How to Survive a Kidnapping – Dos and Don’ts

Survival depends on knowledge and pre-training for the very scary scenario of people bursting into your home and kidnapping you, or bundling you into a car while walking down the street. What’s even scarier is the thought of your children or partner being kidnapped.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports 421,394 cases in 2019 according to FBI statistics from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

While this figure may seem very high we do have to take into account that it also includes children who ran away from home, were reported missing, found, and then ran away again. Many run away repeatedly.

Then there are the children kidnapped by a parent in violation of custody rights; those who are kidnapped for ransom; those who are sold and are never found, and others who kept captive and are found many years later as in this case where a boy was reunited with his family after four years:

There is this famous case where three women, two of whom were teenagers when they were abducted, were rescued after ten years:

When a person is abducted for ransom it depends where it the world it happens – if there is no proper law and order in the country, as in Somalia, Africa, the chances of getting help are minimal.

This British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler were kidnapped from their yacht in the ocean somewhere off the Seychelles Islands, and kept for over a year by Somali pirates, until the ransom was paid.

It is the policy of the British government not to give in to ransom demands, so the couple were on their own until family and friends could negotiate a deal.

Why Kidnaps are Happening

The psychological profiles of the kidnapper and the victim and the purpose for which the person has been taken will differ.

The main reasons people are kidnapped are:

  • Ransom
  • Abduction by a parent not granted custody
  • Sexual exploitation by the kidnapper
  • Human trafficking – sold as sex slaves/slaves
  • Political – as a bargaining tool
  • Military/Terrorism – to arrange a prisoner swap

Money is usually the main motivator – it’s a quick way to make a lot of cash; but can also be a psychopath at work, or a group wanting a prisoner to swap for the release of a cult or family member, or people so indoctrinated by violent ideologies that they need to punish someone as an example to the world.

Beware the Stockholm Syndrome

Over time, some children and adults, even though they may be badly treated, tend to form an attachment to their kidnappers, called the Stockholm Syndrome.

There are stories of children who have become so used to their captors that when eventually their parents get the money together to pay their ransom they are upset at leaving their captors!

Surviving a kidnapping can involve some physical actions taken, but more important is developing mental resilience. We all think that if we are kidnapped that we will fight our captors and never actually give in, even though we may appear to be cooperating.

It takes a very strong mind to maintain this distance through months and years of captivity and often the captive person’s will becomes so paralysed that even if they have the chance to escape they may not take it, prompting outsiders to say things like “You could have called someone, or just run away when they let you out.”

Unfortunately, the person is so conditioned that they don’t act. Sometimes they are told that no one out there even cares and have given up and moved on, so the captive feels there is no alternative to their current situation.

Making Kids Aware Without Frightening Them

We need to train children, from a young age, to be aware, for most often they are the ones taken captive. They can be gullible, and easy to subdue because they are smaller. It’s not so easy if the victim is a 170 lb man snatched from the street.

An easy technique to teach a toddler, is to fall limp and stay limp – it’s hard to get a hold on the toddler. For some toddlers this is instinctive when they don’t want to be picked up – parents who have kids that throw tantrums will know all about this!

This Chinese video shows how children are taught this technique and the wrapping of their legs and arms around the captor’s legs to prevent them moving easily.

It all hinges on the kid getting to the ground as quickly as possible to make it difficult for the kidnapper to pick them up and latching on so they cannot kick them. Once the kidnapper has them off the ground it will be difficult for the child to escape.

Child snatching can happen in an instant! Watch the video below, and focus on the child at the door after the young woman comes in carrying the baby. It’s good to teach children not to loiter near doors or to stray from a parent.

Surviving an Attempted Kidnapping

If the attempt happens in a public area draw as much attention by making a noise, screaming ‘Kidnap!’ and generally being uncooperative – the limp trick as seen in the Chinese video can work for adults as well as kids – unless of course the kidnapper has a gun.

If the attempt takes place in a car, try to delay getting out. Always having your seat belt fastened even while you are parked and sitting in your car can give you that little extra time as kidnappers first have to try to release it and pull you out. Use the horn to draw attention.

Surviving Once a Kidnap Has Taken Place

Understand that authorities and family will start a search.

Assess your kidnappers.

Are they drugged up crazies you couldn’t really reason with? In this case it’s best to maintain as low a profile as possible and do what you are told. Do not challenge them or make eye contact.

Kidnappers who are not on drugs can sometimes be reasoned with to gain small advantages, like promising not to run away if they untie you – but then you must lull the kidnapper over time by not escaping, until there is a plan in place or a close to 100% chance escape will be successful.

Understand the kidnapper will play with your mind.

The kidnapper holds all the cards: when to be kind, when to punish, when to feed or give water, or withhold toilet breaks. This makes a victim grateful for every little benefit.

Also, if the kidnapper is the only person you get to see, then the isolation will wear you down, so when an opportunity presents itself to escape you are afraid to you may not know where you are or if you can get any help.

This is the reason why, when multiple people are kidnapped, they are often held separately. People need to be aware of this – even children so they do not let the kidnapper control their mind.

Do what your kidnapper asks.

Resisting makes kidnappers angry and likely to hurt either physically or emotionally as the situation is stressful as they negotiate ransom demands, and know that the police may be closing in.

Store information in your head.

Pay attention to anything they say and remember that information – names, places, types of car, names of shops where they may be buying the food, interests they have like football.

Their accents, phrases they repeat often, and slang words. This could help n identifying them and getting them behind bars so they don’t prey on other victims.

Pick up information from food.

If food is given in take-away containers make a mental note of which takeaway, and if there is a telephone number memorize it so police can trace the town.

Take note of brands of bottled water, names of sweets provided, as even the type of food can give a clue to the kidnappers.

If you are fed mainly rice, noodles or tacos it can indicate very different backgrounds. If meals are presented on china plates, remember what the name of the chinaware is – all these details can help.

Try to memorize routes.

When taken and blindfolded in a car at night, try to figure out whether you are going uphill or downhill for long periods of time, whether the road is winding or straight, whether it sounds like gravel or tar.

Can anything be smelt, like pine trees, or exhaust fumes, so rescuers can work out if the kidnapper was in the country or city. Take note of whether the traffic seems light or heavy depending on how fast the car is going, and on whether there are frequent stops for traffic lights or snarl ups on the road.

Can cars or large trucks be heard? The victim may be in an industrial area or near a port if there are lots of trucks. How many left or right turns are made?

Train kids in providing this information by making it a game with kids trying to figure out where they are using senses other than that of sight.

Leave evidence behind.

If you have a chance, try to extract a thread from your clothing and leave it behind – like tucked between the backrest and the seat of the car.

Do this at every place you are moved. Also, try to leave some hair strands behind, so if a vehicle or location is suspect forensics can pick up some clues.

Have prearranged signs.

People should work out a sign with their loved ones to show they were at a particular location – for example a piece of paper folded into a paper jet shape.

Whenever the victim gets a chance it can be wedged someplace – use the cardboard from food containers, or toilet paper.

If you have a chance to get it out of a window then do so. Family should make police aware of these signs so they can look for them. Most times, kidnappers make sure there is nothing to write a note on, and the kidnapped person won’t have a pen or a pencil.

Kicking or punching out a car light.

Some people have escaped by kicking out or punching out the light of the vehicle, and waving their hand through the gap, if forced into the trunk of a car.

This may work if the kidnappers do not have a chase car following it and if the sounds around indicate the vehicle is in heavy traffic.

If hands are bound, feet can still be used to kick out the light – the falling glass may attract attention, or a police car may be alerted to the fact a tail light is out.

A SEAL team SIX member has some pertinent advice on escaping from a trunk in this video, but these tips are more suited to an adult where, in newer model cars, the emergency catch can be released from the inside of the trunk, or the jack can be used to force the trunk open:

Resisting drugs.

If you are given drugs to make you more compliant, resistance is futile, but once you come around try not to indicate this to the kidnappers, pretend to be a bit woozier and out of it while you assess the situation.

Be situationally aware.

Count the number of windows, how they open, number of doors, what they are made of, and where they are positioned in case you need this to help people locate you, or if you have a chance to escape.

Take note of what the floors are made of – color of floor coverings, type of walls – brick or wood panels as these could be useful.

Make note of sounds at certain times of the day – trucks banging as they offload goods may mean you are near a shopping center.

Sirens may indicate work breaks for industrial workers; or the smell of bread baking may indicate a bakery nearby – all useful clues that can be worked into a telephone conversation when you are put on the phone to your family to plead for the ransom to be paid.

Alarm trigger words.

If asked to make a call, the child or adult should know a word to call a loved one that is not the usual one, but won’t arouse suspicion.

For example if they are calling their mom, and they usually call her mom, they should say “mommy” or “mum” as the code word to indicate they are in danger.

If you normally call a person Kev, then use the full name Kevin to indicate there is a problem, and do that a couple of times to alert the person.

Even though the kidnapper may have provided a script that goes along the lines of “I am fine, I am being fed, please send money”, if the victim is trained in using certain trigger words they can introduce a minor detail of praise like “the bread is really good,” to indicate you are near a bakery, or say, “I’m so hungry I could eat 20 meat pies,” to indicate you are twenty miles from home. Meat could mean West, chicken south, etc.

Don’t be uncooperative.

Try to establish what the captors want from you and obey, while taking mental notes, otherwise you may be harmed and you need to be fit to escape.

Be prepared for some suffering.

Expect that you may not have enough food, drink or sleep, and that you will be alone.

Some people like to retreat into their own head, and imagine all the wonderful things they have done – family holidays, pets, hobbies and may make plans for things they want to do in the future – it keeps the brain active and thoughts off the present deprivations.

If your captors speak another language, try to pick up as much as you can by listening carefully – all these activities help keep you from sinking into depression and a sense of powerlessness.

Some people try to make friends with their captors by chatting about interests like football, TV programs, movies etc – it helps to keep you sane and humanizes you to your captor.

Take bullying tactics in your stride.

Threats are a common way of getting compliance, but don’t take them to heart – understand this is their way of gaining a hold over a victim.

Act scared, be obedient, but don’t let their threats unhinge you. You need to know that statistically kidnap victims have a good chance of being released unharmed once a ransom has been paid.

Be prepared to wait it out.

Once kidnappers have their victim confined at their chosen location, being able to escape may not be an option.

If held for a long period of time sooner or later the kidnapper will become complacent, and when you are sure you have a good chance then make your escape. Otherwise wait for the authorities to trace the kidnappers and come to the rescue.

Find out the reason for your kidnapping.

Bear Grylls draws the distinction between kidnapping for ransom – in which case the victim needs to wait until a solution is found, and kidnapping for sexual, political or military reasons, in which case the victims must be alert for signs that they may be in danger of dying, and make an escape even though the odds may not be good.

Make use of tools.

Some advice is given on concealing tools like a razor blade, a shim and handcuff key, in the video link for point 10 above, but kidnappers aren’t stupid – they will search thoroughly for hidden items.

You need to be able to improvise with what you can find – a plastic knife from a takeaway meal, a medium size stone in a sock can make a weapon, the underwire from a woman’s bra a tool to try pick a lock or escape from duct tape.

Do your best to maintain personal hygiene.

Repeat the information you have gained about the kidnappers in your head every night before you sleep, so you can provide detailed information, and get them behind bars.

Keep fit by stretching, bending, and doing other exercise in your confined space often. You will need the stamina when making your escape.

Do not go on a hunger strike – eat what is provided to keep yourself fit enough to escape when the time comes.

Keep track of time using the sun, unless you are confined in a place where you have no access to sunlight. Keep track of days by either pulling threads out of clothing and keeping count or using an eating utensil to scratch marks on the wall in an unobtrusive place. Like down near the skirting board where there are bound to be scuff marks.

If you know other victims are in adjoining rooms use Morse code – it’s a skill everyone should be taught in order to communicate when it seems the kidnappers are not around – they have to take bathroom, meal, and sleep breaks too.

Ask nicely for medication, or for personal hygiene items.

Request something to pass the time – cards, games etc.

Understand the Stockholm syndrome. this occurs when a bond forms with the victims and their captors and was explained earlier in this article – so that you are not at risk of forming a real bond with your captor.

People who have survived kidnapping have adopted different approaches according to the situation they were in. It seems that patience is the best approach for victims of kidnapping for ransom or parental kidnapping.

When it comes to terrorism or political kidnapping then it’s a different scenario, as any change in behavior may indicate that they are about to sacrifice you, so take note if they seem to be ready to move out of the place of confinement

If they suddenly stop wearing their masks around you; they are twitchier, and don’t want to engage with you, then you need to take your chances and try to escape.

Planning Your Escape

As mentioned, it’s important to track the behavior of your captors and keep yourself as healthy as possible because once you know their schedules, strengths and weaknesses, you will be in a better position to find an escape route.

By remaining cooperative and not making futile escape attempts, they will over time become less vigilant, and ease up on the restraints.

Surviving a kidnapping/hostage situation boils down to patience and being inconspicuous. Don’t be a thorn in their sides, otherwise you are likely to be the one they dispose of first.

Also try to stay calm, and refrain from whining or crying – if irritated, they may just pull the trigger. Most times, they just want to get their money, and get out of the situation without bloodshed.

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