Spend a few hours with crisis management consultants Terra Firma, the firm retained by XL Insurance as part of their suite of coverage for kidnap, ransom, extortion and other crisis events, and you learn a few surprising things about how ransom situations can be handled.

“Can” is the key word here, for no two incidents are the same: every kidnapping case is different. One thing they all have in common, however, is they are always carried out by desperate people. Even the most organized crime syndicates or kidnapping networks are all driven by greed, and fear—and fear is the one weapon they wield most forcefully when they hold someone’s loved one captive. When someone close to you disappears, you’ll do anything to get them back, and kidnappers prey on that desperate sense of urgency.

Kidnap for ransom doesn’t have to end badly, and in the great majority of cases, concludes with the hostage’s safe release. During a recent visit to XL’s downtown Manhattan offices, National Underwriter P&C received a crash course in some of the strategies employed in the long, painful process of getting your loved ones home safely.  

Risk management experts like Terra Firma are the ones who should be contacted first in the event of a kidnapping, but in most cases, if it’s your loved one who’s been snatched, you’ll be the person with whom the kidnappers will insist on speaking. Criminals won’t want to be put on the phone with someone who isn’t necessarily desperate to facilitate the hostage’s return. They’ll want to deal with you, directly.

Read on to discover what we learned from those whose job it is to get hostages back safely.

1. Don’t ever simply meet the kidnappers’ first ransom offer. Every kidnapping is about control—or, rather, your almost total loss of it, because the kidnapper has the upper hand. The lone vestige of power you have: being the only buyer in the market for this commodity, the hostage.

So don’t simply give in and meet the kidnappers’ first demand.  Think of it as an asking price for a precious object. There has to be some back-and-forth before a deal is done.

2. Start with a low offer. Kidnappers will scorn your first offer regardless; start low and you’ll let the kidnappers know you’re not just going to instantly meet their demands. Determine what you have on hand (or to which you have relatively quick access) and what constitutes a low offer in your area.

3. Don’t expect it to be over quickly. Unlike made-for-television dramas about kidnapping, actual cases can last for days, weeks, or months, or sometimes even a year or more, depending on the country and the circumstances.

Again, ultimately, although you determine the offer, you’re not in control; the kidnapper is. Any number of things can be happening on the captors’ end that could determine how long it will be before that person is returned, even once the ransom is paid.

4. Be careful of how you deal with local law enforcement. In many Latin American countries, where kidnapping is common and becoming more so as distressed economies come under increasing pressure, some individuals in local law enforcement are co-opted by criminals or, in a worst-case scenario, can be directly involved in the kidnapping. In some countries, the law requires that the family or employer of a kidnap victim must report the crime. So if you’re in doubt, it’s best to confer with advisors or a corporate (or family) attorney.

5.  Demand proof of life. The criminal underworld is, in many cases, a small world. Often when a person or persons are taken, other criminals will hear about it, and can “parachute in” and try to steal the ransom by falsely claiming that THEY have the captured person or people. Refuse to talk about money until you can actually speak to the hostage.

A tip: Establish your own set of “safe questions” and answers with your spouse, in the event that one of you is ever kidnapped—questions to which only you would know the answer. This will aid you greatly in confirming the other is, in fact, alive and being held prisoner.

6. Expect the pressure to increase. Kidnappers don’t want to lose control, and they mostly don’t like to have to deal. Odds are, your loved one who’s been kidnapped is going to be at a minimum, threatened, and at worst, brutalized before this is all over.

It’s not uncommon for the hostage to be put on the phone to beg that you arrange their release immediately. Then the kidnapper might seize the phone and make the vilest threats imaginable. If you find yourself on the phone with the kidnapper in such a situation, keep a cool head. As one Terra Firma risk expert put it, “You have to stay strong and focused for the benefit of the hostage.”

7. Don’t give in to emotions and promise more than you have. Stay within realistic expectations when it comes to the ransom you’ll pay. Making an offer of money that you don’t have can result in a deadly outcome.

In most cases, however, the kidnapper would rather have the ransom than kill the hostage. It’s a matter of money and, sad to say, a business. Continuously ask for proof of life to insure the safety of the hostage and stick to the game plan.

8. In the final analysis, you decide. Terra Firma’s consultants emphasized that it’s the family or company who makes the decisions, not the risk management firm. The firm advises the client throughout the negotiations and is on hand 24-7 from the beginning to the conclusion of the crisis.   When the kidnapped person is covered by a K&R policy, say, a corporate executive (and most of them are rightly unaware that they are covered), the insurer waits for the outcome and then writes the checks. The onus is on them to do their due diligence in contracting with a reputable consulting firm.

For additional information on XL’s K&R coverage, go here.