Proof of Life: Seven Lessons on How Families Can Handle Kidnapping

Kidnappings are on the rise worldwide, but there's hope for victims.

ByAswini Anburajan
February 09, 2009, 9:26 PM

May 18, 2007 — -- Children vanishing into thin air, a familiar headline. Madeleine McCann, a British toddler, vanished from her Portugal hotel room earlier this month. In January a young boy near St. Louis was abducted in broad daylight, and was found a few days later with another young man who had been abducted four years earlier.

And daring escapes — last August an Austrian girl outwits her kidnapper after eight years in captivity, and just this week a police officer abducted in Colombia crawls through the Amazon jungle to freedom, six years after he was snatched from his car.

High-profile cases of disappearances, kidnappings and daring escapes are in the news all the time, but even more abduction cases go unreported.

Many of the cases turn out to be kidnappings and while concrete statistics do not exist, it's estimated that only one out of 10 kidnappings are reported, according to Black Fox International, which provides insurance to individuals and corporations for kidnappings, ransoms and extortions.

"Kidnappings are definitely on the rise internationally," said Joe Croskey, CEO of Black Fox. According to Croskey, the number of kidnappings in Mexico has now surpassed Colombia, which had been known as the world's kidnapping capital.

"In Mexico," Croskey said, "they have what you call petty kidnapping where they grab you off the street, make you empty out your ATM, and then club you over the head."

The best place in the world to be kidnapped according to Croskey is Colombia, because kidnappers tend to not want to harm their victims, they just want money. "They treat it like a business there and they're after only one thing."

But travelers to Russia should be wary. "It's one of the worst places in the world to be taken," Croskey said. "They're brutal."

On average, some 200 foreigners are kidnapped worldwide per year, according to Black Fox. And insurance companies like Chubbs, AIG and Lloyds of London report an increase in the number of companies who are taking out kidnap and ransom insurance to protect their executives.

Abductions are a family's worst nightmare, but there is hope that in cases of kidnappings for ransom, victims return home safe and sound.

Michael Clayton, co-owner of Clayton Consulting, one of the world's largest kidnapping consultants, talked to ABCNEWS.com about how a family should respond if a loved one is kidnapped. What follows are seven lessons that every family should be aware of.

"K&R" as kidnaps and ransoms are known in the private security world are almost always about money, Clayton stressed.

"This is a business for the kidnappers. They do this because it's quick and easy cash," he said.

Half of Clayton's K&R cases are from Latin America. An average ransom in Colombia is $5 million. In Mexico $1 to $5 million. Typical ransoms in the Middle East are a lot cheaper, Clayton said, ranging from $250,000 to $1 million. Kidnapping for ransom in the United States and Europe are rarer, Clayton said.

The services of kidnapping consultants also don't come cheaply. Clayton Consulting charges $2,450 a day plus expenses, and their average kidnapping case lasts anywhere from seven days to 21 days.

Clayton said the typical kidnapper's modus operandi follows a trend.

"They plan who they will kidnap, where they will kidnap them, where to keep them, how much to ask for — and they even know how much it will cost them to hold that person," Clayton said.

Kidnappers identify their victims well ahead of time, often targeting the family members of wealthy businessmen who can afford to pay a ransom. In order to maintain the lucrative nature of the business, some kidnappers hold several victims at a time.

"The only thing the kidnappers need to know: Can the victim's family pay a ransom and where will that person be at a given time, and then they've gotcha," Clayton explained.

Law enforcement officials might disagree, but Clayton said if you suspect a family member might have been kidnapped for ransom, especially if he or she was in a foreign country, the first call should be to a private security firm -- who helps the family decide whether or not to contact the authorities.

"Your 18-year-old son disappears after going out with his friends, and you're a well-known businessman, you bet that someone's going to want to get money out of you," said Clayton.

After assessing a kidnapping situation, the consultant assigned to the family— usually someone based in the country that has knowledge of the culture and speaks the local language — provides guidance on whether a family should or should not contact the authorities.

"It's not up to us to contact the authorities," said Clayton.

The goal for a kidnapping consultant is to simply get the victim back safe and sound, which is very different from the police who also want to capture the kidnappers.

Once the victim is taken, the waiting game begins — as the family hopes for contact from the kidnappers. The first conversation should establish proof of life.

"With cases like these, you have a lot of people who will call and try to extort money, so you need to filter out the callers who are trying to extort money from the real kidnappers," said Clayton.

"Proof of life tells you that the caller has the victim. You have the caller take a question and then deliver the answer. It's usually personal questions. You have an 18-year-old boy kidnapped so you ask, 'Who was your favorite teacher in high school?'"

The family should assign a "communicator," either a family member or close friend who will handle all conversations with the kidnappers.

"The kidnappers will ask for $10 million, $5 million, and they'll demand it in three days. Very, very few people in the world can come up with five million in three days," said Clayton.

"They are demanding the sky. And the family will say, 'Well that amount is out of our reach, and you have to bring it down.' And the kidnappers will come back and say 'You're a big shot, you have a big company you can come up with it.'"

It's the goal of the communicator, guided by the kidnapping consultant, to reach a "reasonable" ransom.

"When you've agreed to an amount," Clayton directed, "you arrange to make a drop and you follow the directions of the kidnappers. You send a trusted person to do the drop."

In an ironic twist, Clayton said once the drop has been made, the family often has to wait to hear from the kidnappers, trusting that they'll carry through on their part of the bargain — safely releasing the victim, usually within 50 miles of the drop.

The one thing that neither the family nor the security consultant ever tries to ascertain is the victim's exact location.

"The last thing I want to know is where the victim is because if I know where the victim is the police will know where the victim is, and they will attempt to rescue the victim. And whether it's in the States or Mexico or Colombia or Brazil, the last thing I want to have is a rescue attempt," said Clayton.

"When there's an attempt to rescue, the police will cut power lines, break down the door, and the SWAT team will enter and shoot whatever moves. And that's dangerous for our client."

In the 13 years since Clayton started his consulting firm, he's only had three victims successfully escape their captors.

But they are the exceptions. Kroll Inc., another kidnapping consulting firm, estimates that 79 percent of all hostages are killed during rescue attempts.

"It's very dangerous to escape. They will shoot to kill you. There have been several cases where people have escaped and they get shot. They shoot you in the back," Clayton warned.

While the fear is always torture and abuse, especially with female abductees, Clayton said that in kidnap and ransom cases it's rarely a concern.

"If you're being abducted for money, these are kidnappers who plan to do it again and again. They need to show that they don't damage the goods. They might threaten rape to get you to pay, but most women come back saying, 'Oh I was treated well. They gave me my brand of cigarettes, when I asked.'"

One of Clayton's most important jobs in the kidnapping business is to train families and businessmen on how to be difficult targets.

"[Don't] leave from point A to point B every day at the same time. Break your routine. Have three to five different ways to get to from home to work, home to school, home to the gym. I do this when I go to the grocery store even, and it drives my wife crazy," Clayton said.

Business travelers should think about the company they represent. Is it a household name? Is their name known as the CFO or CEO of the company? If that's the case, a hotel clerk could sell information on your whereabouts to a kidnapping gang.

The lesson is one of eternal caution, but also one of hope because when there's communication from the kidnapper that's when there's the chance that a loved one can return home.

Regarding the case of Madeleine McCaan, if she has in fact been kidnapped, Clayton is not optimistic, because so far no kidnappers have contacted anyone. "I don't know if that little girl will come home," he said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events