Careers: Personal Safety for Women Traveling Abroad on Business

Personal Safety for Women Traveling Abroad on Business

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.

Increase Your Awareness
The first and most important thing you can do is to learn vigilance and develop proper observational skills. Fortunately, this is easier than it sounds. All you need to do is to learn how to pay attention to your surroundings, make observations, and draw appropriate conclusions from those observations. Learn to key in on the unusual or on someone or something that seems out of place. Many of us seem to operate on autopilot most of the time. We daydream as we go about our business, perhaps dwelling on a difficult situation at work or on a personal problem. In this state you are not paying attention to your surroundings. This is the state in which you are most likely to be victimized.

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.

Reduce Your Visibility
One of the best pieces of advice given by our staff as well as other security professionals is to simply keep a low profile. This is even more important while traveling abroad.

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.

Pre-travel Research
Security planning must begin long before you get on the plane. You need to research the following:
  • 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.
How can you find this information? Your first stop should be to our website at If you click on the Travel Safety Checklist, you will not only see a great deal of concise, need-to-know information but also a list of links to various other sites that have the information you will need. The State Department website ( provides all current travel alerts for every conceivable travel destination. They post advisories and alerts for anywhere in the world that may have a developing situation that could pose a danger to American citizens. If there is an alert for the area that you are going to, you should take it seriously. Pay particular attention as well to the section relative to local emergency health. The State Department site also provides information about the vaccinations that you should take if you travel to certain parts of the world. Contact your insurance company and make sure you are covered while overseas. Are you planning to drive "in country"? The single greatest danger to Americans traveling abroad is being involved in an auto accident. More Americans are killed abroad in traffic accidents than by terrorism and criminal acts combined. An indispensable resource in this regard is the website maintained by the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT). This site gives you some of the best available information on local road conditions, traffic patterns, and local accident statistics and traffic fatalities.

Local Criminal Activity
During your pre-travel research, you must pay particular attention to the level and nature of criminal activity in the region you are traveling to. The level of risk posed by sexual assault is also an unpleasant subject that must be determined. Often, different countries have widely disparate reactions to the report of a sexual assault. In many countries, local law enforcement will turn a blind eye to such crimes. In others, the actual penalties imposed for sexual assaults may have an impact in helping a woman with the difficult decision of how she should react if, G-d forbid, she is assaulted in this manner. For example, experts on sexual assault debate the question of whether a woman should fight or submit to rape. It is an intensely personal question that depends on many factors such as the level of a woman's strength, fitness, fighting ability and stamina as well as the totality of the circumstances of the assault including location, proximity to others and the likelihood of being assisted. However, it also depends upon the likelihood of whether the assailant will stop after the sexual attack is completed or do even worse. I was in attendance several years ago at a State Department sponsored security seminar where the instructor was discussing this question in terms of the practice of sexual predators in the Philippines. According to this individual, rapists in that country often murder their victims because rape is a capital offense. Since the rapist is already risking a death sentence by committing rape and has nothing more to lose, he kills the victim in order to eliminate her as a witness. This is a horrible thought to contemplate, but wouldn't it affect your decision whether to resist rape if you knew you were in a country where rape would likely lead to murder?

Travel Arrangements
Most business travelers have a secretary or travel agency take care of flight arrangements and hotel reservations. This may be convenient, but it is not the way to make the secure travel decisions. Some corporate travel agencies are taking a proactive view of travel safety and are offering travel safety consultation as part of their service offerings. My own company, Global Security Group, Inc., has partnered with Austin Travel, a very well respected travel agency headquartered in Melville, New York, in order to provide such services to corporate travelers.

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.

Hotel Selection
The process for selecting the right hotel is somewhat more involved, but just as important. The place you stay needs to be evaluated for internal security, general location, and whether you are able to travel to your office or appointments using at least two different routes. The level of overall security in and around the hotel is often more important to women who must always be mindful of the risk of sexual assault.

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.

Vehicle Safety Measures
The first step is to make sure that whatever car you drive is reliable. Your vehicle must run well and reliably. If you are renting a car, select one with low mileage from a reputable company. Rent a make and model common to the country. Avoid choosing a vehicle that would clearly mark you as being affluent or a tourist. Select one with the best crash rating available. More Americans are killed overseas each year than by criminal acts or terrorism. Make sure the vehicle is equipped with seat belts and air bags as well.

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.

Most terrorist operations and many ordinary criminal acts are not carried out haphazardly. Virtually all terrorist attacks are preceded by a preoperational stage where intelligence is gathered about the intended target. This article does not allow enough space to fully discuss the various manners in which surveillance is conducted and the ways to become aware that you are being watched. However, the central point that must be appreciated is that being aware of your surroundings and paying attention to the people and vehicles that you may see is the surest way to detect the presence of surveillance.

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.

David S. Katz is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Global Security Group, Inc., an international security consulting company with unique expertise in providing integrated risk management solutions, specialized training, protective services, investigative services and counter-terror planning. A former senior Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he is an expert in conducting complex international conspiracy investigations, high-risk arrests, small unit tactics, defensive tactics, undercover operations, physical and technical surveillance, physical security systems and intelligence analysis. Former Special Agent Katz was an instructor at the FBI/DEA Academy in Quantico, Virginia where he taught firearms and tactics to several thousand federal agents, state and local law enforcement officers, SWAT team members, military personnel and foreign military and law enforcement counterparts. He is a recognized authority in law enforcement arrest tactics and has provided training to police units and tactical teams around the world.

Former Special Agent Katz was the DEA liaison to the Israeli Secret Service, developing a cooperative relationship with their field agents and training staff. In August of 2000, he provided advanced tactical firearms training to Israeli General Security Agency (Shin Bet) instructors in Israel and provided firearms and tactical training to the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Agents and U.S. Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. Mr. Katz has lectured throughout the world and has taught executives from the Fortune 500 how to enhance their level of personal security while traveling abroad on business. He is the co-author of Executive's Guide to Personal Security (John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2003) and the author of Personal Safety While Traveling Abroad on Business (Loss Prevention Magazine September-October 2003) and is frequently asked to speak on nationally broadcast television and radio programs.

Mr. Katz holds a degree of Law from Hofstra University Law School. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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