Tom Rothrauff, president of Trident, is a former Navy SEAL -- and so are all of the armed guards who work for him. At their home base in Virginia Beach, Rothrauff has his men train on a full mock-up of a ship that is complete with warning sirens, lights and the ladders pirates use to board.
He takes his recruits out on the water in the Atlantic to make sure their shooting skills are sharp. Rothrauff said not only are the Somali pirates' arsenals "very sophisticated," with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47 machine guns, "they're getting better."
"They can terrorize the crew into complete submission," he said. "They are good at what they do. They are skilled and they're getting trained so it's not a cake walk. It's not a joke."
Somalia is impoverished, and job opportunities are almost nonexistent, which is why so many young men turn to piracy. One incarcerated pirate recently told the BBC that the practice is just a form of taxation.
"We catch a ship, tax some taxes, and then release them without harming or killing them," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that."
But that's not true. Many pirate hostages are brutalized, starved, forced to undergo amputations and some are killed.
"I want Americans to know that it's out there, it's real," said former Marine Joe Alvarado, now a team leader for ESPADA Logistics and Security Group, Inc., a San Antonio-based company that trains its anti-piracy recruits off the coast of Miami. "It's not pirates of the Caribbean. It's no longer guys with sabers. It's real life. It's a real threat."
Kevin Doherty, head of Nexus Consulting, an Alexandria, Virginia-based armed guard company, said Somali pirate groups have over $400 million invested in their operations.
"In 2009, we would see a skiff with one engine, three or four pirates, and they may have an AK-47," he said. "We're certainly starting to see 10 to 15 skiffs approaching ships now with 10 to 15 armed pirates with AKs and RPGs."
But Rothrauff of Trident points out that Somali pirates have never successfully hijacked a ship protected by armed guards, which he said makes the pirates furious.
"They are actively trying to work out different options and different ways of getting around guys like us," he said.
While the U.S. Coast Guard has guidelines for the use of force by American ships, there are no international laws or set standards that govern the maritime security industry in terms of reporting incidents and use of force.
"There is regulation," said Rothrauff. "Mostly for Americans, it's self-regulation."
One U.S. official, who asked not to be named, called some of these security firms "rogue companies" that are hard to govern overseas.
In a statement to ABC News, officials at the U.S. Department of State said, "The United States supports the shipping industry's responsible use of privately contracted armed security personnel, along with the broad use of industry-developed best management practices. We will continue to closely follow developments in this growing field and actively engage with industry to enact strong industry-wide standards of professional conduct for privately contracted armed security personnel safeguarding commercial shipping."
But the members of the U.N.'s Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council in June expressing concern that the private companies were flooding the Horn of Africa with weapons.