There is an ongoing threat of kidnapping in many parts of the world. While no one can completely eliminate the risk of kidnap, there are steps you can take to reduce it.

Types of kidnapping

  • Basic kidnapping
  • Child abduction
  • Express kidnapping
  • Virtual kidnapping
  • Piracy
  • Ideological kidnapping (including by terrorists)

General kidnapping

Kidnapping is the unlawful seizing or taking away of another person against that person’s will. It’s also known as a criminal abduction.

In the case of child kidnapping, it’s taking a child against the will of any parent or legal guardian of that person.

In most basic kidnapping cases, the perpetrators are motivated by ransom or concessions. They take and detain the victim, then contact their loved ones or employer to negotiate the victim’s release.

International parental child abduction

International parental child abduction is similar to kidnapping. However, the perpetrator:

  • is one of the child’s parents or guardians
  • seeks to deny the other parent or guardian access to the child
  • usually doesn’t seek ransom or demands

It occurs when one parent or guardian takes their child out of the country without proper permission.

This can be permission from the other parent or guardian, or an Australian court.

Express kidnapping

Criminal groups often kidnap tourists, then force them to withdraw money from ATMs. In some locations this is known as ‘express kidnapping’.

It is common in countries in Central and South America, especially Mexico and Colombia, but occurs in other countries.

  • In some cases victims have been killed resisting kidnappers.
  • Using ATMs located inside banks, hotels and shopping centres during daylight hours may reduce this risk.
  • Some criminals pose as unlicensed taxi drivers. Once the victim is in the cab they are held until they agree to withdraw money. Always use licensed taxi services.

Virtual kidnapping

Another emerging trend is ‘virtual kidnapping’. This is not a real kidnapping, as the victim is safe. It’s a scam. This scam targets family and friends of travelers, not the traveller.

The traveller may not even be aware of the call.

It’s more common in China and Mexico. Though there’s report of calls from around the world.

How it works

The virtual kidnapper contacts the traveller’s loved one and demands an immediate payment. They create a story that sounds likely, often drawing from information the traveller shares publicly on social media.

In most virtual kidnapping cases, the caller tries to keep their real victim on the phone until the transaction is complete. This prevents the real victim from trying to contact the alleged victim.

If they ask for a credit card number, it could also be a credit card scam (ACCC).

Types of virtual kidnapping

  • The caller claims to have their loved one hostage. They demand an immediate ransom for their safe return
  • The caller says they’re from a hospital. They say the traveller is in hospital and needs urgent medical assistance. They ask for payment upfront for the medical treatment.
  • The caller claims to be from the police. They claim the traveller has been arrested or jailed. They demand money to pay the traveller’s fines, so they can release them.

To reduce the risk of virtual kidnapping scams

  • Check your social media privacy settings. The more detail you publish publicly, the more information the scammer can use to create a realistic story that your loved ones may believe.
  • Be informed about scams.

Kidnapping and online scams

Some kidnappings are part of another crime, especially online scams. This includes romance scams and Nigerian letter scams (ACCC).

Some kidnappers run very sophisticated operations. Often they build a relationship of trust over months or years with the victim, before luring them overseas. The most common destinations are:

  • Nigeria
  • Uganda
  • South Africa

Be wary of any online invitation you receive to travel to an unfamiliar location, especially if someone is offering romance, employment or money.

If you think you’ve been scammed, don’t travel overseas to get your money back. The scammer may kidnap you, then extort your loved ones for even more money to secure your release.

See our general advice on avoiding scams. Learn more about avoiding scams on ScamWatch (ACCC).

Piracy and kidnapping

Piracy can include kidnapping. Some pirates kidnap people who travel by boat and demand a ransom.

Pirates attack all forms of shipping. This includes commercial vessels, pleasure craft (such as yachts) and luxury cruise liners. Piracy occurs:

  • off the coast of Somalia and Yemen (including the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden)
  • in the Gulf of Guinea (Benin, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea all border on the Gulf of Guinea), and
  • near Mindanao and in the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Malaysia

Kidnapping by terrorists

Terrorist and militant groups often target foreigners for kidnap. In some instances, terrorists have killed their victims when their demands weren’t met.

Some kidnappings happen for ideological or political reasons. This leaves little or no room for negotiation.

For more information, see our general advice and information about terrorism.

Foreigners at higher risk of kidnapping by terrorists

Terrorists commonly target foreigners for kidnapping who are:

  • business travelers from wealthy countries traveling to poorer ones
  • journalists
  • oil and mining industry employees
  • aid and humanitarian workers or volunteers
  • tourists, especially where tourism is rare

Terrorists may use local merchants to identify potential victims. This includes using local tour and transport operators.

Where the risk of kidnapping by terrorists is highest

Terrorists can target you in any destination. However, the risk of kidnap is higher in conflict zones and other countries where our advice level is ‘Do not travel’.

Terrorists may use cultural festivals in remote locations to identify foreign targets. These festivals bring people to predictable places along unsecured routes.

In locations where there are few tourists, any foreigner may attract more attention from local terrorists. This is especially the case in destinations where our advice level is ‘Do not travel’.

Cross-border kidnappings

Kidnappers may take hostages into a neighbouring country. For example, militants have kidnapped humanitarian workers and tourists in Kenya but held them in Somalia. Foreigners kidnapped in Afghanistan have sometimes been taken to Pakistan.

Areas of particular concern

The kidnapping threat is particularly high in some parts of the world. The list below does not cover all high-threat areas. See country-specific travel advisories for further information.

Kidnapping is a threat to commercial activities in remote parts of West and East Africa and across the Sahel area in Africa. It is also a threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as parts of the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia, notably in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia and the Southern Phillipines.

Travel insurance for kidnapping

Standard travel insurance policies don’t cover kidnapping or pay ransoms. You may need a specialised policy, especially if you’re going to a high risk zone.

Get comprehensive travel insurance that covers kidnapping.

  • Some standard policies only cover some types of kidnap, such as express kidnap. They may treat it as a mugging.
  • Check what circumstances and activities your policy covers.
  • Most insurers won’t cover you if our advice level for your destination is ‘Do not travel’.

Reducing your risk of kidnapping in a high risk destination

If you do decide to travel to an area where kidnapping is common, take precautions. Make informed decisions that reduce your risk of being kidnapped.

Before you go:

  • Research your destination and understand the risks.
  • Subscribe to the travel advice for the destination. Also add your local mobile number to receive critical alerts by text.
  • Find out where and when the risks elevate. Some areas may be particularly high risk at certain times.
  • Seek professional security advice.
  • Conduct security risk assessments. Have security arrangements that reflect these assessments.
  • Have personal security measures in place immediately on arrival.

While you’re away

  • Monitor the local news. If risks elevate, take extra precautions.
  • In especially high risk areas, don’t travel unless you absolutely must.
  • Don’t venture out without appropriate security measures and personnel.
  • Maintain a high level of vigilance. Watch for suspicious or unusual activity.
  • If you feel threatened, leave. If in doubt, get out.

Where to get help

Local security providers

In particularly high-risk destinations, private companies may provide personal security services. Some may be locally owned and operated. The local government may also allow foreign companies to operate within their borders.

If you’re traveling for work, business or to volunteer, contact your employer or organization. Ask who will provide your security services. Contact the provider for advice, support and help.

If you’re traveling independently, find and engage a security provider in your destination. Ask them for personal advice to suit your situation and plans.