Extortion & Fake Kidnap - Booming Business in 2024

Plus: Would protectors benefit from hostage training?

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Welcome to 2024's first edition of On the Circuit, your guide to global security trends and strategies.

In this issue, we’re throwing a spotlight on extortion and the impact on protectors trying to keep safe some of the most at-risk individuals. Ecuador has become the poster child for gangs looking to branch out and diversify their criminal enterprise.

We also examine a recent cyber-kidnapping case in Utah, highlighting the evolving digital threats. And, don't miss our podcast with former hostage Peter Moore, discussing his innovative VR training program for hostage and kidnap scenarios.

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Criminal Diversification: The Booming Business of Extortion in Ecuador

In Ecuador, it seems that the drug trafficking gangs have found a new hobby: extortion. It's almost like they've grown tired of the same old drug dealing routine and are now trying their hand at something more... interpersonal. The extortion cases in Ecuador have shot up more than 65% between 2022 and November 2023 and almost 400% since 2021. Who knew that making threats would come back in vogue?

In one particularly gutsy move, one entrepreneurial gang decided that a school in Guayaquil would make a good target. They even threw a grenade at it, just in case their $10,000 demand wasn’t persuasive enough.

Juan Jaramillo, an Ecuadorian security expert, paints a bleak picture: “If you don't cough up the cash, expect a bomb or bullet as a reminder.” Businesses are shutting down faster than your teenage son’s browser window when he catches you looking over his shoulder!

But wait, if you think extortion is pretty simplistic, you haven’t fully appreciated the extent of the entrepreneurial opportunities available. There's a literal menu of extortion options to choose from.

Virtual extortion
Threatening calls or messages - often served directly from prisons.

Main Course:
Common extortion
A buffet of crimes, including express kidnappings and motorcycle theft.

Sexual extortion
Blackmail with a spicy twist.

Chefs Special:
(meaning vaccine) Extortion that involves periodic payments to avoid harm.

The big gangs, like the Choneros, Lobos, and Tiguerones, have decided that vacuna is their dish of choice. And what’s more, it's becoming their new market, shifting from the traditional drug trade to something more hands-on.

The fragmentation of these gangs, especially after the Choneros leader bit the dust in 2020, has left a power vacuum. Smaller factions lacking the savvy to continue drug trafficking are turning to extortion as their new cash cow. Major Hector Javier Franco of Ecuador’s anti-extortion police unit describes it as a warning sign they ignored, leading to the current extortion bonanza.

There's also been a shift in the cocaine market. Police officials suggest that beefed-up interdiction efforts have made trafficking less profitable, pushing gangs towards extortion. However, others argue it's more about changing cocaine trade dynamics.

As these gangs grow more sophisticated and prevalent, they're even roping in kids who find extortion a lucrative part-time job. It's a vicious cycle: as organized crime ramps up extortion, it creates a climate of fear, making it easier for even small-time crooks to get in on the action.

It's a grim reminder that in the world of crime, when one door closes, another, possibly more menacing, one opens.


How should security professionals adapt their protection strategies for high-profile clients when traveling to high-risk destinations?

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Read to the end to see the results from last week’s poll. 👇


Teenager found alive in Utah woods after ‘cyber-kidnapping extortion scam’

In a chilling yet increasingly familiar scenario, 17-year-old Chinese exchange student Kai Zhuang became the latest victim of a "cyber-kidnapping" scam, echoing the rising global concern over extortion and kidnapping schemes.

Kai was found alive and distressed in a tent, having been manipulated into isolating himself as part of a ploy that extorted $80,000 from his parents in China.

The search for Kai led police to analyze bank records, purchases, and phone data, eventually locating him in a remote area of Utah, risking exposure to freezing conditions.

After police found him in a tent with minimal supplies and several phones used in the scam, his first requests were typical gen-z: a warm cheeseburger and a call to his family.

This case typifies the growing trend of cyber-kidnapping, where victims are coerced into staging their own abductions under the belief that non-compliance would harm their families.

Cyber-kidnappers are increasingly targeting foreign exchange students, particularly Chinese nationals. This incident underscores the urgency for heightened safety awareness and vigilance against such digital-age threats.

This case highlights the sophisticated and psychological nature of modern extortion tactics, where technology facilitates deception and fear. It’s a stark reminder for security professionals that extortion and kidnapping can manifest in various forms, demanding adaptive and informed protection strategies for those under their care.

Iran Recruits Afghans To Target Israelis

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is reportedly enlisting Afghans for a not-so-covert mission: targeting Israelis. Unit 400 of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial arm of the IRGC, alongside Al Qaeda, is orchestrating various plots involving suicide attacks and assassinations.

This strategic alliance has seen the recruitment of Afghans, including a foiled attempt to assassinate an Israeli businessman in Tbilisi. The scheme's revelation came from Georgia's security officials, who uncovered the plot masterminded by the IRGC-QF and executed by Al Qaeda members.

This tactic isn't new; the IRGC has been recruiting Afghans since 2014 to fight in Syria, offering residence permits and financial incentives.

Iran’s ties with Al Qaeda date back to the early 1990s, with Iran providing sanctuary and operational support to Al Qaeda leaders and their families.

This development underscores the evolving landscape of global terrorism, where state actors like Iran employ non-state entities to carry out covert operations.

As the lines between state-sponsored terrorism and independent extremist groups blur, vigilance and adaptability become key in navigating this intricate and perilous security landscape.

Report: AI dominates security megatrend for 2024

Artificial Intelligence, perhaps unsurprisingly, has emerged as the megatrend for 2024. According to a Security Industry Association (SIA) report, ninety-three percent of industry leaders expect generative AI to support their business strategies fully within five years. Meanwhile, 89% are already cooking up AI projects in their R&D departments.

The report, which surveyed the who's who of the security industry, points out three main headaches with AI: trust, ethical use, and cybersecurity.

Forty-eight percent of security solution developers are betting big on generative AI impacting their strategy, and 74% say their firms are heavily invested in AI research. But as AI becomes more accessible and popular, the call for regulatory guidebooks grows louder.

For security professionals, this trend underscores the need to stay ahead in the AI game, ensuring we harness its powers responsibly while navigating the new challenges it brings to the cybersecurity landscape.

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🇰🇵 North Korea: North Korea fired 200 artillery shells into a maritime border zone, leading to the evacuation of South Korean islands.

🇮🇷 Iran: Iran vows retaliation for Kerman bombings. Islamic State claims responsibility, reducing chances of blaming Israel and the US.

🇮🇱 Israel: Israeli Defense Minister proposes post-war plan for Gaza - Israeli military oversight, Palestinian civil administration, supported by an international task force.

🇮🇶 Iraq: U.S. drone strike in Baghdad kills top commander of pro-Iranian militia, escalating tensions amidst militia attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq.

Kidnap and Hostile Environment Training

Are two weeks of gruelling and degrading kidnap and hostile environment training suitable for most EP professionals and their principals?

Introducing a possible middle ground in virtual reality simulated training developed by Peter Moore, IT consultant and former hostage.

Peter Moore, who has written several times for the Circuit Magazine, joins us on the podcast to discuss:

  • What are the benefits and scope of possibilities of virtual reality training today for protectors?

  • How can you convince your Principal to participate in awareness training without scaring them?

  • Would a hyper-realistic, in-person kidnap and ransom training course be of any benefit to a non-government or Military protector?

  • Where does awareness training sit within the professional qualifications being sought by protectors?

  • Should you integrate 'conduct after capture' training for both principal and protector, and how should a kidnap subject react to the key hours after being taken?


‘You're F**ked': Security Guard's Big Win

Due to his curiosity, security guard Noel Barron found himself on the receiving end of less-than-diplomatic communications from Management. Mr. Barron's curiosity about a company merger and who would be signing his paycheck resulted in his CEO, Michael Hilferty, informing him, “You are going to be sacked.” Which was later followed up with, “You’re getting one in the post, you’re f**ked!”

After being furloughed due to COVID-19, Barron finds out his employment was terminated over "gross misconduct." Meanwhile, his former colleagues return to work at the newly merged company.

The WRC adjudication officer, whose job was to untangle this messy web, noted the conflicting signals sent by Hilferty regarding Barron's employment status. He concluded that Barron's dismissal was "entirely unfair" and clearly violated the Unfair Dismissals Act. Barron received compensation of €20,336.43.

This story sounds a cautionary note to business owners about the importance of fair employment practices and how one ill-advised comment can lead to a costly payout. Even in the often disparate world of security, where contractors and employees struggle for basic rights, management must act in accordance with basic employment rights.


Q: Which strategy would most improve your current security set-up?

🟨🟨🟨🟨⬜️⬜️ Digital and Cyber Security Training: Including social media awareness and cyber threat prevention. (27%)

🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩 Physical Security Upgrades: Home security systems, personal protection techniques, and regular audits. (41%)

🟨🟨🟨🟨⬜️⬜️ Client Involvement and Education: Awareness training and active participation in safety protocols. (29%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ Other. Let us know your thoughts (3%)

Your Feedback:
MR: Educating them on procedures and practices should include physical security upgrade recommendations, including safety awareness. Cyber security errors and practices - duel or triple verification, complex passwords, and secret code words to use in case of suspected, potential, or actual threat of danger.  

DM: Our standard response from the client is "well it's never happened to us before".

J@SSP: More emphasis could be placed on: 
1. knowledge of threats.
2. Use of OSINT.
3. Procedures for approaches to the Residence.
4. Mutual sharing of information with local police.
5. Regular training for security teams in anticipation of fast violent attacks.
6. Regular engagement with client/principal regarding their role in mitigating risks and what to do In Case of Emergency


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Stay safe, and keep looking out for one another.

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