Your Money or Your Life
Earlier this year, I was given a firsthand account of an abduction that took place in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
The victim (let's call him Joe) had just arrived home after attending a karate class. Joe is a black belt karateka with several years of training and tournament experience to his name, so he knows how to kick and punch, and in a fair fight, I'm reasonably sure he'd give a good account of himself.
But on that particular evening, Joe pulled into his drive like he always does, keyed the remote, and waited for the gates to begin opening. Then - in his words, "out of nowhere" - a figure appeared at his side and the muzzle of a gun was pressed to his temple. Within thirty seconds, he was on the floor at the rear of his car, a foot on his head and a gun aimed at him. One assailant held him down while the other drove.
Joe was driven to a deserted area. He was given an ultimatum: divulge all his online banking passwords and logins, and facilitate a transfer of all the money in his accounts - or be killed instantly, without hesitation, if he tried to conceal anything.
After his bank accounts were emptied, he was driven around for half an hour and then kicked out of his car in the center of Alexandra township in the midst of darkness and pouring rain. With no phone, no money, and no idea where he was, all he could do was walk and hope he'd live to see the morning.
Luckily for Joe, he did.
"Cut Off His Ear"
Then, some months later, another incident. This time, someone I know personally - Mike, an IT manager at one of South Africa's largest banks.
It was a Friday evening and Mike had popped out to the local mall to get a takeout meal. He was on his way back to his car, when, in the middle of a reasonably busy parking lot, he was suddenly sandwiched between two men. One, tall and tattooed, flashed him the knife he was carrying. The other assailant, behind Mike, opened his jacket to show the gun in his belt.
"Come with us," they told him, "or you die right here."
They meant it.
Mike was bundled into his car and driven away. He was made to sit in the passenger seat, with the knifeman driving and the gunman positioned in the rear seat.
The talk was aggressive, and the outlook wasn't good. The knifeman repeatedly threatened to cut off one of Mike's ears, just to ensure cooperation. They were heading out of town, and Mike was running out of options. Twice, he identified an opportunity to seize the knife which was now within reach - and to launch an all-out attack in order to save his life.
Luckily, another opportunity suddenly arose. The car slowed for a traffic light, with several other cars in the lane - and in that split second, Mike opened the door and hurled himself out of the car. He ran like hell and escaped - bruised, scraped, and temporarily disoriented - but alive and otherwise unharmed.
Abduction For Profit is Big Business in South Africa
Right now, the statistics paint a grim picture.
In 2013, a total of 3,832 abductions were reported in South Africa. A mere ten years later, this figure has swelled to well over 11,000 abductions in 2023 alone - with many more cases going unreported due to fear of reprisals.
Why is this?
Quite simply, because it's easy money.
- Bit player criminals as well as big kidnapping syndicates know that abductions in South Africa are shockingly easy to perpetrate, with a high success rate and rich pickings. Small-time operators will empty out your accounts or maybe demand a quick and (relatively) easy ransom payment from someone who knows you. But the larger syndicates specifically target known persons of value, and ransom demands typically begin at around R5 million (around $270,000). Those ransoms are often paid over in the form of cryptocurrency, or transferred into untouchable accounts in countries like the UAE and others.
- Within South Africa, there are almost 21 million unemployed youths. Many are without any educational qualifications, are desperately impoverished, and are literally unemployable - which means they're easy steered into a life of violent crime. And because there's no family stability, moral compass or accepted set of societal or civil norms, you're dealing with people who are utterly devoid of compassion or empathy. They will torture or kill you without any remorse whatsoever, then go have a beer and a burger to celebrate.
- To all of this, add dismally inept policing, political corruption, strained courts and legal resources, and laughably inadequate sentences for serious crimes. Truthfully, it's a recipe for a situation where you can no longer rely on the government, law enforcement, or anybody else for your own safety. And that means only one thing. It's up to you to do everything you can to avoid becoming a target.
So, with that said, here are 5 key steps you should take to reduce your likelihood of becoming an abduction target.
Step 1: Get (Really) Serious About Situational Awareness
Your immediate environment is something you're immersed in, moment by moment. It's something you can constantly analyze, react to - and to some extent, control - in order to live more safely.
And whether you're a high-profile business leader attending a convention, a homemaker heading for the mall, or maybe a solo female traveler exploring new horizons, situational awareness is your most valuable tool in terms of daily personal safety.
At Elite Defence Academy International, we teach a system of situational awareness called Color Coding. It's nothing new, by the way - it was first invented many years ago by the renowned Colonel Jeff Cooper.
Color Coding is simply a way to gauge, calibrate, and heighten your mental state of automatic awareness and preparedness, so you're far less likely to be caught unawares.
The most amazing thing about Color Coding is that it quickly becomes automatic - in fact, completely unconscious - and yet increasingly powerful over time. The concept is really simple, but it requires a quick explanation.
Take a look at this short video clip:
This is a really, really important primary skill to learn, because it alerts you to incoming trouble - in real time. And you might need it tomorrow. Or right now.
Step 2: Develop Tight InfoSec
Information security is where many victims of organized crime are most vulnerable - and they don't even realize it.
Very simply, this means that you need to throw a blanket of tight secrecy over some critical aspects of your life:
Don't unnecessarily advertise your level of success or wealth. A big ego will quickly paint a target on you, whether you like it or not. Ignore this at your peril. By all means go ahead and drive the luxury car if you want. Wear your Rolex in public spaces, broadcast the fact that you're making it big, that your business just clocked record figures. Post on social media so people can see your trips to the world's most exotic resorts and the breathtakingly expensive piece of jewelry you just purchased for your significant other.
But understand that if you do, you might suddenly be a whole lot more attractive to the wrong kind of people.
Also, please remember that you don't necessarily have to be wealthy by any particular standard, to be an abduction target. All you have to be is an easy mark.
Be prudent when it comes to divulging personal information. Remember that in the case of a carefully planned abduction, criminals are smarter than you might think. For example, they might not be able to access personal info directly - but they could buy (or force) someone at your child's school to feed them details of your known financial status, secondary contacts, and maybe even insights into your habits and movements.
In fact, maybe you should seriously consider the fact that your child is generally an easier target than you are.
Be judicious about who you employ, and how much access you grant to your home and lifestyle. The truth is that many contact crimes happen because even a trusted individual who works in your household, your company, or maybe a contractor doing repair work for you on a once-off basis, can become an informant. That doesn't always mean they're criminals themselves, but it's easier than you think for someone to bribe them for a little "harmless" information - or threaten their family if they're uncooperative.
Ensure your online activities are as secure as possible. Obviously, the richest sources of information on you - your finances, your movements, your habits, your preferences, your family, your weaknesses and triggers - are found online. If someone with bad intentions can infiltrate your email accounts and social media, they probably know more about you than you do.
So - strong malware protection. Regular password changes. Don't use public Wi-Fi networks. If you're high net worth or deal with sensitive or high-value information online, consider Faraday screening for any devices you carry in public.
There are dozens of similar examples, but here's a simple guideline. Ask yourself: "If I wanted to figure out exactly how to get to somebody and kidnap them, what would I need to know? And how could I get hold of that information?"
You'll quickly - and accurately - figure out where your weak points are.
This forms part of a process called inverse thinking, which I'll talk about in greater detail a few paragraphs down.
Step 3: Always Assume You're Being Watched
In our day to day training, we often refer to this as the "what if" game.
And it is a game. It's a way of training your mind to calmly and intelligently anticipate potential obstacles or hazards, especially criminal ones.
Here's an example. You're driving along when you get to a relatively quiet intersection. There are thick bushes nearby on either side and you've stopped at the traffic light. Your common sense tells you that maybe this isn't the time to be scrolling through your WhatsApp messages or fixing your face, because this is South Africa.
So, you play the what if game:
- What if someone was to suddenly emerge from those bushes and make a run at my car?
- Do I have enough time or opportunity to pull off and escape? Is there cross-traffic?
- If not, what are my options? Am I armed and ready if something should happen?
Of course, the point is to do this in a non-fearful, almost playful way. And you can apply it to every aspect of your daily activity, from stepping into an elevator to dining at a restaurant, to approaching your home after work or a trip to the mall.
That means that if something does happen, you're better prepared to meet it, with better options or strategies already mentally or physically in place. This is the vast difference between getting away safely (or fighting back effectively), or being a member of the "they came out of nowhere" club.
So, in a non-paranoid way, assume that someone is always watching you. And if they are, where would they be positioned? What would they look like? How would their body language or "vibe" differ from others? You'd be surprised at what you begin to pick up when you apply this habitually.
The "what if" game is a really powerful tool that can be used anywhere, anytime - but most especially when you encounter points of inflection.
Step 4: Beware Points of Inflection
A point of inflection is any context, environment, or situation where you're stalled or rendered momentarily vulnerable to an ambush. In military parlance, it's the "kill zone" - the predetermined spot where you're boxed in, there's no escape and minimal cover, and you're a proverbial sitting duck.
Opportunistic kidnappers (like the guys who grabbed Mike), as well as highly organized syndicates who preplan their operations, both rely heavily on points of inflection to bag 'n tag their victims. After all, it's vastly easier for a lion to grab a gazelle while it's busy drinking at the water hole, or while it's distractedly attending to a young one, or hemmed in by thick bushes that limit a quick getaway.
Criminals know this.
The amazing thing is that most regular people don't. They go about daily life, completely blind to the fact that they're walking into a potential zone of higher personal risk.
Here are some very common points of inflection that most people enter into every single day:
- Traffic lights, intersections, and freeway offramps. You're stopped, you're often boxed in, and it's really easy for assailants to pull you out of your vehicle and bundle you into theirs. (Pretty much zero guarantee that anybody else will interfere or help you either.)
Quick fix: Always leave tons of space between you and the vehicle in front of you. Have room to maneuver, because your best option is to pre-empt an abduction attempt by speeding away. Ram your way through if necessary.
Parking lots. Your hands are full, you're busy sorting out your parking stub and shopping bags, and you mistakenly assume that because there are other people around (or that mall security guy dozing off near the exit), that you're somehow "safe".
Quick fix: Have your keys in your hand, have a concealed weapon on you, and don't get distracted or waste time. Your objective: scan the lot, get to your car quickly, and get moving as smartly as you can. Don't sit in your car checking mails on your phone - get moving immediately. Criminals hate it when you refuse to sit there like an unaware dumbass in your car, immobile and an easy target.
Your own driveway / gated enclosure. There's an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt - or in this case, complacency. We tend to relax and drop our guard when we're approaching home, because it's familiar turf and we "feel" safe. This can be a fatal mistake. If there's one thing a criminal knows for sure, it's that you will return home at some point. All he has to do is wait. It's here that you are most critically vulnerable, and it's here that you need to be most switched on.
So always approach your home like you're about to enter a militia-infested warzone with potential booby traps and gun-toting crazies waiting to ambush you. Seriously. It sounds a little bleak, but you can relax once you're inside and safely secured.
Quick fix: When you're approaching home, run a quick checklist:
- Am I being followed?
- Does anything - anything - appear suspicious or out of place?
- Are there any stationary vehicles or pedestrians nearby? What are they doing?
- Am I leaving room for escape if something unfolds? (Don't pull into your drive but stay in the street until you have clear access to your property, and check the proximity of others as you pull in.)
Filling stations. For abductors, this is a favorite. You're immobile, you're essentially trapped in your car, the engine is turned off, and you're hemmed in by fuel pumps, people, other vehicles... it's a criminal's dream ambush point.
Quick fix: Load the odds in your favor:
- If a vehicle follows you into a service station but doesn't actually pull up to a fuel pump, be aware of it - and check out the occupants. If it's a mom with a toddler, all good, but if it's four guys looking shifty, it's time to leave. Immediately.
- Try to pull up to a fuel pump in a way that allows you a direct route out if you have to speed away to escape being grabbed.
- If you stay in your car while being refueled, be hyper-vigilant. Be prepared to key the ignition and accelerate out with extreme urgency if you see people coming at you with guns (because that's kind of what they do).
- If you choose to exit your car while it's being refueled, have your head on a swivel and view anybody coming into your space as a potential threat. Be weaponized. Practice fighting and running to the best of your ability. (In your own time, not at the service station, obvs.)
- Public restrooms, waiting for a cab or ride share service, using an outdoor ATM, or even at a fast food drive through. A point of inflection can be pretty much any place or situation where you're distracted, forced to pause, or otherwise momentarily vulnerable. Take a diligent look at your own habits, movements, and environment - and adjust your behavior accordingly.
Oh, one more thing.
Remember that criminals will also engineer points of inflection.
A seemingly broken down vehicle partially blocking a roadway.
Rocks or other "accidental" obstacles placed on a freeway to cause tire deflation and force you to stop.
Someone approaching you and asking for money, trying to tell you their sad story, or interrupt your movement by distracting you.
A beggar or street vendor approaching your car window at a traffic light.
A vehicle that lightly and "accidentally" rear-ends yours on the road, causing you to stop to assess damage or exchange information.
A bin picker outside your house on garbage morning.
The list goes on... and on. And yes, it's problematic, because predators are masters of camouflage.
But at the end of the day, the one thing that will serve your highest purpose is your instinct. Your gut feeling that something is off.
The mantra here is a simple one: if in doubt, get out.
Rather get out of there, even if it's a false alarm.
Step 5: Use Inverse Thinking
Inverse thinking is one of the most powerful mental tools you can use to enhance your personal safety.
It's also one of the simplest.
The human brain has evolved to become absolutely awesome at recognizing or anticipating potential threats. So much so, in fact, that some neuroscientists say we're 7x better at threat recognition than we are at opportunity recognition!
From a primitive survival perspective, this makes enormous sense. It's what has kept our species alive for hundreds of thousands of years. To put it another way, we're far better at avoiding discomfort than at achieving comfort.
Our. Brains. Are. Lazy.
Charlie Munger, the late, great investment icon, famously said: "Many problems can't be solved forward."
So, rather than ask: "how could I become as safe as possible", you'd do a thought exercise where you instead ask: "how could I become as vulnerable as possible? In fact, how could I almost guarantee that I'd be targeted by criminals or kidnappers?"
It sounds stupid, but it works. Your brain will fire up and give you a thousand ways you could compromise your own safety. Then, list those things - and do the exact opposite.
Make Basic Safety Drills a Daily Habit
Of course, there's tons more.
But if you start out with these 5 basic steps, you'll be well on your way to ensuring a far greater level of safety - for yourself, and for your loved ones.
Stay sharp out there, and don't become a target!