Communications technology is shrinking distances every day, but these advances have not stopped executives crossing oceans and continents to conduct business. With each venture to a foreign city, however, executives take on a host of risks — from political instability and street crime to reckless driving habits.
By Linda Johnson
But companies can greatly reduce those risks, and many will find, when it comes to protecting colleagues abroad, common sense is just as important as the latest high tech gear.
“Executive protection today is about intelligence,” says Desmond Taljaard, national vice-president, corporate investigations and security services at AFI International.
Few executives these days travel with a security coordinator or bodyguard, he says. Some companies contract with a local firm, which meets them at the airport with a driver and an escort that protects them for the trip’s duration.
Most often, however, due to budget restrictions, companies receive travel awareness training from a professional security company. Then, it’s up to them to prepare their executives, he says.
“The first thing you do is a threat assessment on the risk level of every individual travelling. No. 1 is, how important are they to the functioning of your company? If it’s very high, then you take extra precautions to protect that person,” Taljaard says.
Analyzing the “stress level” of the destination country is a key aspect of the assessment, he adds. The Canadian Embassy, the Internet and local travel agents are good sources of information.
Some companies provide detailed information on countries exclusively to clients. The global risk-consulting firm Control Risks, for example, has an online service, RiskMap, which provides a critical assessment of global and regional risks. Senior vice-president Bill Daly says its “country risk forecast” updates changes in countries and cities daily.
To assess local crime, Taljaard says, the best source is people on the ground. In the Congo, for example, he generally relies on a network of companies and colleagues in Africa whom he has worked with and trusts.
“They can give me an accurate picture of local crime: ‘Right now, there’s been a rash of car hijackings or car break-ins, so don’t leave your laptop in the car.’”
Independent security consultant T. Lee Humphrey says it’s important for executives to read this research. Many of them ignore it because they’re too busy, see it as a low priority, or believe they’re experienced travellers and don’t need it. Sometimes, they think being Canadian puts them in a kind of protective bubble.
“Having with you the information you need, whether it’s extra passport scans, emergency contact numbers of your security provider or local contacts — the preparatory parts are where they get into trouble. So when something goes wrong, they don’t know what to do,” he says.
Driving in foreign countries can carry a lot of risks, Taljaard says; in places like Africa and the Middle East, driving habits are very different, and accident rates are high.
The best course is to hire a driver from a known company and use a different driver for each trip; information on routine can readily be sold. A rented car should have central locking and power windows, as well as low kilometres to reduce the risk of breaking down and becoming vulnerable to an opportunistic crime.
Daly says business travellers often get into trouble because they are easily identified. The most pervasive threat to any foreigner is street crime. High level, but less common, threats include kidnapping, extortion and targeted robbery. In all these cases, executives make themselves more vulnerable by standing out from the crowd.
“They’re wearing a nice suit, nice briefcase and expensive wristwatch. Some people are targeted because of the company they work for or because of who they are. But those cases are exceptional; a lot of preplanning goes into it. You’re more apt to become a victim of happenstance because you have more money than the guy down the street,” he says.
“We always tell people who are travelling to maintain a low profile. Be the man in grey, and blend into the background.”
To those executives who want to dress to impress, Taljaard suggests that, where there’s high risk, they display the Armani suit and Rolex watch at the first meeting of their trip. “You’ve made your first impression. Day 2, dress it down. Take the Rolex off and wear your Casio.”
Lack of caution in social situations is the downfall of many business travellers, Humphrey says. They talk too much or drink too much and end up in difficult situations. They may lose their laptop or Blackberry full of company information and are then told it will cost a lot of money to get it back.
“They treat [the trip] as if it’s a weekend in Vegas paid for by the company. Once that happens, they find themselves getting photographed doing something silly, or they get invited to a private party and get robbed or beaten and left out there,” he says.
Daly, a former FBI investigator, says business travellers should avoid routine. Taking the same route or having lunch at the same café every day makes it easier for someone to intercept their route.
“We’re creatures of habit, and it’s that habit that can cause you some exposure when you’re working for an extended period of time in a foreign location,” he says.
Be aware of your surroundings, he advises, and anything that seems to be changing around you. Varying your route and times of day for travel will disrupt someone trying to get a fix on your routine.
Thieves target IT devices, of course, Humphrey says, but simple precautions can help protect them. On a plane, for example, put your iPad into an overhead bin across the aisle, where you can see it.
“When it’s above your head, you can’t see if they’re getting their jacket or moving your smart device from your carry-on to their carry-on,” he says.
A new threat is “ghosting:” by simply putting their iPhone down beside the executive’s, he adds, a thief can copy the material, password and emails. “We tell executives, when you’re travelling outside North America, turn your Bluetooth off so they cannot access your mobile device remotely.”
Taljaard notes it’s a good idea for companies to set times for employees to call in — it may provide an early alert that something’s gone wrong. The frequency of call-ins should be based on the assessed risk of the area.
Like other companies, AFI uses GPS tracking devices, he adds. These can be programmed to send text messages to up to five cell phones. If in trouble, the client presses a red button and initiates the preplanned protocol, which begins with a call to the client’s cell. A password indicates they’re being held and can’t speak freely.
The web-based system shows where the client is in real time and, by texting the device, security can activate a microphone, Taljaard says. “So we know where you are; we know you need help. And this technology is a lot cheaper than having a full-time executive protection specialist with the person.”
Sometimes, businesspeople are simply too trusting, Humphrey says. A local criminal will strike up a conversation, and the traveller thinks naively they’re immersing themselves in local culture.
“But the criminals know, if there’s a Western-looking person in business attire or even upscale casual, what they’re there for. If you have a North American accent, or a British accent, you’re a foreigner visiting the country for business. And that’s an opportunity to them.”