is suspected, obtain at least three “burner phones” with voice memo capability. (See “Mobile Security” in RECOIL OFFGRID 52 for more info on burner phones). One for the sister-in-law, one for a trusted friend/associate, and one for you. All further communication between your sister-in-law, and you should be through the burner phones. The burner phones serve at least two purposes. It allows the home phone to be available. It provides a simple method to record incoming calls on that line by putting the incoming call on speaker and placing the burner phone near it and activating the voice memo function.
Federal law permits the recording of a phone call without the other caller’s permission as long as you’re a part of the conversation and have no criminal intent. Washington, D.C. and 38 states have similar laws. However, currently 12 states require consent from all parties involved. Those states are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
On the fourth day, a ransom note is received demanding payment in exchange for your brother. It notes he will be killed if authorities are notified. Using the burner phone, call the trusted friend and advise him to go to the authorities and give them a detailed version of what has happened to date.
On the fifth day of our scenario, you receive a call from the “kidnapper(s).” Absent proof of life, there’s no assurance that whoever made the call actually has the brother or that he’s alive.
Ideally, proof of life will entail a video call with the victim. It most likely will not happen. But a phone call where you can hear his voice and ask a question to which only he has the answer is a real possibility. Any type of photo, given Photoshop capabilities, would be highly suspect. Absent proof of life, complying with the kidnappers’ demand is an act of hope akin to believing the Titanic will make it to New York.
The FBI has recently advised that “virtual kidnappings” have increased. This is where bad people call and say they have kidnapped your loved one while there’s a voice screaming in the background and demand money for his/her release. Now if (and this a big if) can the emotions of it all be controlled? Remember that both parties have something the other wants. That, stripped of the raw anguish, is a negotiation.
Expressions of anger or making threats to the kidnappers will not rate high on how to achieve a successful outcome. The kidnappers are betting you most likely don’t have the skill set and contacts to rain havoc on them.
There are numerous books and articles available on negotiating. Listening, not just hearing the words, to what is said, how it’s said, and the tone used are skills that reap benefits. While reading a few articles or books will not make one a skilled negotiator, any knowledge gained is useful, even if it’s the realization that this isn’t something in your wheelhouse or that you need to bring in someone who can handle the situation. The goal is to bring your loved one home alive. You decide what price will be paid.
This all might give the impression that a ransom situation is hopelessly outside of your control, which from the criminal perspective, is by design. If extortionists didn’t hold most of the cards once the abduction took place, there would be little point in attempting it in the first place. So as with any rare, but dramatically life-altering crime, a focus on avoidance and prevention is the best approach. If you find yourself facing this challenge despite your best efforts to avoid it, don’t lose hope, but recognize you can use all the help you get, and handling it on your own is a precarious proposition.
Get in the habit of sharing your location on your smartphone with family members, especially when traveling. Create a contact list of friends and family you can leave with a trusted confidant to call if for some reason you turn up missing. Establish routine check-ins with certain people and make them aware of any periods that you’ll knowingly be unreachable. Just as Navy pilot Jeremiah Denton blinked “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse code when he was captured during the Vietnam War, think about devising code words or pantomimes that your contacts will recognize as an esoteric distress signal if you’re allowed to communicate, but not openly reveal the danger you’re in. The more precautions you take up front, the easier it will be to locate you and determine the nature of your situation if you become a target of a kidnapping.
Kris Southards spent 30 years as a criminal justice professional. He started working in juvenile detention. He spent the next 26 years working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, starting as a correctional officer and rising to management center administrator. During his tenure, he received training in hostage negotiation and was the lead management negotiator in a local union negotiation. He spent the last four years in the private sector as the director of a community reentry center.
Cory Fechtelkotter has been a police officer in northern Arizona for 14 years, serving in a wide variety of roles including patrolman, rangemaster, field training officer, recruit training officer, school resource officer, crisis negotiator, and detective. As a detective, Cory has investigated everything from financial crimes (extortion, fraud, and counterfeiting) to major crimes including sex offenses, crimes against children, and homicide. Cory has successfully negotiated the surrender of multiple barricaded homicide suspects and served as a member of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards & Training Patrol Procedures Subject Matter Expert Committee, where he helped update academy curriculum for topics such as behavioral health crisis response and off-duty officer safety. Cory’s passion is firearms training, both as an instructor at the local academy, and as a lifelong student of the nation’s top firearms instructors.