A kidnapping expert goes deep on Stockholm Syndrome, why you shouldn’t pay the first ransom offer and more.
As a young child, I was totally petrified of kidnapping. I was at the age where I was totally susceptible to local news fear-mongering — “Kidnapping wave hits northeast Ohio!” They never bothered to point out how almost all of those kidnappings were by divorced/estranged parents, but that’s not quite as sensational.
Still, even though my rational mind says I’m probably not going to cross “Get kidnapped” off the “masochism” section of my bucket list (it’s wedged between “get fillings removed and replaced” and “run a marathon”) — I was still wholly intrigued by this look into the reality of kidnappings.
Ben Lopez — not his real name (he needs anonymity to travel the world to do his job) — is a veteran of mercenary kidnapping negotiations. He gets called in, he gets paid, he negotiates, he gets the victim home. In 17 years, he’s never had a victim killed. And he’s also the author of a new book about his experiences called “The Negotiator”. (Not the one starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Or the Priceline commercials starring William Shatner.)
Here are 11 surprising insights about kidnappings — some facts, some advice, and more — from an interview with kidnapping expert Ben Lopez.
1 | It’s probably not gonna happen in the U.S
It’s not that we don’t have any kidnappings, but it’s nothing at all like South America, Africa or Asia. Still… don’t let that render everything on this list moot point. After all, if you watch enough TV in the CSI/SVU/Criminal Minds genre, you grow to wonder if it’s actually possible to ever step outside the house in this country without being kidnapped.
2 | The length of your kidnapping stint can wildly vary
Lopez says the Latin and South American kidnappings can go on for months or even years; in a place like Afghanistan, they usually try to flip it in a few weeks. But both of those sounds like quite a while — “a few weeks” is the low end? — so don’t necessarily expect things to wrap up in time for next week’s episode of Rizzoli and Isles.
3 | You’ll usually be grabbed within 10 miles of home
I think this falls under the whole “all bad things happen to you within a few miles of your home because that’s where you spend the vast majority of your time so, sample size-wise, it makes sense” axiom. It’s not very sexy — it would be way more flashy for most kidnappings to happen when you’re on exotic vacations — but it’s plain old vanilla reality.
4 | In hindsight you might notice some signs, but it’s almost impossible to see them before
There’s really no way you can predict that you’ll be snatched. Afterwards you’ll realize a weird van has been following you for a week and the guy who keeps showing up videotaping you on the street really isn’t just shooting a documentary on stunningly good-looking people like he told you… but beforehand, you won’t see anything out of the ordinary. Unless you’ve had Jason Bourne training without realizing it, that is.
5 | The first 30 minutes are the most dangerous
The time when you’re in extreme danger is the first half hour, because that’s when the kidnappers are on edge. They just committed a high-stakes crime and they’ve got the highest chance of being tracked down and caught… so they’re highly volatile. Even though it violates every single instinct and human reaction, this is the time to stay calm — so they don’t do something rash. My suggestion? Look on the bright side to relax. Try thinking, “Well this is certainly going to be a hell of a story to tell on dates and/or when I’m a contestant on Jeopardy!”
6 | Remember they want you alive
To reference an old cliche, if they wanted you dead, they would’ve killed you. You breathing is worth more money than you cold. You are wanted alive, not dead or alive. In this way (among many, MANY other ways), you are dissimilar to Bon Jovi.
7 | The kidnappers actually will do you some small favors
The kidnappers are probably going to blindfold you — both to keep you from recognizing them and to dehumanize you. But they’ll give you food (eat when you can, because you don’t know when more is coming.) And they will grant modest requests in most cases, like medicine or something to read — unless you get a true psycho who wants you to lotion up your skin.
8 | Don’t try to negotiate your own release
It’s hard to negotiate when it’s a life-or-death situation for you. Plus, believe it or not, you’re not an expert at kidnapping negotiations. It’s not really a skill that you’re born with, it’s a skill that takes years of training and experience. Much like you wouldn’t try to remove your own appendix (you’d call a doctor) and much like you wouldn’t try to use a garden hose to save your burning house (you’d call the fire department) — leave your kidnapping to the pros.
Lopez says that, “Your insurance company knows where to find me.” (Even though, I’m guessing, you don’t have kidnapping insurance. All I have is car insurance. I’m not sure that the two little old ladies who run my car insurance company have this guy in their old-fashioned Roladex. I guess if you’re headed to Afghanistan or Lesotho it would be worth throwing a few bucks at kidnapping insurance.)
9 | Never settle with the kidnappers too early
So the kidnappers grab your child and want, say, $50,000 in ransom. You, “We can get that together and end this thing.” That’s a bad play. By giving in to the first asking price, it shows you’ve got means. If you can easily drum up $50k, you can probably drum up $100k.
Also, maybe bookmark this page so you can cite this when your kid or spouse finally does get home and decides they’re never going to speak to you again because you told the kidnappers you could only afford $10,000 to get them loose. You weren’t saying their life is only worth a 2009 Hyundai — you were negotiating.
10 | You might not suffer psychological damage
Believe it or not, Lopez says that kidnapping isn’t guaranteed to be traumatizing. Unless you’re already a little mentally shaky. In which case you were just a traumatizing waiting to happen.
“There’s been a lot of research into this. But my experience is that people generally come out in much the same shape as they went in. If you’re psychologically well when you are taken, then there will be no long lasting damage; if you’re not, there might well be.”
11 | Stockholm syndrome is a myth
BIG disappointment here. Lopez says he’s never seen any victims begin to identify with their captors — it would take the exact right blend of mentalities and personality disorders for it to happen. Really a long shot. Just another myth that Hollywood and the Liberal Media has made us foolishly believe in. Like evolution and global warming.