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An American executive supervising the building of a dam in South America is kidnapped by Marxist revolutionaries who have turned to hostage-taking and drug-running to finance their operations. They demand $3 million for his return. The kidnappers hold the executive deep in the jungle, where he suffers months of malnutrition and exposure to extreme weather. Eventually, a ransom negotiator and some hired guns get him out. That’s the plot of the movie “Proof of Life,” staring Russell Crowe as the ransom negotiator and Meg Ryan as the victim’s wife. It may be an action flick, but it isn’t all that far-fetched. Government agencies, insurers and consultants all estimate that there are hundreds of kidnappings for ransom every year. Many more go unreported. Because of the planning and surveillance required to pull off a kidnapping, the victims are usually wealthy locals, but the U.S. Department of State reports that in Colombia alone at least 120 Americans have been snatched since 1980. Foreigners are specifically targeted for a relatively new type of abduction known as “express kidnapping,” in which the victim is hustled into a car and forced to make as many ATM withdrawals as possible before being kicked out of the car hours or even days later. American business travelers and those living overseas face other risks as well, which tend to vary from region to region. In Moscow and the former Soviet republics, they are subject to muggings that can be violent but usually not deadly. In the Persian Gulf, the danger today is pretty much the same as it was before 9/11: getting caught in the middle of an anti-American demonstration or otherwise being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As for kidnapping, it’s an established business in Colombia and Mexico. The attack on the World Trade Center and the globalization of the legal profession have law firms paying attention to safety overseas, even if many of them are hesitant to talk about it. “Calls from law firms in the last 12 to 15 months have gone from no calls to dozens,” says James Gordon, vice president of Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations Inc., a worldwide security firm based in North Carolina. That’s as it should be, according to Gary Hart, former U.S. senator from Colorado and now of counsel at New York’s Coudert Brothers. Hart, who was a member of the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, says firms that send people abroad need to retain a security consultant. Kroll Inc., with offices in 60 cities around the world, is one of the biggest names in the business. It offers training for business travelers that can be a little unsettling, like a simulated hostage-taking course taught in Argentina. “The location is a just a coincidence,” says James Francis, senior vice president of Kroll’s security services group. Like many of his colleagues, Francis has a background in military counterintelligence and counterterrorism. One of the centerpieces of Kroll’s operation these days is “The Crucible,” an 88-acre site in Northern Virginia that the company acquired in July. At The Crucible, former military types teach business executives how to detect surveillance and avoid abduction, during courses that can last several days. If that seems like overkill, the company has a four-hour version of the course that it will teach just about anywhere. Other offerings on the company’s syllabus include “the family plan,” which teaches families how to establish a security zone around their new overseas home and how to vet household help. Fees for the different courses vary; a couple of days at The Crucible can cost $3,000-$5,000 per person. Pinkerton and other consultants offer similar courses of study. Kroll has also partnered with iJET Travel Intelligence Inc., an Annapolis, Md., consultant, to provide “real-time destination intelligence” to companies that send their employees out of the country. For fees that start at $5,000, companies can access iJET’s database to check conditions around the globe. iJET will send updates directly to the employee on the road by e-mail, phone, fax or pager for an additional fee. The updates cover everything from traffic jams to suicide bombings. The effectiveness of these services is tough to measure — how do you count incidents that don’t happen? — but common sense suggests that they must keep at least some people out of harm’s way. As for cost-effectiveness, there are no doubts in Gordon’s mind: “The cost of hiring consultants is insignificant compared to the cost of an incident,” he says, adding, “Not using a consultant is like trying a case pro se.” Hiring a consultant might also help to limit liability in the event of an incident. New York’s Chadbourne & Parke was one of the few firms willing to talk about safety overseas. And, like other firms willing to speak for the record, its managers are not on red alert. Laura Brank, managing partner of the Moscow office, has been in Russia for seven years. She says that until 1999, employees were required to keep an open plane ticket out of the country at all times, but that is no longer considered necessary. Now Brank just tells new lawyers reporting to the office to register with the American embassy and to sign up at the American health clinic. Brank says that a couple of people have been mugged over the years, but nothing more serious than that has happened. “I don’t see Moscow being particularly worse than New York or London,” she says. Six expats are currently assigned to her office. Nabil Khodadad is in charge of Chadbourne’s Central Asia practice, which he runs from London. For the past eight years he has devoted much of his practice to the Commonwealth of Independent States, as the former Soviet Union is now known. He says that conditions in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where Chadbourne has an office, are benign. “Americans are pretty popular, and law and order is good,” he says. After 9/11, however, employees have been required to keep an open plane ticket out of the country. The two Chadbourne offices have some features in common that enhance security, even if the folks actually on the ground say they feel pretty safe. Both offices are located in gated compounds with other foreign companies. Both stick to a vetted car service. Each office maintains an evacuation plan in case of war or terror: Uzbekistan goes to Moscow; Moscow goes to Finland. On the other hand, neither office has retained a consultant, and “family plans” are considered unnecessary. A handful of other firms were willing to provide limited information. At Chicago-based Baker & McKenzie, with 64 offices in 35 countries, lawyers are expected to look after themselves, according to chief operating officer Peter Smith. In cities where the firm has an office, “local advice is readily on hand,” he says. For lawyers on the road, the firm assumes that they take the normal precautions any traveler would take. Smith declined to talk about specific cities. Cleveland’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, with offices around the globe, says it assigns a person in the local office to brief new arrivals on safety. Finally, New York’s White & Case reports no problems in the Persian Gulf. “Our lawyers who are active in the Gulf have continued their work and have reported that business is going on as usual,” a spokesperson for the firm said. What about kidnapping and ransom insurance, the exotic product that brought negotiator Russell Crowe to Meg Ryan’s side in “Proof of Life”? It may fascinate civilians, but buyers and sellers of “K&R,” as it’s known in the insurance industry, won’t say much about it. Hiscox Plc, a London insurer, estimates that it’s a $100 million annual business. Stephen Leggett, senior vice president for insurer Willis of New York Inc., would only say, “Law firms have bought policies.” The experts were more than willing, however, to disclose the easiest way to avoid an incident in the first place: Arrange local transportation through a trusted source.
FIVE RULES FOR AVOIDING TROUBLE OVERSEAS 1.Divulge travel plans guardedly. Is that concierge trustworthy? 2.Dress inconspicuously, and leave the flashy jewelry at home. 3.Vary your routine. Dinner at the same time, same place, is risky. 4.Safeguard travel papers and personal information. 5.Be reasonably paranoid about strangers and unlit streets.

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