The following recommendations are a result of my travel throughout the world on business for 20+ years. These observations are offered as a helpful supplement to other sources on the web dealing with personal security issues while traveling. My apologies to those who do not find these observations pertinent to their particular situation. Allow me to say that these suggestions are offered freely and without restriction so they may be passed around with no obligation. Very little of this information is original to me, and I apologize if anyone has written anything similar. Also, I am not a security professional and make no claims of expertise. This stuff works for me, but each reader's mileage may vary. Some of my ideas might actually get people in trouble with the authorities and/or cause physical harm. Please read this with an open mind and a critical eye. Comments are appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lots of US Embassy staff, host country Federal Police and Army staff gave me input, horror stories and advice regarding personal safety issues while I was visiting and working in overseas markets. These were Latin America, but including trips to Western European and Pacific Rim countries. I also have input from international and US expatriates living and working there. I know that many people have a lot of experience in many different countries, and may honestly laugh at all these ideas and issues presented here as stupid and alarmist. How you take it is your business. It is submitted in serious concern for the safety of all international travelers.
It was necessary for me to learn this stuff because I have lived and worked outside the US most of my life. I first traveled internationally in the 1960s and retired in 2005 to live in Argentina. I hope you can understand that the world in post 9-11 has really changed. Radicals of the right, the left and the lunatic religious extreme and NarcoTerrorists all celebrated when the twin towers went down. You should also be aware that even pre 9-11, international travel was seriously more dangerous than it was in the 1960s. Now, bad guys all over the world have become more encouraged by their perception that bad guys can get away with bad stuff... hence, have become more aggressive.
This article contains various types of info, including some info that may not be of interest to all travelers. I hope you will find some of the following items of interest including...
- Things you may do to prepare yourself for the unfamiliar security issues in unfamiliar territory.
- Questions you may be asking and factors that may be considered based upon the situation in your area of destination.
- Items for which you may be alert that may indicate possible threats to your person or valuables.
- Travel Tips which include how to research the area, sources of information, planning ahead, blending in to your surroundings for safety, etc.
- Dressing for success. How to maintain an edge in your favor in dangerous areas. Potential weapons/tools to aid in your security efforts.
- Dealing with the stress of being a victim
- Dealing with Terror concerns, broken down by world areas.
Try to familiarize yourself with the area you plan to visit. There are various aggregators of news that allow one to program their search “bots” to look for keywords involving your area of interest. I use Yahoo News, Dogpile News Search element and some others. I also look for the local news sources for the area in question on the web. Here are some questions you should consider when seeking information about your geographical area of interest.
- Are terrorist/organized criminal groups currently active in the area?
- Do they aggressively attack visiting foreigners? Or, is it more local-on-local crime?
- How active are they? How violent have they proven to be within the last 4 – 12 months?
- How sophisticated are they? Do they use military weapons and tactics?
- Are they predictable? Can you expect to be safer by staying out of known areas of operation?
- Will local citizens warn visiting foreigners? Do you have local contacts who can advise you?
Groups and individuals have demonstrated their willingness to employ terrorist/criminal tactics to further their agendas. While some threats have a regional focus, others have become international and affect multiple areas. Foreign visitors, military and diplomatic staff are seriously targeted in virtually every region of the world.
ALWAYS PLAY THE “WHAT IF... ?” SCENARIO GAME
Consider ways you might become a victim of a criminal/NarcoTerrorist attack. Several factors to keep in mind include:
Location: Local terrorists may target locations frequented by foreigners or foreign military personnel such as certain hotels, apartment buildings, public transportation centers, and nightclubs. Avoid possible target locations. They often use the employees of foreigner frequented establishments, taxi drivers, airport staff (especially banking/money changing establishment personnel) and adult entertainment workers as associates or sources of information about possible lucrative targets.
Opportunity: Terrorists and criminals look for "soft targets"... so, learn to avoid appearing so. It is difficult to over stress the need to maintain vigilance, practice good personal safety, and to alert the proper authorities of suspicious behavior. If you find yourself unable to avoid being outdoors at night, try to walk down the middle of the street (not always possible). Be especially watchful if passing a large van or a vehicle with people in it, courtyards and deep doorways near your path. Walk purposefully with strong, determined strides... shoulders back, head erect, head and eyes constantly moving. Use windows/mirrors near the street to check your surroundings. Under no circumstances allow anyone to engage you in conversation at this time. Criminals will try to slow you down while their helpers get into position to assault you. Keep moving, speak into your cell phone as if carrying on a conversation... preferably in a language you think the 3333possible attackers don't know.
To attack you, terrorists generally must perceive you, your association, or your location as a target. Put serious thought on the subject of how to avoid appearing to be an easy target.
Be alert for how criminals/NarcoTerrorists prepare and conduct attacks through predictable steps. Through vigilance, you might be able to recognize preparations for an attack before it is executed. Be alert to unusual behavior that may indicate intelligence gathering, surveillance, collecting materials for attack, dry runs, and rehearsals. For example:
- Taking photos or videos of potential targets
- Writing notes or sketching details about a possible target
- Showing abnormal attention to details of routine activities and security measures
- Using false identification
- Paying cash for items normally bought on credit
- Purchasing large quantities of items that could be used as part of an attack (e.g., chemicals or cell phones)
If you see something unusual, report it immediately to security officials for further investigation. Make a note of the individual's description and activities, the time of day, and equipment being used.
Terrorist/criminal attacks at the Spanish/English/Japanese rail systems, Mexican border towns, Bali, Indonesia, Luxor, Egypt, London, England, and other tourist locations signal an increased threat to foreign travelers.
While visiting a new location, it is natural to tour local sites of interest. While sightseeing, you should keep good anti-crime/antiterrorism practices in mind.
- Research any known potential threats in the area. If the threat is elevated, take extra precautions or postpone your activities.
- Plan activities and a route that includes safe locations. Keep thinking, “What if...”
- Ask a friend or coworker to join you – small groups are usually safer than individuals.
If sightseeing with others, pre-designate a location to meet at if separated during an emergency. Make sure someone knows your itinerary (acquaintances, business contacts, hotel staff?) and what time you may be returning.
Blend in to Your Surroundings
Conceal your national/business/religious affiliation and try to blend in with other people on the street. USA red white and blue t-shirts, soccer/baseball logo clothing and religious jewelry are overly conspicuous in many instances. Observe and conform to local culture. Activities such as public displays of affection, drinking alcohol, or wearing shorts or skirts may be inappropriate.
Do not bring undue attention to yourself. Avoid loud or boisterous behavior. Walking the streets at night in an inebriated state in very dangerous in many locations.
- Taxis: Try to never travel alone in a taxi. Try to never take a taxi off the street. Try to always have a taxi company's business card in your pocket and call or have someone call the cab for you. If not, a taxicab stand is the next best solution. Even US embassy marines have to take these precautions, and we know they're in good shape... pretty tough in a fight. They are also excellent sources of good local information. Unfortunately, one of the thriving businesses in criminal/NarcoTerror Land is to pick up a rich guy (you) off the street in a taxi, and around the corner are two additional thugs with guns who escort you to a quiet place, strip the rich guy, take his luggage, etc. If a VISA or debit card is found, they will escort you to an ATM and make you withdraw the daily limit before they strip you naked and leave you on the side of the road. Unless they are impressed with what they find among your effects, Then the thugs may decide it's worth a try to sell you to the NarcoTerrorists (drug traffickers). They may ask for US$5,000 - US$15,000, knowing the NarcoTerrorists' usual minimum demand for ransom is US$250,000. Then, you may spend the next several years of your life chained to a tree in the jungle swatting mosquitoes and eating undercooked beans.
- If you or your taxi driver notices a suspicious vehicle or two in the vicinity, consider asking the taxi driver to take you to the nearest police station... or high traffic area.
- If you must drive a vehicle and your budget does not include an armored vehicle with “run-flat” tires preceded by a “chase” car and a following “blocker” van full of armed bodyguards, then try to rent/select an 4-wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance. A heavy-duty bumper is a good idea for running through barricades. If you see a police roadblock manned by only one or two officers and one (or NO) clearly official vehicle, consider running the roadblock or going around it. You may prefer to reverse out of the area quickly to a place where you can turn around and leave the area. If it is really a fake-cop scam (or, off-duty/retired cops pulling a scam), you should be okay. You may really need a heavy duty vehicle for this maneuver. If is a legitimate control point/official police roadblock and they catch you, humbly and very politely explain that you are sorry and will never do it again, but a friend of yours warned against false roadblocks by criminals/NarcoTerrorists. All around the world, official roadblocks usually have many, many clearly marked police vehicles and uniformed/heavily armed officers. Don't forget that NarcoTerrorists have Police uniforms and equipment, too... but, usually not too many official vehicles.
- If you happen to be driving down a street and one or more people run out in front of the car in an attempt to stop you, Do not hesitate to slam down the accelerator as if you are trying to hit them. They will get out of the way.
- If you are in a known area for auto-related crime and someone rear-ends your vehicle as if on purpose, consider leaving the scene as rapidly as possible. This is a serious “What if... ?” scenario.
- In many countries, police understand if you slow down but fail to stop at traffic lights and stop signs after dark because it is known to be too dangerous at night.
- Be aware that motorcycles and scooters are not always a good idea if you have to try to escape while someone is shooting at you. Car sheet metal isn't much, but every little bit helps.
- ATMs: Try to only go to an ATM in the daytime anywhere in the world. Even in the US. Also, pay attention to who is in the area before, during and after getting your money. Situational awareness is difficult when you're trying to get the pesky machine to work... so, consider not going to an ATM alone.
- Buses: Until 1995, I always felt safe taking the bus. I would still take the Nuevo Laredo - Monterrey bus, but probably think twice about taking one in the Juarez/Chihuaua or Sinaloa state areas. Why? The various Colombian and Mexican NarcoTerror groups stop buses full of people as bait to get the rescuing government forces to move into kill zones where improvised explosive devices (IEDs) take them out. I have seen the results first hand, and seeing where 40+ teenage army guys got brutally cut to pieces by home-made bombs will mess up your whole life.
If you happen to be one of the poor guys shivering naked on the side of the road with 20-30 others watching the NarcoTraficantes molest the women passengers, understand that you will spend the next several years of your life eating beans in the jungle. Poor folks get to go home, except for the young and pretty girls and teenage boys they want to draft for paramilitary service for the NarcoTraficantes .
The NarcoTraficantes are studying in the same Islamic extremist terror schools as Al Qaeda, and Colombian/Mexican NarcoTraficantes' IEDs are really starting to show up a lot more... in recent cases, bait and blast techniques were used in the south of Mexico to kill lots of soldiers and Federal Police.
At an outdoor table of any restaurant, don't leave your phone, camera, purse or any other valuables in plain sight or within reach of the walking public. Try to sit as far from vehicular/pedestrian traffic as possible. As always, play the “What if... ? Game” and remain alert to your surroundings. Jenna Bush's purse was jacked in full daylight in Buenos Aires,when she was surrounded by agents.
When leaving a high-end location, such as an electronics store, Armani, etc, an expensive restaurant or nice hotel, you may have just identified yourself as a potential high-end target. If you are carrying packages, and you put them into an automobile, please try to secure the items in the trunk or a lockable compartment and be aware that you will possibly be followed by thugs with evil intent to your next location. If you are in a Range Rover or Cadillac Esplanade, you should understand that you are in a rolling high-value target, with little or no inside secure storage. If you stop and leave the vehicle in any unsecured location after being seen exiting a high-end location, don't be too surprised if you come back later to find the locks broken or the vehicle stolen.
A wallet is a liability, and I never carry one. I wear a slim, zippered pouch between my T-shirt and external shirt/sweater for credit cards, driving license and copies (not originals) of my passport, birth certificate, travel or residency documents. Sometimes, I prefer a photographer's vest with lots of internal/external zippered or Velcro pockets. This vest can contain as much as a small suitcase... currently, about four kilos of stuff. Fanny packs are less secure, so I usually just put reading material, inexpensive sunglasses, gum, etc in them. Cameras/GPSs and other high-end items are secured in Velcro pockets in the vest or coat pocket. As a side note, I have copied and reduced in size all my important documents for daily carry and emailed these [scanned] copies [as PDFs] to several of my web-based e-mail accounts so I can replace them at any time from any internet/print location.
The amount of cash I carry is as small as possible. I keep large denomination bills in a money clip in the bottom of one front pocket with a handkerchief crushed down on top of it. The handkerchief is super important, because the pickpocket has to go around it to get to the real goodies. Another money clip contains the daily allotment of small bills is in another front pocket, so I don't have to flash large bills for most purchases. It is also crammed down in the bottom of the front pocket with another handkerchief crammed on top of it. The bulk of my funds, original passport and other documents, valuables, etc are kept in a Wal-Mart small combination safe that fits in my luggage, which I check in at the front office safe at the hotel when traveling. Note that I do not agree with several recommendations that a “decoy wallet” stuffed with paper be carried to toss away so as to distract attackers. I prefer throwing my decoy stash of small denomination bills to scatter everywhere as a more time consuming distraction for a better chance of escape.
Most complaints regarding theft, damage or loss involves the contents of luggage. Savvy travelers will make a written inventory of items in their luggage and photograph it in case of loss. Carry important items like medication, eyeglasses, and expensive jewelry in your hand luggage, a traveler's vest like photographers use to carry their small equipment items, etc. My vest holds up to 8 kilos of goodies. Photocopy the contents of your wallet and your passport. Carry a copy in your hand luggage and leave one at home as back up. Keep luggage under your control until you check in at your destination. Consider traveling with sturdy plain-looking luggage. Expensive looking luggage may be targeted for its perceived contents. External bag tags should not list your full home address and telephone number. I put my cell phone number, my phone number and email address on my tags. I do not put my name or any affiliations on bag tags. Consider defacing your beautiful luggage with big bands of tape all around the outside, laterally, with your phone numbers, email, etc in case of loss.
Consider durable luggage that is capable of being locked or secured and that will withstand being at the bottom of a pile of hundreds of other pieces of luggage without popping open. It is a good idea to add extra banding... $5 for a wide nylon strap with side snap locks at Wal-Mart... or airport plastic wrap or duct tape to your luggage locks to prevent anyone from opening your luggage without detection. When flying, I do not lock my bags so inspectors do not break the locks. I use self-locking plastic tie-wraps. They work well for securing my luggage. All airport inspectors have replacements if they have to cut your ties to inspect your bags. You can buy these at any home improvement store for about a dollar. The reason for this is that smugglers have been known to slip drugs/weapons, etc into luggage only to retrieve it later and maybe with force. Passengers have unknowingly transported illegal substances/firearms that were slipped into their suitcase by baggage handlers only to be arrested later by authorities. What explanation you would give to prove your innocence to a foreign government of why you are carrying drugs or guns? If your luggage was properly sealed, you should see if it has been tampered with prior to opening it. Report any luggage tampering immediately to security before opening the case.
Luggage locks: If there is a combination lock on the bag, I put a piece of tape on the bag under the lock with the combo... usually, 0-0-0. This is because my bag was seriously harmed by customs forcing the bag open even though it as unlocked. A sign of the times, no?
Airplane security: Beyond the obvious precautions, I would suggest trying to reserve a window seat as close to the middle of the cabin as possible. The rear and front of each cabin is where the bad guys congregate to watch over the victims. Consider what you can do to avoid being obvious about your business/military/nationality/religious affiliations.
Cruise Ship Security
Cruise ships are like a small city where passengers are encouraged to forget their troubles and relax once onboard ship. It is natural for passengers on vacation to let their guard down, especially when out to sea in a resort-like setting. Try to not let a false sense of security aboard a cruise ruin your vacation by becoming a crime victim. Before you ship out, consider taking some of these preventative steps:
After you enter your cabin, and while the door is still open, always check inside the bathroom or closest before sitting down inside. Don’t assume that your cabin is as secure as a hotel. Many people have keys to your cabin and your cabin door may be left standing open for hours while the cleaning crews or cabin steward services the room. Cabin doors locks are sometimes horribly outdated and are not re-keyed as frequently as hotel rooms. Obviously, don’t leave valuable items lying around. It is a good idea to have inventoried your luggage and photographed expensive items at home, and even emailed the info to your web email account for easy retrieval anywhere before you packed them at home in case of loss. Since most ship passengers are set up on a charge account system, be sure to use the ship safe deposit box for storage of valuable items, papers, credit cards or extra cash. Use all locks on the cabin door including the night latch. Consider carrying a hardware store door stop in your luggage and deploying it for extra security of the closed door while in the cabin. Some are available with alarms from web suppliers. Don’t open your cabin door to strangers. Whatever the person wants can be expressed from the other side of the closed and locked door. Be sure to teach children about this important procedure.
Just like in a hotel, protect your cabin key and cabin number. Dishonest crew or passengers will look for the opportunity to snatch a loose key or one that is left unattended. When in port, be sure to leave your key with the registration desk before disembarking.
Remember the phony hairspray/deodorant can safe if small items need to be secured and no safe is available. Once on board and out to sea, don’t assume that you are totally safe from criminal acts. While there is little danger of an outside predator robbing or attacking you on a cruise ship, crimes can just as easily be committed by crew members or by fellow passengers. Many cruise lines hire transient and seasonal employees at low wages. Because of this, turnover is high and cruise lines struggle to keep a ship fully staffed. While most crew members are hardworking and honest people, you cannot assume that the ship has properly screened that nice cabin attendant, waiter or below deck crew.. Consider a Family Security Plan: If you bring your children aboard, be sure to establish family rules in advance. Set curfews and restrictions...just like at home. Teenagers especially should be told never to accompany crew members into non-public areas nor should crew members be allowed inside your cabin. Being at sea can cause a false sense of security. Even though the crime incident rate per thousand is relatively low, there can still be predators on board. Ship nightclubs, casinos, swimming pools and Jacuzzis are favorite spots for those looking for a victim.
You also need to keep your guard up with intoxicated passengers. Food and liquor consumption peaks on board ships and cause bring out the worst in some people not used to it. Just because passengers are dressed up, doesn’t mean they will act appropriately or not be overly aggressive. It is not unheard of for a ship passenger to slip a drug into your drink and take advantage of you just like on shore. There are pickpockets, purse thieves, and cabin burglars on board waiting for you to let your guard down or become careless. There are also scam artists who seek and prey on rich vacationers if given the chance.
Your family security plan for children might include bed checks, curfews, restrictions, and special meeting places. Beware of which children they hang out with, just like at home. Your children can be exposed to other children who use drugs or like to get into mischief, just like at home. Try to limit your child to ship sponsored activities in public areas. You should make contact with your children periodically even if they are supervised. Giving them the run of the ship while you are otherwise engaged is not a good idea. Always have a backup plan and identify a ship crew member as a contact person in case your child fails to show up or you get separated at a port. Make certain that the kids understand there is nothing you can do to retrieve a kid from the police if they are caught in a foreign country with contraband.
You are not in Kansas anymore. Although you boarded a ship in a US port doesn’t mean that you are protected by the US justice system. Most ships are registered in non-US countries and travel in territorial waters where US laws might not apply. The cruise industry does not report crime data consistently, if at all, to the FBI or have a database of ships with the most crime problems. Shipboard crimes sometimes fall into a "no man's land" of law enforcement. A crime can occur between two people of different nationalities, on a ship from a third country, and in the territorial waters of a fourth country. The governing law is the International Maritime Law and is not as well developed as US law. Reporting a crime on board a cruise ship doesn't mean anything will be done or that the crime will ever be investigated. The FBI is the only US law enforcement agency that can investigate a major crime but only if it occurs in International waters, otherwise crimes are reported to the jurisdiction of the closest foreign country and to the embassies of the parties involved. Prosecution of crime, in many cases, will be left in the hands of the local port authority where no one can predict the outcome.
Be aware that if you or your family member gets into trouble on board a ship or in a port, you may be held accountable to the laws of a foreign country. The thing to do is to stay alert, be cautious, and stay safe while at sea. For details on the safety record of your cruise ship or how your ship will handle problems such are lost luggage or crime acts, contact the cruise line directly and ask for written disclosure of their policies and regulations. You can also contact the Cruise Lines International Association in New York City who represents the twenty five largest cruise lines for more information.
Security in a Hotel
Most hotels are protected by the individual country's innkeeper laws. In most cases, these laws clearly state that the hotel is not responsible for theft from your room... including the convenient room safe. If you are in a rented apartment for a longer stay, you are entirely unprotected against loss. Some travelers are hiding small, high-value items, money, etc in the small “diversion safe”. This is a common item such as a large can of aerosol deodorant that is really an empty can with a removable screw-off lid. Be sure to stuff a hand towel or handkerchief, wad of paper, etc on top to prevent rattling of the items in the can. I recommend using the front desk lock box when possible, thereby making the hotel responsible in most places.
Upper floors are safer from crime, but worse for fire rescue. Emergency rescue is best below the fifth floor. I compromise by picking a modern fire-safe hotel and always request a room on an upper floor to reduce crime exposure. Ground floor rooms are more vulnerable to crime problems because of access and ease of escape. In a high-rise building, rooms above the fifth-floor are usually safer from crime than those below because of lesser accessibility and ease of escape. Also, rooms not adjacent to fire stairs are safer from room invaders because they use them for escape. Criminals do not want to be trapped on an upper floor inside a high-rise hotel. By design, high-rise buildings usually have fewer ground level access points and are easier for the hotel staff to monitor who passes through the access points after hours.
Door Security Hardware
Hotel or motel rooms should be equipped with a solid-core wood or metal door for best protection. Doors should be self-closing and self-locking. Room doors should have a deadbolt lock with at least a one-inch throw bolt. If the lock appears worn or there are pry marks around the lock area, get another room or move to another hotel. The knob-lock should be hotel-style where you can push a button on the inside knob and block out all keys. This feature is designed to prevent a former guest or housekeeper from entering the room once you are safely inside. Hotels with electronic card access have the advantage of being able to disable former key cards issued to previous guests and unauthorized employees. Electronic locks also will block out most room service keys when you set the deadbolt. The room door should have a wide-angle peephole so you can view who is at the door before opening.
Do not open your door to someone who knocks unannounced. Some criminals will pretend to be a bellman, room service, maintenance, or even hotel security to gain admittance to your room. Always call the front desk to confirm their status with the hotel and only open the door if you requested the service. Do not rely on door chains or swing bars to secure the doors while you partially open the door to speak someone. These are unreliable security devices. Teach your children not to open the door of any hotel room without knowing the person on the other side and without your permission.
Other Entry Points
Make sure all windows and sliding doors are secured, if they are accessible from the ground. It is a good idea to test all windows and glass doors to see if they are secure. Beware of balconies where someone can climb from one to another and enter through an open window or sliding door. If the windows or sliding doors are not securable, ask for another room or find another hotel. If your room has an adjoining door to an adjacent room, check it to see that it is secured with a deadbolt lock. If it is questionable, ask for another room.
Beware the Parking Lot
If you are a woman traveling alone or with small children, take advantage of car valet service, if available to avoid the parking lot. After checking-in, ask the bellman or desk clerk to escort you to your room. After unlocking the room, quickly inspect the closets, under the bed, and bathroom including behind the shower curtain before the bellman leaves. Tip the bellman for his efforts.
Put the Do-Not-Disturb sign on the doorknob even when you are away, this deters room burglars (it may affect housekeeping service, however). Turn on the television or radio just loud enough to hear through the door to give the appearance that the room is occupied. Leave one light on inside the room if you will return after dark. This helps you see upon re-entry and gives the room the appearance of occupancy from the outside. Always go through the same room inspection routine every time you re-enter. People traveling alone should use caution when using the breakfast order door-knob hanger card, especially if the card lists your name and number of persons in the room. A smart crook can knock on the door posing as room service and use your name as a ruse to gain entry.
When you find a suitable hotel that meets your safety standards and will cater to your security needs try to stick with it or with the same hotel chain. Don't be afraid to complain to management to get the safe room you deserve.
- Consider requesting a room on an upper floor, if possible.
- A solid door with a good deadbolt lock is best.
- Electronic card access locks help limit access.
- Make sure your door has a peephole and night latch and use it.
- Turn on the TV or radio just loud enough to hear through the door.
- Turn on a single light in the room if you plan to return after dark.
- Inspect the room hiding places upon entering and check all locks.
- Ask the bellman for an escort and use valet parking if alone
Hotel Room Invasions
One of the more frightening and potentially dangerous crimes that can occur to a family or business traveler is a hotel room invasion robbery. A hotel room invasion occurs when robbers force their way into an occupied hotel or motel room to commit a robbery or other crimes. It is frightening because it violates our private space and the one place that acts as our temporary sanctuary while away from home. Some travelers never recover from the experience of being assaulted while in a hotel room in a strange city.
Like the crime of carjacking, most police agencies don’t track home or hotel room invasions as a separate crime. Most police agencies and the FBI will statistically record the crime as a residential burglary or a robbery. Without the ability to track the specific crime of hotel room invasion, little can be done to alert the public as to the frequency of occurrence or devise a law enforcement plan of action to prevent it.
How Invasions are Carried Out
Hotel burglars work mostly during the day and when a room is more likely to be unoccupied. Most burglars work alone, or with hotel staff informants and tend to probe a hotel looking for the right room and the right opportunity. Access control systems, good building design, strong locks and doors, and alert hotel staff can often deter burglars. Also, burglars don’t want to be confronted and will usually flee when approached. Most burglaries do not result in violence unless the criminal is cornered and uses force to escape.
Hotel room invasion robbers, in contrast, work more often at night when rooms are more likely to be occupied and less staff is on duty. The hotel room invaders usually target the occupant and room location and not necessarily the hotel. The selection process may include women traveling alone or senior citizens, or known drug dealers, or wealthy travelers, for example. It is not unusual for a robber to follow the victim to their hotel room based on the value of the car they were driving or the jewelry or clothes they were wearing... even being seen exiting a high-end retail establishment or restaurant can cause one to be targeted and followed. Hotel room invaders have been known to work casinos and watch for guests flashing large sums of money or jewelry. Hotel room invaders usually work alone or with just one accomplice and they rely on an overwhelming physical confrontation to gain control and instill fear in the room occupants.
The violence occurs instantly with an overwhelming explosive force to take control of the room. The hotel room invaders often come equipped with handcuffs, rope, tape, and weapons. Some hotel room robbers appear to enjoy the intimidation, domination, and violence and some claim it is a "rush." Some hotel robbers are also opportunist rapist and may sexually assault their victims.
The act of committing a hotel room invasion is escalating much like carjacking. The reason for the increase seems to follow a similar pattern. Much like automobiles, the traditional commercial targets for robbers have hardened themselves against criminal attack. Technology has allowed commercial establishments to install better locks, and other anti-crime deterrent devices.
Guest room robbers have privacy once inside and don’t have to deal with security or hotel staff or other guests who might suddenly appear. Once the offenders take control of a guest room, they can force the occupants to open room safes, locate hidden valuables, supply keys to the car, and PIN numbers to their ATM cards. Guest room robbers will increase their escape time by disabling the phones and sometimes leave their victims bound or incapacitated. It is not unheard of for robbers to load up the victim’s car with valuables and drive away without anyone in the hotel taking notice.
Method of Operation: The most common point of attack is through the guest room door or patio door. Sometimes the hotel room invader will simply kick open the door and confront everyone inside. More common is when the hotel room invaders knock on the door first. The room invader hopes that the occupant will simply open the door, without question, in response to their knock. Unfortunately, many people do just that.
Guest room robbers will sometimes use a ruse or impersonation to get you to open the door. They have been known to pretend to be room service, housekeeping, security, or delivering flowers. Clever room robbers might hold a room service tray or flowers in view of the peephole to further the impersonation. Once the door is opened for them, the hotel room invaders will use an explosive amount of force and threats to gain control of the room and produce fear in the victims. Once the occupants are under control, the robbers will begin to collect your portable valuables.
Another tactic is for a robber to select a victim in the lobby and ride up in the elevator with them. They will get off on the same floor and pretend walk behind you as if going to their room. This means you need to return to the elevator and return to the lobby. Once the guest opens their door, the robber will force his way in behind them and make his demand.
Weapons: A Slight Edge
If you habitually carry a firearm, you tend to feel naked without one on your person while in unfamiliar circumstances. Except for active duty military or law enforcement, it is difficult to get the paperwork necessary to legally carry a firearm in a foreign country. Carrying an illegal firearm is a really, really bad idea in an unfamiliar country. Severe penalties, up to and including the death penalty, ensue if caught at it. While Mexico is currently a more dangerous place that either Iraq or Afghanistan, please understand that if NarcoTerrorists get their hands on you, you will be faced with 15 – 20 guys with AKs and M4s. Your measly popgun will just be added to their collection. Going about unarmed in potentially dangerous territory means that situational awareness and “What if...?” scenario planning are not optional.
My favorite defense tools include a stun gun, and a metal extendable police baton, camouflaged with a small flashlight replacement for the end ferrule. It looks like a typical metal body flashlight, and the police don't question it. Both the flashlight extension and the baton were purchased for less than USD40 on eBay. For less than USD40 I bought a stun gun with a personal alarm and a flashlight as well as 100v stun buttons on top all included on a unit camouflaged as a cell phone. This is great... though, it will not pass close inspection as a cell phone. What is really good about it is the Argentine thieves usually demand your cell phone and your money, giving no alerts as you reach toward him with a cell phone stun gun. Also, it is very useful in a dark, dangerous area to have it up to your face pretending to talk on it so deployment is almost instantaneous. In less dangerous environments, it rides quite openly and comfortably in a cell phone carrier on my belt. Neither of these items pass airport security inspection for carrying on one's person or carry-on luggage. Checked luggage should be okay. You stand a very good chance to be arrested if you forget. I forgot once, and was able to talk my way out of getting arrested after surrendering my extendable baton.
One should be able to get by with taking a ground-down razor sharp screwdriver and/or a multi-tool with a knife blade inside checked luggage. These are handy to carry while in unfamiliar surroundings. I put a plastic barrel of a ball-point pen over the sharp blade of the screwdriver, and it sits upright... held in place by yet another handkerchief... in my left-hand hip pocket. I have practiced with this item until I can whip it out and strike a telling defensive blow in less than a half second. These items pass inspection as tools you just happen to have on you. I sometimes use a belt with a push-blade knife concealed in the belt buckle. My Colombian and Argentine police buddies say that they would not even be suspicious or think of being suspicious of such items, since they don't run into them often... if ever. The Mexican police are a bit more suspicious of such items because they see stuff like this all the time with lots of Mexican nationals just released from prison in the US, as well as weekend commandos from the US. Again, one would face a high probability of arrest and detention if caught attempting to board an airplane with such items on one's person or hand luggage.
See the TSA web site. You can carry pepper spray in checked luggage on some airlines. Local cops that are not trying to rip you off typically won't hassle you for having it for self defense. It is not against the law in any part of the world that I am aware of. An Example: Two US guys off a private sailboat walking down the street in beautiful downtown Cartegena, Colombia in broad daylight when five thugs armed with knives tried to pull them into an alley to have their dastardly way. The sailors applied pepper spray and fled easily. The cops were televised grinning and slapping the sailors' backs in congratulation for having foiled the crooks. The reports talked a lot about the fact that the sailors had used pepper spray, and marveling at the fact that the pepper spray had so effectively disabled the crooks that they were still coughing and spitting 20 minutes later when the cops arrested them.
The small, compressed gas capsicum pepper spray canister can easily fit in the pocket, even on a key chain and is available anywhere. These canisters are usually available for purchase in any country, perhaps in a salvage/surplus/sporting goods retailer. If you prefer, It is legal to carry a small plastic bottle or baggie with cayenne pepper in checked luggage on an airplane. You could also carry an EMPTY plastic squeeze bottle, and mix up a little cocktail in the bottle with the pepper when you get access to some water at your location. I haven't used it on humans, but it worked really, really well on uncontrolled dogs trying to chase me down the street. Again, carry these items in checked luggage only.
The good news is that accurately applied pepper compounds really work. I have seen very tall, large muscle bound guys rolling on the ground screaming for their mommy, while the petite 4 foot 9 inch lady at their side is just crying quietly. The bad news is, don't bring pepper spray to a gunfight. Also, I have used pepper spray on guys lit to the gills on crystal meth doesn't work. Doesn't even slow 'em down. A really, really drunk Mejicano I used it on also didn't seem to notice.
Like anything else, pepper spray defense is an excellent option for most people, and can be considered legal almost everywhere. However, it requires good judgment and adult behavior.
An Example: Not so long ago, two US guys were leaving their sailboat in an African port. It was around sundown, and they were walking to a restaurant about a mile away. They noticed a group of locals giving them the eye as the sailors ambled away. They soon passed beyond sight of any passers by.. The dock areas were deserted. They noticed a guy running parallel to them on a path about 50 yards away in their direction of travel. They realized that they were in trouble... unarmed at night and in a foreign port with no witnesses. Sure enough, the thug ran up even to them and held them at bay 30 feet away with a pistol as his two thug friends came running up from behind. Even with martial arts training, this was the perfect setup for the thugs... no way to reach the guy with the gun before suffering serious injury, two unarmed thugs shaking them down for all their valuables. The even lost their secret hideaway stashes, and were stripped of all of their goodies. They later said the thugs searched them from the skin out, including shoes. And only the crotch area was safe. Because they were unarmed, they were left alive. The criminal with the gun had the drop on them... going for a gun would have resulted in sustaining serious injuries. This was not a scenario for a quick-draw exhibition. The police and port officials reported that the tourists were lucky. The hijack group was highly experienced and professional. Mostly, the less professional groups in the area at that time just shot you dead and took what they wanted.
What have we learned from this? Playing the “What if... ?” game, we may make suggestions.
- If you are leaving a safe place in an unsafe general area (in this case, an African port... there are no “safe” ports in Africa), consider calling a taxi to come collect you. Please do not take an un-summoned taxi off the street. You want to avoid being taken around the corner so a hostile group can rob you. Having the dispatcher know which driver collected you is your best safety net.
- If a group of local idlers are eying you, you are probably being sized up as a target. Return to a safe area... in this case, the secure marina, and call a taxi.
- If despite your best efforts you are approached by a criminal group as professional as described, your best course of action is to submit, as did the unarmed victims in this example. Please believe me when I say that you will instantly recognize a well-planned assault. The guys in this example lived through the experience, and we can learn from them.
In this instance they had a few moments after noticing the running gunman where they could have drawn their firearms. When I carry a weapon in a dangerous area, I carry it in a shopping bag or a folded magazine/newspaper... even a hat or cap... with my hand on the grip, finger off the trigger. Just drape a handkerchief over your cocked and locked pistol if necessary, keep your ready weapon in a convenient pocket or under your shirt... but you must have your firearm in your hand ready to use, not holstered. I practice these things in the safety of my home. With 20/20 hindsight, several people were going to get hurt that night if the victims had at least one firearm in their hand... but, at the time, they had no knowledge that the usual practice was to kill the victims, and might have hesitated to fire. They would have guiltily realized at this time that they should not have been there in the first place... realizing that they had ignored the danger clues when leaving the secure marina. They might have realized that their many hours of target practice were not sufficient for a situation requiring split-second instinctive shooting at someone who had 'the drop' on them and would be shooting at them. The only chance with a weapon in this scenario would be to turn to face their attacker, cooly bring up the pistol up and take their best shot. The chances of this action being successful were not good even if they already had the gun out and ready.
Gunfights are serious matters. The outcome is serious... as the book says, No Second Place Winner. Using a firearm to wound or kill an attacker will change your life forever. We all have to look at a gunfight as an admission of guilt, of failure. You probably shouldn't have been there in the first place. A gunfight is evidence of bad judgment, unless it happens defending your family in your own home, a carjacking, etc. We must plan to be arrested after such an incident, and carry local phone numbers of attorneys/embassy officials/personal and/or business acquaintances for notification of your situation. Also, it is important to know the local laws regarding such incidents. It would be a good idea to read up on gunfights and take an instinctive shooting course if you plan to travel armed. Most importantly, practice, practice, practice.
If using a semi-auto, arm yourself with a CO2 pistol as close to the type you will be using, practice drawing and firing BBs as trained in an instinctive shooting course. Practice walking, running or sitting while shooting. Practice shooting from different types of cover from different positions. Practice instinctive shooting in low light conditions. I use my J-frame .357 with wax bullets/primers/plastic shells that I make up myself. My friends who hate guns actually enjoy this activity and look at it as play. I don't. I practice at 7 – 15 feet--about the useful range for a wax bullet--shooting at a cardboard poster. You can just tape a silhouette target over a cardboard box. You must literally train for hundreds of hours if you want to get into peak performance. And, why would you not want to be the best you can in such critical situations?
Gunfight outcomes are decided by mental attitude, instincts and carefully nurtured muscle memory. Please read up on the gunfighters who have survived lots of gun battles. There are lots of web sites describing such books, and recommendations are available from gun enthusiast and survival blogs. I first read Bill Jordan's No Second Place Winner in the 1970s. I learned to carry spare cartridges in my pistol-side jacket pocket to more swiftly flip my coat tail out of the way when drawing my weapon, and practiced it. I learned about stances, how to draw and shoot from the hip, again as my weak hand met up with the gun and again as my arms fully extended... the Jordan triple-tap... and lots more. I practice, practice, practice. The book is out of print, but used copies are available on the net for as low as US$15 plus shipping. You can't have my copy.
An Example: A more successful outcome. It was Christmas in Houston, and my friend Sara was at Sharpstown Mall carrying lots of packages and shopping bags as she went to exit the mall to go to her car. Since the lot was crowded, her car was not in an optimal location for security. Sara's situational awareness kicked in. She saw that it had gotten dark early, as it does in Houston at that time of year. She noticed some young thugs hanging around the exit. Sara returned to the mall, sought out a security guard, and requested that he escort her to her car, but he refused. Sara stood at the door for a while, contemplating a route to her car that would avoid parked vans in the lot... the criminals' vehicle of choice in Houston at that time... took careful note of who was visible from her vantage point, and plotted her course. Before she started out, she carefully sat down her packages and removed her keys and... discretely... a very small .22 caliber pistol which she concealed in her strong hand, retrieved her packages with her purse over her gun arm and set out to her car. As she was on her way, she turned around several times to scope out the other people in the lot and what they were doing. She planned to return to the mall and insist on an escort if she didn't like what she saw. When she got to her car, she was putting her keys in the door lock when a young thug rushed up to her and yelled some obscenities and threats at her as he grabbed Sara's purse, attached to her gun arm by the strap. The action caused Sara's pistol's pointy end to actually go up his nose. He said... and I quote Sara's description... “Whoa, Mamma! Be cool.” Sara said, “This is as cool as I get.” The thug's friends were running up to help, but the young thug said, “Let's get outta here She got a PIECE up my nose”, and they all took off running. Sara immediately drove to the nearest police station to report the attempted crime and the mall security guard's indifference. She later found out that the young criminals were part of a large group that kept a rental van parked in a central location, and the various teams were dropping off their ill-gotten swag so their hands were free for more crime without encumbrance. Several older people were hurt that night in the Sharpstown Mall parking lot. One younger victim, a man, tried to resist with his wife and children present and ended up in the hospital with permanent damage from the beating he got.
In the two preceding examples we see that options only exist for the wary. The two sailors ignored the little stomach lurch of instinct when they saw thugs eying them. Had the group of thugs that targeted them been less professional, they would probably have died for ignoring their instincts. It only takes one mistake like that... an instant of recognition that was ignored... to end our lives.
Sara's example ended well because she understood that only outstanding situational awareness and planning via “What if... ?” scenarios can help us survive potentially dangerous situations. Even though she was armed, Sara's pistol would have ended up as part of the criminal swag had she not had it in her hand and “gotten the drop” on her own private thug. She probably would have sustained a few injuries as the thug pistol-whipped her with her own gun for being dumb enough to carry a pistol she wasn't ready to use.
Please keep in mind that thugs hate you and everyone else that has more than they have. They have only contempt for those who have less. As they gain more experience at thuggery, they develop a bored indifference to violence and will kill without remorse and spend their swag on a nice meal immediately after a rewarding murder. If you are in law enforcement, you already know this.
Ex-military people who have been in Close Quarters Combat know how to shoot instinctively, how to survive a gun battle, and how to keep their heads on a swivel. They are adept at the “What if... ?” game. Unlike police officers who have survived many criminal confrontations, they may lack other important skill sets. Whomever you may be, it is important to brutally analyze your inventory skill sets, try to determine which sets you lack, and work on trying to improve your chances in a criminal confrontation. Please keep in mind that though Sara did everything right except be in a crime-prone area... not very avoidable in Houston at that time... she had to use every skill set she had plus a lot of nerve to survive unscathed her criminal confrontation. And, yes... street survival is a mind game.
Decoy Money: Consider keeping about US$30 to $50 folded up in a place where you can get to it. If an armed thief comes up to you, give it to him. He may just go away and leave you alone. Seriously… it's been reported as a successful ploy and may save you. Be aware that I have seen video of five armed guys stripping a guy on the street at night. There is no hiding place when you’re barefoot and naked, unless you have your goodies in a tube inserted into a body cavity. If you can avoid that by giving them the bait money, good for you. If not… you’re gonna lose the bait money and everything else anyway. Just a thought: consider carrying the bait money in small bills and throw them to the wind so you can get a head start in running to a safer place very fast. I know from personal experience that this works... sometimes. I also carry my pepper spray concealed in my hand with my finger on the trigger while observing suspicious activity. Since I am not allowed to carry a firearm in my residence country, I need the pepper spray to get far enough away to pull my collapsible baton/flashlight combo as I run toward a safer place. And, yes, I have trained in baton tactics, read many instruction manuals and scenarios, and practice, practice, practice.
Other common sense items: Try to share info from the Internet, news items, overheard comments, etc from traveler Internet boards. We need to help one another.
Dress for Success
Wear layered clothing with lots of zip/Velcro/snap pockets to make it more difficult to clean you out if your pockets are “picked”… spread your cash around your body and clothes… taxi/bridge fare in your shoes.. If you are in an area known as a high threat area for kidnapping, it is best to never wear sandals or flip-flops, no matter how hot. This is in case you are kidnapped and have to walk in rough terrain 10+ hours per day for a few days.
Never carry a checkbook. Identity theft attempts were made after I lost my checkbook in Colombia.
Never sign the back of a credit card. Write “see photo ID” in the signature block. Whenever possible, carry Xerox copies of your important docs. In Argentina, I have a Xerox of the signature/photo page, last entry page and visa page of my passport reduced to fit on the front and back of a single sheet of paper, as well as the receipt for my application fee to obtain an Argentine National ID card/Resident.
Until they come out with a secret stun ring, I would worry about the cops getting cranky if they found it on you. The good news... they work better than any other non-lethal method of self defense. Oh, except not going to a place where you are likely to need it. No matter how drunk, pilled up or crazy an attacker, and no matter how big and tough, they will be rolling on the dirt screaming for mommy. Again, don't bring a stun gun to a gun fight unless you are ex-law enforcement or otherwise trained/expert in defensive tactics.
Collapsible baton: This is my all-time favorite. But be advised, to the best of my knowledge a baton is not legal in any part of the world. However, it is easily concealable. I carry my 17 inch (extended) baton from eBay discretely in a jeans hip pocket. I paid extra for an LED flashlight butt from eBay so it appears to be a flashlight with a long handle. It doesn't even look extendable. The flashlight module gives good light and replaces the butt ferrule.
If you are fluent in the local language, do not show off or act like a jerk, you may be get by okay with a collapsible baton in most countries. An Example: I have carried my "flashlight with an extensible handle" in Mexico, in Colombia and Argentina on and off cruise ships (the worst questioning I had to endure while going thru bag checks by cruise ship personnel). I had a problem with an federal officer checking hand luggage at the Buenos Aires airport. I had planned to leave it at my Argentine home. I forgot it was in a small bag stuffed in my carry-on luggage. Woops! I was embarrassed. This could have been serious if I wasn't muy fluido en castellano and such an obviously nice, friendly guy. This guy was giving me a bad case of cop eye as I smiled and explained that it was a flashlight. With an expressionless face, he extended it. I showed him my Florida commercial appraiser license and explained it was for seeing into dark corners while appraising buildings. He said... "Sir, this is a weapon". I smiled and stuck it in the box they had there for disposing of small knives, scissors, et cetera. Still smiling, I shrugged my shoulders and got the rest of my stuff together and departed, dignity almost intact. My wife was laughing. I heard the Feds laughing, too. I was out $40 for my own stupidity. It would have been fine in checked luggage. No problem... I got another one via eBay for about $50 and resolved to always re-check the contents carry-on bags prior to leaving home.
In any country, it seems reasonable to follow some common sense safety tactics:
- Try to avoid places without a lot of activity, especially dark places. If you have to wait for another group to leave the location to have some company, please do so.
- Carry a whistle and/or pepper spray on your key chain. If attacked, make as much noise as possible while running away, if possible.
- When exiting a building to go to your car, stop for a second to visually scan the area. Cops are trained to do this. Hold your keys in your hand... not in your pocket, bag or belt clip. Check the back seat visually prior to unlocking the door of the vehicle. If you see suspicious activity, or a van parked next to your vehicle that blocks the view of your entry into your vehicle from others, do a wide sweep... a walk around before entering... or, consider going back into the building to observe for a while. This is especially important if you are with an adult entertainment specialist... she may be part of the gang that want to check out your pockets.
- If you are carrying a bag with a shoulder strap, wear the strap laterally across your back with the bag in front and walk toward vehicular traffic. Why? I once saw a lady being dragged down the street for almost a block before the strap broke. A pickup passenger had leaned out and grabbed her strap--in broad daylight with lots of witnesses--and fled the scene. If you are facing oncoming traffic, you can see suspicious approaches and prepare. Pillion riders on motorcycles or scooters are the most common snatch thieves.
- If you are carrying a purse or the equivalent, consider carrying it upside down, snap open and held closed by your hand. If a thief grabs it out of your hand all your stuff will go on the pavement... which is a good thing. It gives you a distraction so you can use your best weapon.--your feet-- to escape.
- It is difficult to over-stress the importance of the conscientious and judicious use of your eyes, brain and feet to keep anyone safe no matter where in the world you may be. Observe carefully with your eyes so that your brain can evaluate potential threats, and use your feet to avoid iffy locations.
If your attempt to be inconspicuous is unsuccessful, your defensive tactics aren't a good idea and you find yourself naked on the side of the road with a bunch of bad guys, here are some tips that were passed down from folks who have succeeded in getting away from the NarcoTerror boys.
- Lighten up on yourself. You have the right to a reasonable expectation of personal security no matter where in the world you are located. Your rights have been violated and you were savagely captured by bad guys who have no redeeming social value. Now is the time to settle down and consider your new situation and possible options.
- Be creative with health issues. Show them your surgical scars, your diabetes meds, (consider getting some meds whether you really need them or not... your doctor may have some ideas) anything that may make them decide you are more trouble than you may be worth to them... even if you have to make stuff up. Lie to them, please. Be creative in subtle ways to slow the column of marchers throughout the journey. Fake a bad ankle and make them go steal a mule/burro/horse from some poor farmer to transport you. Always be alert to opportunities to escape safely from the NarcoTraficantes' area. Always go downhill when you escape... find a stream, then a river, always go downstream until you find a road or other signs of civilization. Sometimes it's a good idea to hide in the day, travel at night... but, be aware that traveling at night can be dangerous in the jungle/woods/mountains... not recommended for those with poor night vision.
- Make certain that they understand that you have no living relatives or flush employer to ransom you. This is key. If they took you from your work compound, a helicopter they shot down. et cetera, then that is going to be a tough sell. If you carry family/love interest photos, unless you can convince the NarcoTraficantes that the folks in the photos are dead, it is not easy. Optimally, plan to try to appear to be an impoverished , anti-social, solitary orphan backpacker, student or teacher.
- One of the best ways to escape is to fake an illness that they can't treat you for locally. Several victims have gotten away from relaxed security in a town with a doctor under NarcoTerrorist control. Some research on symptoms prior to your trip may be a good idea. It is not very easy to fake out the medical person most NarcoTerror bands usually have.
- If you appear to be such a high value prize that they can't afford to give you up except for a big payoff, then none of the above will be very helpful. But do it anyway. Everyone lets a competitor have an advantage by making an error, especially the NarcoTraficantes. Many of the individual groups include young people who don't like what they are doing... many were pressed into service during raids on their village. But, you most often will have to be creative and make up a good story to create your own opportunities.
- Most important: Forgive yourself for being captive and unable to meet your obligations. When Ingrid Betancourt was rescued from FARC forces in Colombia, she told debriefing officers that she had more problems related to the mental stress from feeling she had let down her family, friends and associates by becoming a captive than the physical stress. Even though she understood that she was a captive through no fault of her own, she had a difficult struggle overcoming her guilt. She and other captives have reported that self forgiveness is the most important key to survival in a long term captivity. Seven years, in her case.
[Tomorrow, Part 2.]