With recent high-profile plots against singer Victoria Beckham and a member of the Swedish royal family, experts say kidnapping for ransom could be a growing problem in Western Europe.
Princess Madeleine escaped an alleged kidnapping plot this week
Until this week Sweden's Princess Madeleine was able to roam unfettered through the streets of Stockholm with her gal pals, enjoying a freedom many royals would envy.
But that was the past, and events this week could provide a glimpse of the future.
The Swedish daily Expressen reported earlier this week that Swedish police had foiled a plot to kidnap the 20-year-old princess. Officials took into custody two men who were planning to kidnap the third in line for the throne and hold her for ransom.
England soccer captain David Beckham and his pop star wife, Spice Girl Victoria Beckham and their son Brooklyn are seen in this Mar. 4, 2001, file photo at a party to mark Brooklyn's second birthday at Alderley Edge, England. Police arrested five people Saturday Nov. 2, 2002 for allegedly plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham, Scotland Yard said. (AP Photo/Dave Jones/PA) ** UNITED KINGDOM OUT - MAGAZINES OUT - NO SALES **
It was the second high-profile kidnapping attempt in Europe in just two months. In November, the British newspaper News of the World revealed its reporters had uncovered a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and the sons she shares with millionaire soccer hero David Beckham and hold them for 5 million pounds ransom. It was the second time police took suspects into custody who were planning to kidnap the former Spice Girl.
There is a common trait shared by the two near misses: The alleged would-be perpetrators were part of Eastern European crime bands. Experts in kidnapping insurance say those bands are now getting bolder, making the kidnapping of high-profile socialites, businessmen and other celebrities in Western Europe a trend of the future.
Porous borders, mafia like groups
"As European borders become more porous, the risk of kidnap will increase," says Leslie Edwards, chairman of Clayton Consulting in Lincoln, England, one of the world's leading providers of kidnapping insurance. "These gangs from Eastern Europe have well-established mafia-type organizations that have moved westward."
Edwards says police have so far been very effective in catching kidnappers before they act. But that will become more difficult as Eastern European organized crime bands spread their tentacles.
"Recently, the opportunities for Romanian, Albanian and Russian criminal gangs to take advantage of high-profile cases and celebrity status has been greater in Europe," he warns, "And soccer players and celebrities who the media reports making 150,000 British pounds a week are going to be easy to target, track and follow. Across Europe, there are lots of soccer stars as well as minor pop celebrities who could be targeted."
Edwards' claim is backed up by Diane Borden, vice president of the New York-based AIU, an insurance company that works with Clayton on kidnapping policies. From 1996-2001, Borden led AIU's European kidnapping insurance operations from Paris.
"At the time, we had insurers who had problems in hot spots," she says, "but now I see claims coming in on the continent that I never saw when I was based in Paris."
More dangerous than Colombia?
It is difficult to quantify the size of the problem because police organizations like Europol do not track statistics on ransom cases and many victims are unlikely to report the crime. "Usually, kidnappers will kill your loved one if you go to the police," Borden explains.
In 2000, the Times of London newspaper reported 12,500 kidnappings worldwide -- a figure that had doubled over the previous five years. And the insurance provider Strategic Underwriters International even reports that the Russian mafia went so far as to use a submarine to try to kidnap a wealthy Swedish businessman.
Still, it's easy to blow the problem out of proportion. The problem is far smaller in Europe than, say, Colombia, which has dubious distinction of hosting the greatest number of kidnappings, with more than 3,000 cases a year according to the global consulting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers.
"People in Europe are relatively unprotected"
"The threat in Europe is not as high as in other parts of the world," says Jeffrey Green, chairman of Asset Security Management in London, who has been selling kidnap insurance for more than 20 years. "The difference is that we have more sophisticated security services in Europe. The police are fairly trustworthy and you don't have the same levels of corruption. They're very effective at dealing with kidnapping here."
For that reason, Green says, there is less likeliness on the part of the sophisticated criminal to kidnap. Instead, they might steal electronics or commit another crime where they are less likely to get caught. At the same time, Green does see a growing security threat from Eastern European criminal bands.
"They'll see an easy target base. People here in Western Europe are relatively unprotected compared to people in Eastern Europe," where people have been trained to expect kidnappings, he explains. And for Eastern European criminals, Western Europe is like low hanging fruit: "They only have to travel a few hundred miles and they have wide selections of targets who have a low level of awareness of the danger."
An increased awareness
Green says he senses an increase in the awareness of the threat of kidnappings in Western Europe. "There appears to be some increase in the reporting, but the question is whether these are increasing numbers of kidnapping cases or whether people are just more inclined to report it now."
Concerned royalty, pop stars and executives always have the option of taking out insurance to ensure their ransom will be paid should the unfortunate happen. According to AIU's Borden, a $5 million policy starts in the range of $10,000-$20,000 a year depending on the profile and vulnerability of a client.
But there are cheaper steps that can be taken. A princess, of course, should be accompanied by a guard, and blue-blood deficient should seek to maintain an unpredictable routine and maintain as low a profile as possible, Green suggests.