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Kidnapping and ransom on the rise

By Nick Easen for CNN

Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe highlighted the issues kidnap victims face in the film Proof of Life.
Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe highlighted the issues kidnap victims face in the film Proof of Life.

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(CNN) -- Kidnapping for ransom or politics has long been a hazard of executive travel for global businesses.

And over the last few years it has been getting worse, despite efforts to curb the problem.

An increasingly favorable environment for would-be kidnappers is evolving as more executives take to the road and more firms open up offices overseas.

"There is probably anywhere between 8,000 to 10,000 kidnap and ransom situations globally on an annual basis," Mark Hall from Air Security International, a supplier of protection services, told CNN.

"The number has grown at an alarming rate in recent years, but due to a deep distrust of the police, many abductions are not reported and receive little media coverage."

Britain's Foreign Policy Center estimates that kidnappers take home $500 million annually in ransom money from both local and expatriate kidnappings.

Aside from wealthy locals, the highest risk group is highly-paid overseas executives working in Latin America, according to a number of insurance brokers and intelligence firms.

Companies with large overseas exposure, financial institutions, and the rich and famous are also targets, with ransom demands ranging from several thousand to several million dollars.

When Canadian bosses visit the Molson brewery near Rio De Janeiro in Brazil, it can resemble a small military operation, complete with bulletproof vans and well-armed bodyguards, according to the National Post newspaper.

A number of local Molson executives have already been kidnapped and the threat near the brewery's shantytowns is a real one.

'Express' kidnappings

Many executives assume their firm will deploy security when things get tough or not send them overseas at all, but as one former hostage told the UK's Observer newspaper, this is not always the case.

"I did not know how big the risk of kidnapping was there. Of course, I knew Colombia was not the safest country in the world, but I assumed that my company would be able to keep me away from harm."

"Express" or "lightning" kidnappings are the latest fad, where the victims tend to be less wealthy. They are usually abducted from a taxi, taken to an ATM and forced to withdraw money.

The kidnapping lasts a few hours and can sometimes involve force.

"Each month there are numerous incidents where visitors are abducted by criminal groups -- just long enough to withdraw the maximum amount of money from an ATM account," explains Hall.

"Our advice -- carry only essential credit and ATM cards. If you do not plan to use them during your trip, leave them at home."

Hall believes kidnapping is unlikely to disappear soon, because criminals still continue to collect large sums quickly. And police rarely catch abductors, making the practice profitable and attractive for would-be abductors.

Sometimes law enforcement officials are also involved and families rarely report incidents, fearing retaliation or the consequences of a botched rescue attempt by police.

Kidnapping insurance

Many Fortune 500 companies now carry kidnapping and ransom insurance. It is largely offered as an add-on cover for multinational firms with staff or property in high-risk destinations and for firms whose executives travel extensively.

Yet companies are often unwilling to discuss the topic openly, not wishing to highlight that they are heavily insured and therefore potential targets with deep pockets.

While the specific terms of any cover are not publicly available, insurers generally provide international support, crisis management partnership, dedicated phone lines and professionals who will try and resolve or diffuse incidents with the least harm to the kidnapped.

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