There is an ongoing threat of kidnapping in many parts of the world. While no-one can eliminate the risk of kidnap, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.
Explore this page to learn about
- the different types of kidnapping
- destinations where the kidnapping risk is higher
- how you can reduce your risk of kidnapping
- where to get help overseas
This page is about reducing the risk of kidnapping, before you go, for you and your children. If someone you know is overseas and needs help, see our kidnapped overseas page.
Types of kidnapping
- Basic kidnapping
- Child abduction
- Express kidnapping
- Virtual kidnapping
- Ideological kidnapping (including by terrorists)
Kidnapping is the unlawful seizing or taking away of another person against their will. It's also known as a criminal abduction.
In the case of child kidnapping, it's taking a child against the will of any parent or legal guardian of that person.
In most basic kidnapping cases, the perpetrators are motivated by ransom or concessions. They take and detain the victim, then contact their loved ones or employer to negotiate the victim's release.
Also see our advice on avoiding kidnap for business travellers.
Learn more about kidnapping statistics worldwide (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC).
International parental child abduction
International parental child abduction is similar to kidnapping. However, the perpetrator:
- is one of the child's parents or guardians
- seeks to deny the other parent or guardian access to the child
- usually doesn't seek ransom or demands
It occurs when one parent or guardian takes their child out of the country without proper permission.
This can be permission from the other parent or guardian, or an Australian court.
Learn more about international parental child abduction (Attorney-General's Department).
Criminal groups often kidnap tourists, then force them to withdraw money from ATMs. In some locations this is known as 'express kidnapping'.
It is common in countries in Central and South America, especially Mexico and Colombia, but occurs in other countries.
- In some cases victims have been killed resisting kidnappers.
- Using ATMs located inside banks, hotels and shopping centres during daylight hours may reduce this risk.
- Some criminals pose as unlicensed taxi drivers. Once the victim is in the cab they are held until they agree to withdraw money. Always use licensed taxi services.
Another emerging trend is 'virtual kidnapping'. This is not a real kidnapping, as the victim is safe. It's a scam. This scam targets family and friends of travellers, not the traveller.
The traveller may not even be aware of the call.
It's more common in China and Mexico. Though there's report of calls from around the world.
Learn more about virtual kidnapping from the National Institutes of Health (US Government). Also read the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) advice on virtual kidnapping (US Government).
How it works
The virtual kidnapper contacts the traveller's loved one and demands an immediate payment. They create a story that sounds likely, often drawing from information the traveller shares publicly on social media.
In most virtual kidnapping cases, the caller tries to keep their real victim on the phone until the transaction is complete. This prevents the real victim from trying to contact the alleged victim.
If they ask for a credit card number, it could also be a credit card scam (ACCC).
Types of virtual kidnapping
- The caller claims to have their loved one hostage. They demand an immediate ransom for their safe return
- The caller says they're from a hospital. They say the traveller is in hospital and needs urgent medical assistance. They ask for payment upfront for the medical treatment.
- The caller claims to be from the police. They claim the traveller has been arrested or jailed. They demand money to pay the traveller's fines, so they can release them.
To reduce the risk of virtual kidnapping scams
- Check your social media privacy settings. The more detail you publish publicly, the more information the scammer can use to create a realistic story that your loved ones may believe.
- Be informed about scams. As a traveller, or as the family or friend of an Australian travelling overseas. Learn more about avoiding scams on ScamWatch (Australian Competition and Consumer Council, ACCC).
Kidnapping and online scams
Some kidnappings are part of another crime, especially online scams. This includes romance scams and Nigerian letter scams (ACCC).
Some kidnappers run very sophisticated operations. Often they build a relationship of trust over months or years with the victim, before luring them overseas.
Be wary of any online invitation you receive to travel to an unfamiliar location, especially if someone is offering romance, employment or money.
If you think you've been scammed, don't travel overseas to get your money back. The scammer may kidnap you, then extort your loved ones for even more money to secure your release.
See our general advice on avoiding scams. Learn more about avoiding scams on ScamWatch (ACCC).
Piracy and kidnapping
Piracy can include kidnapping. Some pirates kidnap people who travel by boat and demand a ransom.
Pirates attack all forms of shipping. This includes commercial vessels, pleasure craft (such as yachts) and luxury cruise liners. Piracy occurs:
- off the coast of Somalia and Yemen (including the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden)
- in the Gulf of Guinea (Benin, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea all border on the Gulf of Guinea), and
- near Mindanao and in the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Malaysia
For more information, see our general advice on boat travel and our piracy page.
Kidnapping by terrorists
Terrorist and militant groups often target foreigners for kidnap. In some instances, terrorists have killed their victims when their demands weren’t met.
Some kidnappings happen for ideological or political reasons. This leaves little or no room for negotiation.
For more information, see our general advice and information about terrorism.
Foreigners at higher risk of kidnapping by terrorists
Terrorists commonly target foreigners for kidnapping who are:
- oil and mining industry employees
- aid and humanitarian workers or volunteers
- tourists, especially where tourism is rare
Terrorists may use local merchants to identify potential victims. This includes using local tour and transport operators.
Where the risk of kidnapping by terrorists is highest
Terrorists can target Australians in any destination. However, the risk of kidnap is higher in conflict zones and other countries where our advice level is 'Do not travel'.
Terrorists may use cultural festivals in remote locations to identify foreign targets. These festivals bring people to predictable places along unsecured routes.
In locations where there are few tourists, any foreigner may attract more attention from local terrorists. This is especially the case in destinations where our advice level is 'Do not travel'.
Kidnappers may take hostages into a neighbouring country. For example, militants have kidnapped humanitarian workers and tourists in Kenya but held them in Somalia. Foreigners kidnapped in Afghanistan have sometimes been taken to Pakistan.
Areas of particular concern
The kidnapping threat is particularly high in some parts of the world. The list below does not cover all high-threat areas. See country-specific travel advisories for further information.
Kidnapping is a threat to commercial activities in remote parts of West and East Africa and across the Sahel area in Africa. It is also a threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as parts of the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia, notably in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia and the Southern Phillipines.
Travel insurance for kidnapping
Standard travel insurance policies don't cover kidnapping or pay ransoms. You may need a specialised policy, especially if you're going to a high risk zone.
Get comprehensive travel insurance that covers kidnapping.
- Some standard policies only cover some types of kidnap, such as express kidnap. They may treat it as a mugging.
- Check what circumstances and activities your policy covers.
- Most insurers won't cover you if our advice level for your destination is 'Do not travel'.
Learn more about travel insurance. Read the travel insurance buyers guide (CHOICE).
Reducing your risk of kidnapping in a high risk destination
If you do decide to travel to an area where kidnapping is common, take precautions. Make informed decisions that reduce your risk of being kidnapped.
The Australian Government is not able to guarantee your safety. We can't provide you with security and protection. Understand our limits. Read the Consular Services Charter.
Before you go
- Research your destination. Understand the risks.
- Subscribe to the travel advice for the destination. Also add your local mobile number to receive critical alerts by text.
- Find out where and when the risks elevate. Some areas may be particularly high risk at certain times.
- Seek professional security advice.
- Conduct security risk assessments. Have security arrangements that reflect these assessments.
- Have personal security measures in place immediately on arrival.
While you're away
- Monitor the local news. If risks elevate, take extra precautions.
- In especially high risk areas, don't travel unless you absolutely must.
- Don't venture out without appropriate security measures and personnel.
- Maintain a high level of vigilance. Watch for suspicious or unusual activity.
- If you feel threatened, leave. If in doubt, get out.
Where to get help
Local security providers
In particularly high risk destinations, private companies may provide personal security services there.
Some may be locally owned and operated. The local government may also allow foreign companies to operate within their borders.
If you're travelling for work, business or to volunteer, contact your employer or organisation. Ask who'll provide your security services there. Contact the provider for advice, support and help.
If you're travelling independently, find and engage a security provider in your destination. Ask them for personal advice to suit your situation and plans.
The Australian Government's role
The Australian Government may be severely limited in its ability to provide consular assistance in:
- destinations where we advise against all travel and don't have a mission in-country
- places where the security situation is particularly dangerous or access is difficult
Understand our limits. Read the Consular Service Charter.
What we can do
We're limited in how and when we can help if an Australian is kidnapped overseas. We work closely with the government of the country in which the kidnapping has taken place, to try to resolve the situation.
We will inform families about what they can expect, and provide them with clear and timely updates on the situation. This helps the next of kin make informed decisions about what to do.
What we can't do
The Australian Government does not make payments or concessions to kidnappers. There are no exceptions.
Ransom payments to kidnappers can encourage more kidnappings. Many kidnappers are terrorists. Any payments may fund subsequent terrorist attacks.
Under Australian anti-terrorism financing laws, it's illegal to give money to terrorists. This includes ransom payments.
Learn more about Australians counter-terrorism laws (Attorney-General's Department).
- If someone you know is overseas and needs help, see our kidnapped overseas page.
- Business travellers in some destinations are at risk of kidnapping. See our general advice on travelling for business.
- See our general advice for working or volunteering.
- Learn more about travel insurance.
- Understand out limits. Read the Consular Service Charter.
- The Business and Government Liaison Unit (BGLU) advises on reducing the risk of kidnapping overseas (ASIO).
- International Parental Child Abduction – Legal Assistance (International Social Service Australia).
- Read the travel insurance buyers guide (CHOICE).
- Learn more about avoiding scams on ScamWatch (ACCC).