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May 2, 2006 | 23:26 GMT

Express Kidnappings: Cleaning Out the Victim's Bank Account

Editor's Note: This is the second analysis in a series on kidnapping. The bodies of two Austrian backpackers were found in shallow graves in La Paz, Bolivia, on April 3. Bolivian media reported that the victims had been abducted by individuals wearing police uniforms and that their bank cards had been used to withdraw cash from several locations around Bolivia. It appears the two Austrians were victims of an express kidnapping gone wrong. Under normal circumstances, victims of such kidnappings are robbed of their possessions and then forced to empty their accounts from ATMs. In most cases, the victim is held only while the bank account is emptied, though some express kidnappings can last up to several days while the perpetrators clean out large accounts or wait to collect a quick ransom. Like all confrontational crimes, however, express kidnappings can end in the victim's death. Express kidnappings are increasingly common in the Third World, particularly in Latin America — and especially in Mexico. Although these kinds of kidnappings commonly start near an outdoor ATM, they can be initiated just as easily during the course of a carjacking, while a traveler is in a taxi operated by a rogue driver or even in more rural areas. Many times the victim has consumed a large amount of alcohol and his inebriation has made him an easy mark. Because of individual withdrawal limits and other security features regarding the use of debit cards, the perpetrators must hit several ATMs — sometimes as many as five or six in an hour. These multiple withdrawals over a short time, however, can trigger security lockouts of the card, causing the perpetrators to keep their victim for days if the transaction receipt shows a large balance. Some gangs reportedly have kept their victims confined in the trunk of a car for several days while they drain their bank accounts via debit cards. Express kidnappings also can turn into longer-term kidnap-for-ransom abductions if the criminals discover the victim has significant financial assets — usually by the more-exclusive credit cards in his wallet or a business card that identifies the person as a top executive of a well-known company. Express kidnappings are preferred by small-time criminals for several reasons: Unlike long-term kidnap-for-ransom schemes, the perpetrators generally do not need extensive infrastructure such as safe-houses and round-the-clock guards, nor do they need to worry about providing meals and restroom facilities. Express kidnappings also offer the perpetrators a rapid return for their efforts, since the debit account can be cleaned out in a few hours or a ransom quickly paid. Also, holding a victim for such a short time reduces the chances for law enforcement to track down and apprehend the perpetrators. Because express kidnappings often are carried out by inexperienced kidnappers, the victims are at risk of suffering physical harm or being killed almost immediately, especially if something unexpected happens during the abduction that causes the kidnappers to panic. Another danger, although quite rare, is that the kidnappers will kill the victim even after the accounts are emptied or the ransom paid — rather than risk being identified later. Female victims also run the risk of being sexually assaulted by their abductors. To avoid becoming the victim of an express kidnapping, certain precautions should be taken when traveling. Because taxi drivers often are used by express kidnapping gangs to obtain victims, taxis not affiliated with a reputable company or hotel should be avoided. Travelers also should use ATMs in secure locations such as shopping malls, stores and bank or hotel lobbies rather on the street, where express kidnappings often are initiated. Travelers also should be aware of indications of a carjacking and practice appropriate preventative or defensive measures. Overall, practicing good situational awareness and surveillance awareness is the best way to avoid becoming a victim. To minimize loss during an express kidnapping, travelers should consider carrying only cash or, if they must carry a debit card, use one that accesses an account with limited funds, rather than one linked to both checking and savings accounts. The theory here is that the sooner the money runs out, the sooner the victim will be released. It also is important for victims of any type of kidnapping to try to humanize themselves to their abductors. If possible, some attempt should be made to relate to the kidnappers on a human level — showing pictures of loved ones or talking about sports, for example. If the kidnappers see their victim as a human being rather than an object, they may be less inclined to kill or abandon him. The victim also must be prepared to hand over valuables at once. Hesitation or refusal to relinquish valuables could cause an already nervous express kidnapper to resort to violence or, in the case of a simple robbery, cause the perpetrator to abduct the victim with the intention of taking the valuables elsewhere. During any kidnapping, the most dangerous time for the victim is during the initial abduction — when events are unfolding rapidly, weapons are being brandished and tensions are running high. This period, however, also offers the best chance for escape. In debriefings of hostages, most have said they perceived that a threat was developing, but they did not want to believe it was happening to them. In these early minutes of the kidnapping, however, the perpetrators can lose control of the situation, giving the victim a chance to escape. Of course, if they lose control, the kidnappers could panic and kill the victim on the spot. Once the initial abduction is over and the kidnappers have control of the victim, the immediate escape window is closed. After this point, the victim should cooperate with the kidnappers, but continue to look for viable opportunities to escape. At this point, however, the victim could be making a life-or-death decision: Trying to escape can get one killed — but so can staying put.
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