Business travel is essential in our expanding global marketplace. Each year, several hundred thousand men and women take business trips. And, each year, the number of women traveling on business rises. This trend will continue as women continue to broaden their presence within the corporate world.
In order to promote business abroad, women must travel to virtually every corner of the globe, often to places presenting real dangers to their safety. Moreover, the majority of such corporate travelers, whether they are men or women, have never received any training in how to protect themselves. This lack of preparedness is often more hazardous to female business travelers as they are always exposed to greater risk than men.
This year alone, hundreds of female executives and business women will be robbed, assaulted, kidnapped, and murdered. Tragically, most of these incidents could have been prevented by adherence to basic rules of personal safety. These principles are easy to understand and implement and can greatly reduce the likelihood that an individual will become the victim of violence. Each of us must understand and accept the fact that all of us are potentially at risk. We live in a dangerous world. News is not merely something that happens to other people. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Once that reality sinks in, you can begin to modify your behavior in a way that will make you less vulnerable.
In order to make any meaningful difference in your level of personal security, you must be aware of your surroundings at all times. This is not paranoia. It is the state of relaxed alertness. You are simply aware of your surroundings and pay attention to anything that seems out of place. Perhaps you see an unfamiliar car parked on your street or someone who seems to be paying attention to you. You learn to notice these things and thereby gain the ability to detect a problem or threat before it materializes. This is the appropriate condition to be in when you are out and about. Virtually every other security measure you should be following is predicated on your ability to spot potential dangers while there is still time to avoid them.
Dress and behave conservatively. This is just simple common sense. If you are traveling to a country where $100 represents a month's salary, it is simply a bad idea to flaunt affluence. Wearing expensive clothing and jewelry makes you attractive to the local criminal element looking for a quick and easy score. This issue may be even more important to the female traveler who must always be mindful of the cultural mores of each individual country regarding how women are expected to dress. The female traveler should not expect that she will dress the way she does while at home no matter where she travels. Learn a bit about what is considered appropriate and "when in Rome..." This issue also applies to equally to men. Dressing in a manner considered disrespectful or offensive by either sex can have more serious consequences than just being merely considered tactless. It may actually invite confrontation or attack.
Avoid routine patterns. Terrorists and criminals often select targets with regular and predictable schedules. This makes it very easy for them to plan a crime or attack. Most people leave the house for work at the same time every morning. They leave the office and return to their car at the same time every night. And, unless they are attempting to avoid a particular problem with traffic, they take the exact same route to and from work. While this may not pose any danger at home, it may do so while abroad. Anyone intent on assaulting you has a relatively easy time in setting up his or her ambush because of your unvaried routine.
You need to train yourself to vary your route as well as the time you travel. This is also true even while traveling abroad on short business trips. If you leave the hotel for the local office at the same time each morning, even if you are only in country for a few days, you have still settled into a pattern that makes it too easy for someone to select you as a target. Each day, simply leave at a different time and vary the route you take. You can turn this practice into something positive. Leave a bit early and get a cup of coffee or breakfast at a local place of interest. If you are taking a taxi, ask the driver to take you a different way so you can see the sights. Just don't walk out of the hotel and get into a car or taxi at the same time every morning.
If you use a company vehicle for transportation, it is a good idea to routinely and randomly exchange vehicles with your coworkers. This will prevent someone targeting you from ever being certain that you will be driving a particular car at a particular time.
Avoid western gathering places. If you are traveling to a region designated as high risk by the U.S. State Department, there are additional measures that should be considered. Often, terrorists will seek to identify and attack a location certain to have a high concentration of Americans or other westerners present at a specific time. For example, a horrific practice which has long been used by terror groups is to target religious services at houses of worship frequented by westerners. The reason is obvious. A Christian church serving the international community will provide them a target which is certain to be filled every Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. This presents a tough choice for an individual to whom church service is an important part of life. The same is true for nightclubs and other locations catering to Americans and western Europeans. If the State Department suggests avoiding such places in a country you are traveling to, heed their warning. By the way, it is always a good practice to immediately identify all emergency exits wherever you go and make sure they are actually functional. Many foreign countries do not have fire codes that mandate identifiable emergency exits in all public establishments. You need to make sure you know how to get out of any place you decide to go into.
- The status of travel warnings for your destination and the surrounding region.
- The level of local political stability.
- The activity of terrorist organizations.
- The risks posed by local criminal activity.
- The nature of local emergency medical care.
- Any country specific issues relative to assaults against women.
Know your airlines' safety record. Whoever books your flight needs to check the safety record of your intended carrier. Obviously, take flights on airlines with good safety records. Fly on a wide-bodied jet like a Boeing 747 whenever possible. Hijackers tend to avoid targeting wide bodies because of the tactical problem of covering so many passengers and three rows of seating instead of two. Try to schedule direct flights. Besides the fact that it is certainly more convenient, there are two security-related reasons for this practice. The first is the fact that most airline accidents occur during the takeoff and landing. It therefore stands to reason that if your flight is not making many of these, you have a statistically lower chance of being in an accident. The second is to minimize the risk of being involved in a hijacking. Despite the success that the 9/11 hijackers enjoyed while commandeering American planes flying out of domestic airports, the usual points of infiltration by hijackers are the less secure airports at which many connecting flights must stop. Terrorist hijackers are well aware of which airports they can operate in and which they cannot. If you must take a connecting flight, make sure you are not transferring in an airport that has a history of poor safety practices or is in a high-risk area.
Avoid airport lobbies. In most countries, with the notable exception of Israel, most airport lobbies are open to the public and are not secure. The secure area is beyond the screening booths and no one should be in that area unless they have a ticket and have passed through security. Once you check in, move directly to the secure part of the airport. Virtually all of the terror attacks at airports have occurred in the unsecured common ticketing area.
Prearrange transportation from the airport. Upon arrival at your destination, you will require transportation to your hotel. Whenever possible, try to arrange transportation before you go. Many hotels have their own transportation vans, which make regular runs between the hotel and the airport. If you cannot make prior arrangements, use only properly marked and identifiable commercial vehicles. Do not accept the services of local residents using personal vehicles to take fares from the airport.
Stay at the better hotels belonging to a reputable chain. Major hotel chains are generally managed by Americans or Europeans and have security standards that are comparable to the security standards in the United States. There are some security experts that recommend the opposite: avoiding western-owned chains in favor of locally-owned options. They suggest that western hotels are targeted for attack precisely because they are western. While there is some logic to that argument, on balance you are likely to find western-owned chains provide much better security than their local counterparts, and in many parts of the world, they are taking steps to improve security even further. Ask the local embassy. If you are traveling overseas, the single best way to pick a place to stay is by calling the local embassy or consulate. Even if you are accustomed to staying in a particular hotel, call the embassy and ask to speak to the Regional Security Officer (RSO) or one of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agents working at the embassy. They are the security professionals responsible for protecting the embassy, the Ambassador, and the expatriate and local staff. Simply tell the agent you speak with that you would like to pick a secure place to stay with multiple routes to wherever you need to travel to on a daily basis. Ask where government personnel stay or where they would want their family members to stay.
Make sure there is a secure parking area adjacent to the hotel. It is better if the parking garage is physically on the premises, and there is no need to walk back to the hotel from the garage if you happen to return late at night. The lot should be well lit, guarded, and have access limited to hotel staff and guests.
Inform the hotel not to release any information about you to anyone when you check in. That way you make it harder for someone to find your room number. Also, ask the front desk not to deliver any packages to your room. By the way, it is also a very good practice to remove any nametags on your luggage. A frequent trick used by sexual predators or muggers is to read the name on a woman's (or man's) luggage and then at an opportune time, lure their victim close by simply calling out their name and feigning recognition.
Note the location of the emergency exits and all stairwells. Make sure you know which direction you must go to get to an exit from your room. Make it a practice to physically count the number of doors between your room and the exit. First locate the nearest emergency exit. Then locate an alternate exit. Beginning from your room, count the number of doors between your room and the nearest exit. This will allow you to find your way even if the power is out and you are attempting to get out in darkness or heavy smoke. If you can't see, you can still feel your way down the hall and get to safety by counting the doors you pass. Do the same thing for an alternate exit point if one exists. Never use the elevator in a fire or other emergency.
Choose a safer room location. Most security experts recommend getting a room that is at least one story above ground level, but no higher than seven stories up. A room on the ground floor is too easy to break into. The seventh floor is within reach of most firefighting evacuation buckets and ladders, assuming the country you are in has a professional fire department. The better choice is to stay on the second floor and no higher than the third floor. In case of fire, you have the survivable option of jumping out the window.
Safeguard your valuables and all proprietary information. Remember that your room is never truly secure. Your room will be cleaned, generally on a daily basis. In many fine hotels, there will also be a second visit to your room by housekeeping to turn down the bed. Similarly, hotel managers, maintenance workers, and security officers also have keys to your room. These people not only have access to your room, they are also expected to be there for a variety of reasons. You need to keep in mind that in many countries the police and local intelligence services will have nearly unfettered access not only to your room, but to the phone system as well.
Avoid meeting anyone in your room, including business contacts. Make it a point to treat your hotel room the same way you would consider your bedroom at home. It is your living space and the place where you sleep. This is doubly true for the female business traveler.
Remove rental identification. If you are renting a vehicle, check whether there is anything about the car that will identify it as a rental to an interested observer. In the U.S. it was common, though less so today, to issue rental cars license plates that were clearly identifiable. If there are markings of that sort on the vehicle you are renting, ask that they be removed if possible. Request power locks and windows. From a security standpoint, it is a good idea to have power locks and windows. Power locks give you greater control over access to your car. Drive with the doors locked and with the windows closed. Make sure the climate control systems work. If you are in a country in Southeast Asia with no air conditioning, you will be miserable. You will also be placed at greater risk if you need to drive with your windows down because the air conditioning doesn't work or is nonexistent.
Remove valuables from view. It is always sound advice to secure your valuables and not leave anything worth stealing in plain view, even when you are in the car and driving. Many people have enough sense not to leave their wallet, camera, or other items that will attract the attention of a would-be thief once they park their car. You should get in the habit of doing this even when you are driving. Many criminals will post themselves at a heavily trafficked intersection and observe the interior compartments of vehicles as they pass. Once they see an item of interest, it is a simple matter to smash the window, grab the object, and disappear into the crowd before you even have time to react. Your brand new digital camera on the front seat may be equal to several months' wages. Don't tempt locals with unnecessary displays of affluence.
Recognize a setup. In case this isn't already obvious, do not pick up hitchhikers or stop for any reason in an area that is not populated and well-policed. Frequently, a female hitchhiker will induce a car to stop. The hitchhiker's companions, hidden nearby, then victimize the driver. Women are often victimized after they are induced to stop by a person appearing to be a "good Samaritan". Several years ago in Long Island, NY, there were a series of rapes committed by a well-dressed man who would pull up next to a woman on the parkway and begin shouting that there was something wrong with one of her tires. The woman would pull off the road, followed by the "good Samaritan". That is when she would be assaulted. In such situations, it is always better to proceed to a well-lit, populated area or rest stop where it is less likely that you will be victimized. Do not offer a ride home to anyone you do not know well. There are unlimited numbers of ways to deceive a motorist to stop and thereby provide the criminals a time to strike. Often, information on country-specific techniques used to victimize drivers will be posted on the State department website. Speak to the RSO about local crimes involving vehicles. A particular country may have recently experienced a rash of carjacking that follows a particular pattern activity. Learn the method of operation of the crime and you can protect yourself through vigilance and proper avoidance measures.
The three-times rule. If you see the same person or vehicle three times, separated by time and distance, assume you are being followed. There are such things as coincidences in life. However, for purposes of personal security, you should never chalk anything up to coincidence. Pay attention. Look at faces. Keep an eye on your rearview mirror. If you see the same car behind you for any length of time, especially if they are taking the same turns as you, you need to become suspicious. Similarly, a car that keeps reappearing behind you at regular intervals should also arouse suspicion.
What should you do if you become aware that you are being followed? The general rule is to avoid making it obvious to those watching you that you have become aware of their presence. Appearing to be an alert and cautious person to anyone trying to follow you may mark you as a difficult target, and you may be passed over for an easier subject. However, if you do detect surveillance, do not change your routine. Continue about your business and stay in well-lighted and populated areas only. Do not stare at the persons following you nor attempt evasion unless you reasonably believe an attack on you is imminent. The State Department recommends that you contact the embassy or consulate immediately if you suspect that you are being followed. There is really no other option under these circumstances. The RSO will provide you with the appropriate guidance.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For those wishing to have a more concise document containing some of the important points covered in this article, the author has posted a Travel Safety Checklist on the Internet, available in PDF format.
The author of this article, David S. Katz, will be presenting the Executive Travel safety and Personal Security Seminar, which will be held in New York City on February 10, 2004. More information about this event and registration is available online.
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