Safety Advice for High Net Worth Travelers: Our Expert Q & A
With Joe Funk and Pete Quinn
In recent years, the world’s ultra-net worth population—individuals with more than $30 million in assets—has increased to over 225,000 people. In the U.S., where the greatest number of high net worth individuals live, there are more than 300,000 households with more than $10 million in assets. As the number of high net-worth individuals and families has increased, so too has the animosity toward them, putting them at particular risk when they travel. An example that illustrates this risk is the recent kidnapping of a business executive traveling in La Chaux-de-Fonds Switzerland, a short drive from Davos.
With this environment in mind, our experts will address a number of topics critical to helping high net worth individuals manage their travel exposure. Specifically, they will cover:
- Why and when you need security protection
- Keeping a low profile abroad
- Knowing the local customs
- Following expert advice
- Minimizing social media risk
Joe Funk (JF), Senior Vice President and member of the executive leadership of TorchStone Global, has safeguarded, during his distinguished career, multinational corporate clients, high profile events and individuals, international sports leagues, sitting U.S. Presidents, and presidential candidates.
Peter T. Quinn (PQ), TorchStone’s Vice President and Director of Protective Operations, is a former Marine with 22 years of law enforcement experience and an extensive background in executive protection and risk management, including 12 years of experience on protective assignments around the world for high-profile and high net worth individuals.
Describe for our readers the attitude toward security most high net worth clients initially have.
JF: Most people who have achieved a certain level of power and wealth have done so by not being timid. They aren’t influenced by their surroundings—and this is across all age groups and genders. They’ve achieved what they have by taking risks and rolling the dice. As a consequence, they tend to be less concerned about the need for increased security or risk assessments than the average person. They feel a little Teflon-coated and invulnerable—sometimes too much.
Others take a relaxed point of view: “Nothing has ever happened to me, so why should I be concerned now? I know I’m worth $3 billion, but when I walk down the street no one knows that.” I explain that while the average person may not know you, the concern or risk is what is occurring in the mind of someone who seeks you out and is fixated on you for reasons you may never know or understand.
PQ: Sometimes high net worth individuals don’t think they need security. That can change when a stranger shows up at their house and rings the doorbell—especially when they have young children. That happened to one of our clients recently. As he learned, anyone can find you if they really want to. Fortunately, this individual wasn’t there to harm him or his family, but it was the wake-up call the client needed about making security a priority.
I recently met with someone who was about to come into a great deal of money. He felt completely safe strolling the streets of his city and living as he always had. “No one knows who I am,” he said. “My house is under another name.” To educate him, I showed him the information available about him on the Internet (open source) including details about his personal life that he didn’t know were there. He was shocked. Such information is not always easy to find, but it is always there.
What is the most practical travel advice you give to a high net worth individual?
PQ: Awareness and education are key when it comes to travel. Do your research before a trip. Know where you can go and where you shouldn’t. Speak with friends and colleagues that may have visited the destination previously. Know how you should conduct yourself in places where you travel. Be aware of your surroundings. People can make incorrect assumptions about a place they haven’t been to. Before you travel to a foreign country, consult with a company that has resources there and knows what current conditions are really like.
In some countries, every time you log on to your computer, you are on a government network and nothing is secure. That is especially concerning if you are a business traveler with sensitive information on your laptop. The same is true with your cell phone. Some travelers think that if they are using a VPN (virtual private network), they will be fine. That’s not the case at all. On a recent trip to China I traveled with an IT security specialist who, despite state of the art anti-hacking software, watched government agents access our laptops every time we logged on. I always travel with a separate laptop and smart phone when I go to China. The devices are loaded with just the information I need for that particular trip. I won’t use that equipment again until everything has been appropriately scrubbed and cleaned by a cybersecurity expert.
When traveling, keeping a low profile is also important. No expensive jewelry, no flashy cars and try to avoid using U.S. currency. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, especially if you are an American.
Another important safety tip is to stay in populated, tourist areas. While these may be more attractive terrorist targets, you are safer from the much more common, opportunistic type crimes – robbery, assault, express kidnappings – when you are with people in heavily trafficked areas patrolled by police.
JF: It is very important when you travel overseas to research and know the customs of that particular society while there. If you are a business traveler and violate some of their cultural traditions or norms, that can adversely impact your business opportunities with your hosts. It can also put you at risk while out in public. It is our job to know the local cues inherent to different regions, including what will raise or lower your profile in a particular area.
For example, in certain Mideast countries, terrorists routinely support street vendors in the marketplace outside of western hotels to gain firsthand intelligence. It might be crowded almost every day, but on a day when terrorists are planning an attack, they tell the vendors and friends to stay away. From a security standpoint, we know there is a problem; something is afoot.
In airports, if traveling commercially, you should know what airports have the highest incidence of pickpockets. If you fly first class on some airlines, realize that some airlines have been known to install listening devices on airplanes and in VIP lounges to address security concerns. These same listening devices can also be utilized to gather business intelligence. It has long been speculated that hotel safes in some countries have a back door so intelligence agents in those countries can steal business information. While it is impossible to verify that, it is important to know the countries where the intelligence services are known to be aggressive regarding business travelers. Proceed with caution and act accordingly.
What additional steps should our readers consider?
JF: Follow your security expert’s advice. One time I advised a client who was planning a trip to Mexico to take his own security and arrange a driver. He declined and relied on his host to provide those services. He was expressed kidnapped and forced to drive from ATM to ATM withdrawing funds. He was eventually released unharmed but was seriously shaken by the episode.
In another assignment, we prepared a country intelligence report for a group of young, wealthy tech professionals on a long-term business assignment in a foreign country. We advised them to be low key, not to wear Rolexes, or flash their money. They not only ignored our warnings but chose to invite two local females back to their hotel room that they had just met at a local bar. The women drugged them and made off with their money, electronics, and other possessions. Another U.S. client was involved in a legal action in Asia. Our Asia experts advocated for him not to travel to China, but to send a representative there instead. He went anyway, was subsequently placed under house arrest, and lost the legal case. That cost him a substantial amount of time and money, not to mention the embarrassment and severe inconvenience.
When you travel to places that might be attractive to terrorists like Davos and the Olympics, there is often a strong security infrastructure in place to keep travelers safe. However, the caliber of security protecting high profile events like these in other countries might not be up to Western standards. In these situations, the question to ask is how good is the best security in the country I’m visiting? The “best of the best” there could be outstanding. Or not. Without trying to cast any aspersions on foreign security professionals, be aware of the potential risks of using it. It may be the best in that area, but it may not be what you are used to or what you truly need. Their level of equipment and training may not be up to par. If you can afford it, have someone from your personal security team there to do the logistics and manage advance planning.
PQ: Getting from point A to point B is the most vulnerable point when traveling. The level of vulnerability varies, depending on how recognizable a client is. The more well-known you are, the higher the risk.
Always have a driver when you need ground transportation while traveling overseas. Never drive yourself. In some countries, you could be found criminally liable for a relatively small incident like a traffic accident. Use a trusted, vetted source that is very familiar with the area and trained at a minimum in defensive and evasive driving.
Pay the higher exchange rate in the U.S. and change your money before you go. Your ATM card can be stolen or scanned and compromised, even when in a “protective” radio frequency ID sleeve. Leave your debit cards at home—take a business card. If you must use an ATM machine, use the one in the hotel.
Avoid leaving your luggage in a vehicle like a taxi in a foreign country. Someone could slip something into it that could create problems at customs. Always keep an eye on it and don’t leave it with anyone you don’t know or trust. Before you go through customs, check the outside pockets to make sure someone hasn’t slipped something in. Illicit goods, drugs—these are things you need to watch for, especially in countries that are not friendly to U.S. citizens.
What advice would you give a high net wealth worth individual considering a security detail for the first time?
JF: Some high net worth individuals believe surrounding themselves with the latest technology or security devices will address all their security concerns. My take is that fences keep honest people out and high-tech cameras that are not being actively monitored 24/7 only provide evidence of the crime committed after the fact. Nothing can replace a comprehensive security strategy that combines technology, processes, and manpower.
The client should always have a professional relationship, not a personal one, with any security consultant they employ. Security professionals need to maintain a professional distance from the client and avoid the trap of getting too close. The security consultant needs to understand a client’s social circle and their activities, so they fully understand their lifestyle and can assess the potential risks, but they should never be friends.
The security expert can adapt to a variety of roles to better assimilate – they can appear to be staff or a driver—they don’t need to look like security professionals. Their job is to modify their style and behavior to adapt to the client’s and blend in.
We’re also there to protect the client from embarrassing situations. We are responsible for helping to shield the client from having themselves depicted in a manner or fashion contrary to their business or brand objectives. If you are the face of a high-profile company or worldwide brand, ask yourself how would such an incident affect it?
PQ: More and more high net wealth individuals use security protection. The type of protection needed varies from person to person based on risks, both real and perceived. There is no “one size fits all.” The key is to find the balance that weighs a clients’ risks with the kind of restrictions, if any, they want to put on themselves and their families.
Let’s say a client has a spouse and two children. From a security perspective, we have four principals, each of whom will have different coverage models and protection. When they travel, the security arrangements could be completely different based on if it’s a business trip to an urban area or a leisure trip to someplace exotic. Sometimes you need to step in and sometimes you need to be “in the wings,” providing advise but ultimately leaving the decisions to the client. Many people think security should look a certain way all the time. But when done well, it is an art form, nuanced and sophisticated. The best security plan is sensitive to the client’s lifestyle and comfort zone while working to mitigate any and all potential risks.
How does social media use elevate travel risks?
PQ: When it comes to social media, so many people are unwittingly compromising their security – “getting on a flight to Paris,” “just arrived in Madrid” – these are major vulnerabilities. We see it often, especially with our clients’ children. We have a client whose son posted, “All by myself this week” with a picture of the house. Education was key in that situation. We can’t control everything, which makes the things we do control that much more important.
On the other hand, from a protective perspective, social media is one of many valuable tools we use to help proactively identify and understand people that might be interested in harming our clients, whether physically, or simply their reputations.
JF: We constantly educate clients about it, especially if they are young. We help them to understand that, “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t put it back in.” Photos or instant messages sent to just a few friends can quickly get out to a much larger audience and have hugely adverse effects. We do not advocate that our clients get off social media, that is unrealistic and unhelpful. Still, we try to educate and help our clients use the media wisely and safely. Especially while traveling.
Please visit TorchStone’s Team page to learn more about Joseph J. Funk and Peter T. Quinn.
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