Almost five years have passed since writing “Personal Safety While Traveling Abroad on Business” for the September-October 2003 issue of LP Magazine. Over this relatively short span of time, the world has become an even more dangerous place.
The hundreds of thousands of business trips made each year subject travelers to a myriad of risks. Business men and women will be robbed, assaulted, raped, kidnapped, and sometimes even murdered. They will get sick from diseases they should have been able to avoid. They will lose sensitive data through carelessness or corporate espionage. Business travelers will be injured while driving abroad or in other types of accidents.
The results are unfortunate and sometimes tragic. The greater tragedy is that in most cases these incidents could have been easily avoided by following some basic security guidelines that will be described herein.
Some of the recommendations suggested here may be second nature to loss prevention professionals, such as paying attention to your surroundings. However, remember that many of your company’s international travelers are not security professionals. Hopefully, this information will reinforce your LP skills and prove useful in your corporate training activities.
Develop and Maintain an Increased Level of Awareness
Five years ago I began the discussion of safety with the importance of increasing your level of personal awareness. This is still the best place to start. Remember that personal security is, first and foremost, an individual responsibility. Avoiding a dangerous situation is always easier than getting out of one. It may come as a surprise to many people, but the most important thing that anyone can do to enhance their own personal safety is to simply learn to pay attention to their surroundings.
Train yourself to make observations, and draw the appropriate conclusions from those observations. Look for something or someone that seems unusual or out of place. Take note of an unfamiliar car parked on your block or of someone who seems to be paying attention to you. Developing a posture of vigilance is the single most important thing you can do. Don’t be confused; paying attention is not paranoiav
In the 2003 article I only touched on counter-surveillance because it seemed to me at the time that teaching those in the business world how to detect the presence of surveillance might be a bit much for the corporate traveler. However, analysis of numerous case studies involving those in private industry has convinced me that the topic deserves greater attention.
The Three-Times Rule. If you see the same person or vehicle three times, separated by time and distance, assume you are being followed. Sure, there are such things as coincidences in life. However, for purposes of personal security, don’t leave anything to chance.
If you have learned to maintain an alert mindset, you will be paying attention to who and what is around you. Look at faces. Keep an eye in your rearview mirror. If you see the same car behind you for any length of time, especially if they are taking the same turns as you, you need to become suspicious. Similarly, a car or cars that keep reappearing behind you at intervals should also arouse suspicion. Try to surreptitiously take note of something unique about the vehicle. If you can’t quickly see and remember the plate numbers then look for something else. Perhaps the vehicle has some imperfection to the paint or body? Maybe there is a sticker or parking tag that is readily apparent? Notice something that makes the vehicle unique to you and remember it.
What You Should Do. If you become aware that you are being followed, the general rule is to avoid making it obvious to those watching you that you are aware of their presence. If you appear to be an alert and cautious person, anyone trying to follow you may mark you as a difficult target and will hopefully pass you over for an easier subject.
However, if you do detect surveillance, do not change your routine. Continue about your business and stay in well-lighted and populated areas only. Seek a safe haven such as the U.S. Embassy or the embassy of a friendly nation, police stations (most of the time), hospitals, shopping centers, or other populated place.
Look for people and well-lighted areas. Do not stare at the persons following you nor should you attempt evasion unless you reasonably believe an attack is imminent. While abroad the U.S. Department of State recommends that you contact the embassy or consulate immediately if you suspect that you are being followed. The embassy Regional Security Officer (RSO) will provide you with the appropriate guidance.
Avoid Routine Patterns
Terrorists and criminals often select targets with regular and predictable schedules. This makes it very easy for them to plan a crime or attack. Most people leave the house for work at the same time every morning. They leave the office and return to their car at the same
You need to train yourself to vary your route as well as the time you travel. This is also true even while traveling abroad on short business trips. If you leave the hotel for the local office at the same time each morning, even if you are only in country for a few days, you have settled into a pattern that makes it too easy for someone to select you as a target. Each day, simply leave at a different time and vary the route you take. You can turn this practice into something positive. Leave a bit early and get a cup of coffee or breakfast at a local place of interest. If you are taking a taxi, ask the driver to take you a different way so you can see the sights. Just don’t walk out of the hotel at the same time each morning and head to the same destination.
If you use a company vehicle for transportation, it is a good idea to routinely and randomly exchange vehicles with your coworkers. This will prevent someone targeting you from ever being certain that you will be driving a particular car at a particular time.
Vehicle Safety Measures
In my earlier article on travel safety, I covered vehicle safety from the standpoint of counter-surveillance and prevention of attack by criminals or terrorists. In that regard I made the following points:
- Remove rental identification that would clearly mark you as a foreign visitor.
- Request power locks and windows for greater access control and drive with the doors locked.
- Make sure the climate control systems work so you don’t have to drive with the windows down.
- Remove valuables from view so as not to tempt thieves.
- Recognize a setup, such as a person asking for assistance.
While these concerns certainly remain, it is important to point out that the greatest single danger while traveling abroad is not from terrorism, pandemic, or even common crime. The fact is that more Americans will be killed in traffic accidents abroad than all other causes combined. If you drive make sure you select a vehicle with a good crash rating. Front and side airbags are preferred. Make sure the vehicle is in good repair and that all systems are functional. Look for a low mileage car that you feel comfortable driving.
Pre-travel Research and Planning
The old adage of “know before you go” is seldom applied to security issues. When we go on vacation or take a business trip, most of us learn a bit about our intended destination simply to allow for a more enjoyable trip. We may research hotels and their amenities, local sites of interest, and places to eat. But how many of us look into the issues that may affect our well-being? The list is a long one. Here are few examples.
- Are there any local health concerns or risks?
- What is the state of local medical care?
- What about the level of criminal or terrorist activity?
- Are there cultural mores or taboos that if ignored will work to our detriment?
- How are local driving conditions?
Failing to conduct the proper pre-travel security research is the first serious mistake a traveler can make. This omission is a common factor that is seen while reviewing actual case studies involving the death or injury of travelers. Take the following important steps:
- Check the State Department web site at www.travel.state.gov for travel advisories.
- The Central Intelligence Agency has an excellent reference for general international information at www.cia.gov/library/publications/theworld-factbook/index.html.
- The Centers for Disease Control web site has a link for travel at wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/default.aspx providing a list by country of health-related issues, necessary inoculations, and other precautionary measures.
All of these directions and site links are in the travel checklist mentioned above.
Travel to High-Risk Locations
There have been documented incidents of companies sending their employees on assignments to areas where safety is a serious concern. In many of these cases, the purpose of the trip was in no way a critical one. In fact, in some cases employees were sent into harm’s way to perform tasks that could have waited until the security situation had improved.
When travel to truly dangerous places is under consideration, the simple question to be asked is whether this trip is absolutely necessary at this time. If the answer is “Yes,” then appropriate measures need to be taken to address those concerns. Such measures may include a pre-travel security assessment by a competent consultant, a professional security detail to escort the traveler, and an appropriately armored vehicle and trained driver among other precautions.
Making Travel Arrangements
Who generally makes your travel arrangements? Is it the task of your administrative assistant? Does your firm have a travel department performing this function, or do you take care of it yourself? Practices vary by company or agency. In any event the question that must be asked of the responsible person is “Have security concerns been made a priority during each step of the planning process?” Generally the answer is “No.”
Hotel selection by most companies generally involves getting a comfortable and convenient location at a reasonably low price. These factors are understandable, but must be secondary to security and safety concerns. While it is easy to determine room rates and whether or not the hotel has a pool or gym, it is tougher for a lay person to evaluate the hotel’s level of security.
Generally, large western-owned chains have adequate security that is comparable to what you would expect in the United States. However, that is often not enough in certain locations. Hotel security is frequently inadequate. Experience doing security assessments of buildings and hotels reveals that more often than not a person can walk right off the street and enter most hotels without hindrance. More disturbingly, once inside they can generally walk right into an elevator and take it onto the guest floors unchallenged.
What steps should a traveler take to assess whether a hotel under consideration has an acceptable security program?
- First, find out whether the hotel has a security director and ask about his or her qualifications.
- Ask about the hotel’s access control measures.
- Are there security cameras and are they monitored at all times?
- Does the hotel have smoke detectors? Where are they located?
- What about a fire safety plan and a fire safety director?
- Do they have a public address system?
- What about a sprinkler system and standpipe?
A fuller assessment may also be made, and in many parts of the world such an evaluation is necessary.
- Where is the nearest police station or fire house and what is the average response time for emergency personnel to reach the hotel?
- How about the closest hospital and what is the ambulance response time?
- Is the hotel located in an area that allows for multiple routes of travel to whatever location you must visit during your stay?
This list goes on and on and, quite frankly, most travelers and companies will never be able to do justice to an assessment of this nature. In some cases large firms should consider having such an assessment done by a professional consultant. However, in most cases there is an easier way.
If you are traveling overseas, the single best way to pick a place to stay is by calling the local embassy or consulate closest to your destination. Even if you are accustomed to staying in a particular hotel, call the embassy and ask to speak to the RSO or one of the other Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agents. They are the security professionals responsible for protecting the embassy, the Ambassador, and the expatriate and local staff. They will have thoroughly evaluated local hotels with respect to life safety and security issues. Simply ask them where State Department personnel and other government employees stay while in country
Other Hotel-Related Issues
Make sure there is a secure parking area adjacent to the hotel. It is better if the parking garage is physically on the premises and there is no need to walk back to the hotel from the garage if you happen to return late at night. The lot should be well-lighted, guarded, and have access limited to hotel staff and guests. In many cases the hotel itself is secure, but the garage is far less so.
Inform the hotel not to release any information about you to anyone when
Be cautious answering the door. If someone unexpectedly knocks at your door, speak to them through a closed door. If they claim to be a member of the hotel staff, ask for their name and verify with the front desk. Do not open the door slightly relying on the privacy bar or chain to prevent someone from pushing their way in. It isn’t very common, but this happens frequently enough to warrant taking this precaution.
Avoid meeting anyone in your room, including business contacts. Make it a point to treat your hotel room the same way you would consider your bedroom at home. It is your living space, and the place where you sleep.
Note the location of the emergency exits and all stairwells. Make sure you know which direction you must take in order to get to an exit from your room. Make it a practice to physically count the number of doors between your room and the exit. First locate the nearest emergency exit. Then locate an alternate exit. Beginning from your room, count the number of doors between your room and the nearest exit. This will allow you to find your way out even if the power is out, and you are attempting to get out in darkness or heavy smoke. If you can’t see, you can still feel your way down the hall and get to safety by counting the doors you pass. Do the same thing for an alternate exit point if one exists. Never use the elevator in a fire or other emergency unless directed to do so by emergency personnel.
Choose a safer room location. Try getting a room on the second floor. A room on the ground floor is too easy to break into. The seventh floor is within reach of most firefighting evacuation buckets and ladders, assuming the country you are in has a professional fire department. The better choice is to stay on the second floor and no higher than the third floor. In case of fire, this gives you the survivable option of jumping out the window.
Protecting Intellectual and Proprietary Property
One of the fastest growing threats to business travelers is not actual physical danger, but is rather becoming the victim of corporate espionage. Travelers are easily compromised. They may be taken in by an apparently well-meaning stranger or even a local business contact. They may be compromised through blackmail. Their sensitive data may be copied or stolen and laptops disappear with alarming regularity.
Bring only the information you need for the trip. Your laptop is probably loaded with every business and personal document you have. Why on earth would you want to risk losing it all while you travel?
There are a few ways of handling sensitive information while you travel. The most practical is to only bring whatever information is necessary for the success of the trip. Minimize the information you travel with and you reduce the risk of harm in the event it is lost or stolen. This is the same theory as not going on vacation with your most expensive watch. It is sound practice.
Another possible practice is to have a designated laptop for traveling only. Put the information you need on a disk or flash drive and save nothing to the laptop itself. Information may still be lost or stolen, but the loss and resultant damage will be limited.
Practice a clean hotel desk policy.Many firms strictly enforce a clean desk policy in the office to prevent classified or important documents from being seen or taken by the wrong people. Make sure you do this in your hotel room as well. Don’t leave your documents or laptop lying out unsecured. Don’t drop important documents in the hotel trash basket and assume it has been safely destroyed. How difficult would it be for a competitor to pay someone from housekeeping to turn over your room trash? I can assure you this happens every day.
Much of the information here, including links to important web sites, are available in a six-page summary of travel safety guidelines specifically for the executive or corporate business traveler called the “Travel Safety Checklist.” The checklist is available free of charge at www.globalsecuritygroup.com on the Downloads page.