How to survive kidnapping

Random kidnappings are thankfully rare in the developed world — most instances are a dispute within a family or romantic relationship. This guide covers the basics, with tips on what to do ahead of time and in those crucial moments.

There are around 20-25,000 kidnappings in the US each year. In 2019, the most recent year of data, there were 22,757 kidnappings out of 1.64 million “crimes against persons” — so it’s relatively rare.

Of those kidnappings, 80% are done by family members or someone known to the victim. That’s because the majority or kidnappings are when children are taken by/for a family member, such as a divorced parent without visitation/custody rights taking “their” child without permission.

There are of course instances where children or adults are taken by random people in “newsworthy” events, such as a molestor taking a child off the street for a few days of sexual assault before releasing them or even holding them for years as “their child.” Some adults get drugged and taken because they rejected a person’s sexual/romantic advances and now the rejectee is “getting even.”

The classic movie plot of an adult being kidnapped and held for ransom is very rare in developed western countries. Latin America and Africa are the hotspots, so you’d want to be aware when traveling in those areas.

The biggest risk for adults in developed countries is “Express Kidnappings.” A classic scenario is someone approaching you at an ATM, forcing you to get in their vehicle as they drive you around to a few ATMS to withdraw as much cash as possible. They’re “express” because they happen quickly — the criminal doesn’t want to hold you for some future purpose, they just want to make a quick hit and be done with it.


  • If you’ve got a sketchy feeling about someone, don’t be afraid to take out your phone. You can take a picture of them, pretend to make a call, or make a real call — any of those will be a deterrent, and if you are taken while having a call with someone else, at least there’s an ally on the other end who can help.
  • If you’re being kidnapped, the general advice is to scream, attack, and escape. With enough fuss, the attacker might disengage.
  • Although not a universal rule, you generally don’t want to get in vehicles with unknown kidnappers. You have less power once they have you in a contained space they control.
  • But there can be circumstances where being calm and compliant is the best response. For example, if the physical size difference between the kidnapper and victim is so large that kicking and screaming doesn’t matter. Or if the attacker has a lethal weapon and there’s just no one around to hear you scream.
  • The first 15 minutes of a kidnapping are the most volatile because the criminal’s emotions and adrenaline are at their peak. Waiting for them to calm down might be the best strategy — especially if they seem intoxicated or unstable.
  • If you are taken, keeping your wits is the most important thing. Stay calm and compliant while trying to ingratiate and humanize yourself to the kidnapper while also stealthily looking for opportunities to escape.
  • You do not have to wait 24 hours before filing a missing child report with police — in fact, the first three hours are crucial, so don’t delay once you know something is wrong.
  • Teach children “don’t go with anyone unless you have permission from mommy/daddy.” The old advice of teaching kids that strangers are dangerous can fail here, since many kidnappers aren’t strangers. If you’re worried about the other parent taking the kid, be specific about who can give permission.

Once kidnapped, most victims don’t have the ability to reach or use their phone. But if you can, call 911 — trying anyone else is simply a waste of that precious opportunity. Keep in mind that 911 can (usually) track your location, even if you can’t say anything out loud.

If she wasn’t on the phone while being taken, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have known anything about where to look. An ally on the other end of the line can absolutely save your life, especially if you share details about where you are, who’s taking you, etc.

Express kidnappings

Prevention is the best prep. When you’re in an area criminals would be fishing for victims, such as an external ATM on a dark city street, use your situational awareness skills:

  • Find a better ATM! Security door, lights, cameras, etc.
  • Look around before stepping up to the ATM. Maybe even wait a minute or so.
  • Use the convex mirrors attached to the top to keep an eye behind you.
  • If someone steps up behind you as if they are waiting in line, and you feel sketchy about them, don’t be afraid to politely ask for some distance, pull out your phone, or simply leave.

Tip: Although unrelated to kidnappings, also be aware of ATM hacks. Try wiggling the ATM pieces where you slide in your card, since thieves will glue convincing replicas on top of the real equipment as a sort of intermediary catch.

Most express kidnappers are low-level, inexperienced criminals — a thug looking to make a quick buck. Many will be intoxicated, which can make the situation much more dangerous than it needs to be.

If they have a lethal weapon, are very intoxicated, there’s no one who can hear you scream, or there are other context clues that make you think the situation is serious, then it’s usually better to comply because the data says they will let you go.

If you’re an attractive female, unfortunately there’s a higher chance the kidnapper will attempt rape before releasing you. Even if it wasn’t their original motivation, adrenaline, drugs, and other factors can put the idea in their head during the kidnapping. If that happens, you could try saying something like “I already gave you all my money! I won’t report anything if you just let me go now!” Or maybe you could throw a handful of money in the air to distract them, giving you a chance to run.

Traveling in hotspots like Latin America and Africa

Express kidnappings are common in these areas because tourists are easy targets. Besides the ATM example above, another common situation is with random taxi drivers.

For example, a TP community member that lives in Colombia was held at knifepoint by a taxi driver until they did an ATM run. Although they lived there (not a tourist) and spoke the language, they did stand out as an “American white person who wasn’t poor.” They had a few drinks on New Years Eve, hailed a cab home, and the driver thought it was an easy take.

The best way to avoid this is by using apps like Uber or Lyft in unknown areas. The drivers are known, location is tracked, etc. Don’t trust random drivers, especially those who approach you on the street instead of you approaching them.

General tips when traveling in these areas:

  • Don’t display wealth, eg. keep your expensive Canon camera hidden.
  • Some travelers have “dummy wallets” with a little bit of cash. That way if they’re taken or mugged, they can hand over “their wallet” and hopefully end the encounter while still having their ID, credit cards, and backup cash in a safe spot.
  • It’s better to have some cash on hand to give to an attacker right away. If you have no cash, it’s more likely they will kidnap you until you hit an ATM.
  • Be open to hospitality and new friends, but be skeptical of people offering you things. If you meet a local and they invite you to have a drink, for example, that could very well be a scam or precursor to kidnapping.
  • Tell someone where you’ll be. If you’re going to check out the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, for example, you could leave a note in your hotel room or with the front desk.

If you do end up in this situation, compliance is usually the best choice. The criminals don’t want to draw attention by actually hurting a tourist — many of the governments in those kinds of countries react strongly to this kind of tourist crime, since much of their economy depends on foreigners feeling safe.

Self defense laws can also be more ambiguous in these countries, especially for foreigners. You might be totally justified in taking out your own weapon and defending yourself in the US, but the same situation in rural South Africa could get you life in prison.

If you’re “Googleable” as a high-net-worth or famous person, and you have to travel to areas known for ransom kidnapping, it can be worth negotiating with your employer or client for local security. Even just a local person going along with you who speaks the language and has a calm head — not necessarily an armed guard — can make a huge difference in whether you’re an easy target. An attacker hearing another local speaking their language saying “this gringo isn’t worth it, man!” can help.

Preparing for child kidnapping

If you’re in a situation where you worry a family member might take your child (here’s a list of risk factors), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has this guide about legal steps to take, such as protection orders.

Organizations like the FBI and NCMEC recommend creating a Child ID Kit — essentially core documents to have on hand in case of a kidnapping. You can usually take your child into local law enforcement agencies to have a free fingerprint card made, for example. Recent color photos and important bio/medical information is a must.

According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection: “It is far more effective to teach children not to go anywhere with anyone without first getting permission from their parents.”

So make sure your child knows who they need permission from before doing something / going somewhere with someone else. Be explicit: “You cannot go anywhere away from home unless Mom or Uncle John tell you it’s okay, even if you know the other person.”

You could try to teach very young children to kick and scream if being taken. But a small child doing that isn’t likely to hurt the kidnapper or draw attention from others — after all, you’ve probably picked up and carried your kid to the car when they didn’t want to leave the park, for example, and their kicking and screaming wouldn’t have drawn serious attention from other parents. Whereas a 10 year old kicking and screaming is unusual.

So if it makes sense for your children, teach them to kick and scream and hard as they can. Most parents feel it doesn’t make sense to try and teach them more granular decision making, such as “well in this situation, you should be compliant instead.” Kidnappers are less likely to hurt children during the kidnapping, even when they’re being difficult, so just keep it easy and tell them to throw a world-class fit.

A recent example is this 11-year-old Florida girl. A random man stopped his car along the road where she was waiting for the school bus, got out, and tried to grab her. She threw a great fit and it scared off the kidnapper.

Steps when you realize your child is missing

If your child is missing while you’re in something like a store or theme park, immediately notify an employee. Many locations have quick-reaction plans in place, such as the Code Adam plan originally developed by Walmart and named for Adam Walsh, son of America’s Most Wanted’s John Walsh. You can of course call local law enforcement, too.

Sometimes parents call the police and then later find the kid sleeping inside of a closet. So unless you have a reason to jump to conclusions (eg. a disgruntled spouse), look through these areas:

  • Closets
  • Piles of laundry
  • In and under beds
  • Inside large appliances
  • Vehicles, including the trunk
  • Crawlspaces, attics, etc
  • Friends or neighbours houses

Once you reasonably believe they are missing, call 911 right away. Although false alarms are understandably embarrassing, the data shows that every hour counts.

According to the NCMEC, “US Federal law prohibits law enforcement from establishing a waiting period before accepting a missing child report, and requires law enforcement agencies to respond to [those reports] in a specific way, regardless of the reason why a child is missing. If a parent/guardian has difficulties getting law enforcement to take a report or enter a missing child’s information into NCIC, contact NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).”

Besides what you might already have in a Child ID Kit, such as a recent photo, current information is helpful too:

  • What your child is wearing
  • Who they might be with
  • The vehicle information (make, model, license plate) for people who might have taken the kid

Request that law enforcement issue a BOLO bulletin (“be on the lookout”) for your child. You’ve probably received an AMBER Alert on your mobile phone — it’s a special message with a loud sound. Those notices are usually issued for kids under 17 (although it can vary by state).

In the US, the FBI has jurisdiction over disappearances of children under 12. If your local law enforcement doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, call your local FBI field office or the closest international office.

If your child is being abducted internationally by a family member and is not yet abroad, contact the US Department of State — they can issue flags to catch people as they leave the country.

Try to limit access to your home, since law enforcement might want to look around for evidence.

Although created in 1998, many experts still reference When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide for coping with the time after you’ve taken the steps above.

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