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Street Smarts

In the hit 1999 movie The Matrix, people go about their daily lives unaware they are in a simulated, alternate reality being controlled by greater powers. In one scene, the main character Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, sees a black cat walk past a doorway. A few moments later, the same cat walks by again.

"Déjà vu," he says aloud. His comrades, who know they live in the Matrix, are disturbed by the claim and press him on what he saw. When he says he observed the same black cat walk by—twice—they spring into action, explaining that a déjà vu demarcates a glitch or change in their synthetic world. 

A similar concept exists in the field of countersurveillance, referred to as the déjà vu effect. While traveling in a foreign place, if the same person or vehicle appears twice, it is likely not a coincidence. Someone could be following the traveler, scoping him or her out as a potential target for crime. I learned to rely on this principle during my time as a CIA case officer, traveling to some of the most dangerous parts of the globe to collect intelligence.

However, one does not have to be in a war zone or third-world country to encounter threats. Much like the Matrix, even a seemingly normal setting can quickly turn upside down and require quick thinking. Simple observation of one's surroundings, like being on the lookout for the déjà vu effect, will greatly help solo travelers maintain their personal security.

Similar to a corporate travel security program that tracks executives or employees while on business, individuals can protect themselves by adopting a portable set of principles and concepts that they can take them with them wherever they go.

There are three key concepts that must be in place for a personal travel security program to work. Just like a physical security or cybersecurity program at a large corporation, a personal travel security plan must first be effective to protect the individual. If a building has a fence that is not properly maintained or a camera system that is broken, the physical security program is considered ineffective. If someone relies on a personal security program that he or she cannot recall from memory and put into action, it will be unsuccessful.

The second aspect of a personal security program is the concept of risk. In enterprise security, there are assets, threats, vulnerabilities, and countermeasures. In personal security, the asset being protected is oneself. The threats are usually external to the traveler, but vulnerability—weakness—is a unique element of personal security risk. Vulnerabilities can exist both outside or within the individual. Understanding this unique aspect of personal security risk is crucial. The countermeasures to mitigate risk can be learned and taken with the traveler to stay safe.

The third element in a personal travel security program is timing. You make your own luck in personal security, and if your timing is off, it could make the difference between avoiding being kidnapped or sitting in captivity.

​Personal Security Principles

Understanding these three concepts—effectiveness, risk, and timing—will allow the traveler to grasp the five foundational principles to the personal security program. These principles can be easily recalled from memory and applied in even the most stressful of circumstances.

Preparation. The first and most important principle behind an effective personal security program is preparation. Effective preparation diminishes doubt and mitigates the fear of the unknown. Note that eliminating fear is never the goal. When harnessed properly, healthy fear can be helpful rather than harmful. Advance preparation also gives one the confidence of knowing that unexpected circumstances can be dealt with, no matter how little one knows the local language or culture.

Travelers should research the area they are traveling to and familiarize themselves with the location geographically. Use the Internet and other means before arriving, but also conduct a mental site survey once you arrive on-site. In the Middle East, for example, few streets have names. Take note of major landmarks, roadways, and other characteristics that stand out in case you may have to remember where you were at any point in time.

Planning in advance for potential physical and mental health needs is another element of preparation. It is best to be a "walking pharmacy," and travel with several drugs for common ailments and illnesses. If the traveler or a comrade should become ill, it can be a major handicap.

Mental health is often overlooked when preparing for a trip. Attempt to have your affairs in order before leaving home. There are three elements to "engineering" peace of mind: electronic communications and backup, enlisting a point-of-contact that can make decisions on your behalf, and duress plans—a way to discreetly convey you are in trouble. Having a will, bills paid, and accounts in order are also important. When relationships with loved ones, friends, or coworkers are at loose ends, it can truly eat away at a person who finds him or herself in captivity, or an otherwise distressing travel situation.

Packing light is advisable, only bring one carry-on bag so that arms and hands are as free as possible. Documentation and money are two key areas that should be taken care of in advance. Essential documents, including passport and any travel visas, should be kept close to one's person and not put in checked luggage, as well as important credit cards.

Normally, bringing roughly $300 to $500 in U.S. currency should suffice, but be sure to work out how much cash you may need over the course of the trip. Small U.S. bills are handy, and something of value that everyone recognizes—the U.S. dollar is often an acceptable form of currency in a pinch. The traveler should break down the total amount into $20 bills and divide that roughly in half between checked luggage and the important items to be carried on.

Small bills also allow the traveler to find and pay cash for personal transportation upon arriving at the destination. When you do not have the luxury of prearranged travel by a corporate security program, choosing your own transport on-site is critical, versus having it solicited or having someone else choose it.

In some high-risk locales, drivers for hire typically wait outside airports, bus stations, and train stations, and are on call. It is advisable to be deliberate and maintain control of how you choose transportation. Look first for kiosks with taxis for hire or hotels with shuttle transport. If none are available, ask an airline representative what transport can be trusted. The last resort is to look for marked taxis outside and choose one—do not let it be chosen for you.

 Keeping and maintaining the element of unpredictability is important to your security. If the driver you hire is reliable, it is worthwhile to keep the same driver to take you from place to place throughout the duration of your trip. This allows you to build a relationship with that person and have someone you trust to get you around the area.

Detection. The second principle to a personal security program is detection. It's imperative for the traveler not just to see what is around him or her, but to observe it. Observing is intelligent detection and keeps you in the present moment.

Such skills can be important in preventing crimes such as pickpocketing. Travelers who are preoccupied, even mentally, make themselves a vulnerable target. Take off the ear buds or headphones, stay alert, and keep your mental focus on the here and now.

London's Piccadilly Circus, for example, is an infamous place for pickpockets. These crews target travelers who are distracted, whether it be window shopping, talking on cell phones, or sightseeing. Pickpockets work in teams, with one person designated to distract the victim, another to take the item, and a third to move it away from the crime scene. Someone on this team may have already scoped out where important effects are kept without the individual's awareness.

The déjà vu effect discussed earlier comes into play in the element of detection. If you are walking down the street toward an ATM, for example, and someone seems to be following or keeping pace with you, pay attention to that. Being aware of this allows you to assess it, and take proactive action. Most often, petty thieves move on to easier targets once they realize they have been spotted.  

Deterrence. The third principle to an effective personal security program is deterrence. Deterrence is how you look and behave. Blending in with your environment helps eliminate the possibility that someone will see you as a target, but this is not just achieved by the clothes you wear.

While a subtle wardrobe is an essential element to maintaining personal security, so is a sense of confidence in the traveler's gait as he or she goes from point A to point B.

Keep smartphones and other valuable items tucked away in a bag. Be discreet when accessing them in a public place. Threat actors look for low-hanging fruit, so part of deterrence is making oneself appear less vulnerable to assault. The goal is to make it harder for the bad guys to go after the traveler in any way.

Deterrence can apply to the type of car you use when renting a vehicle. For example, while with the CIA and afterwards in the international consulting world, I took trips into Mexico, Yemen, Africa, and elsewhere in the developing world. I consistently looked for cars that were worn and unattractive. I drove through the first mud puddle I could find, and did not wash the vehicle over the course of the trip. The more dented and dirty, the better. It blends. 

The last two principles of a personal security program—delay and defense—are a last resort and should not come into play if the first three principles are aptly applied. The traveler should deploy the last two principles to survive and escape threats with as little harm as possible.

Delay. The fourth element, delay, comes into play when you have been targeted, particularly on the street. Putting space between yourself and the threat buys you time—time to run, or time to prepare to defend yourself.

While traveling, I carry decoy items with me to create delay in a mugging situation. One is a throwaway wallet, stuffed with fake credit cards and petty cash sticking out of the sides. Tossing this to the threat creates enough time to get away without losing items of real value. I also wear a cheap watch that looks expensive. In Central America, I once used such a decoy watch to get away from a thief, who ended up with a cheap fake Rolex.

Carrying a whistle is also advisable, because it adds the element of surprise and draws attention to the scene—not normally an adversary's desire. With delay, one is creating distance between oneself and the threat. The greater the distance, the greater the chance of survival.

Defense. The final principle is defense. What does the traveler do if his or her options are being mugged, injured, or killed—or fighting back? No matter a person's age or level of physical fitness, there are certain defensive tactics that can increase one's margin for survival and potentially limit the amount of harm done. Consulting a self-defense expert on tips and techniques, whether they are hand-to-hand combat, or firearms training, is certainly advisable. However, if the adversary has a weapon—particularly a firearm—it is wise to go along with his or her demands.

Captivity. Should you be abducted, if you are able, make a scene—yell and scream as loud as possible. Doing so creates witnesses, which can help when a search is conducted. One former U.S. drug enforcement agent did just this while being kidnapped in Mexico, and witnesses helped police in the search that eventually led to his rescue.

In the rare circumstance that you are kidnapped, once you're physically controlled, stop struggling physically. The last thing you want is to go into captivity with a broken nose or broken bone. Part of a personal security program is staying alive, so be prepared for the possibility of this circumstance. Have one or two key phone numbers memorized, so that if you are unexpectedly released in an unfamiliar place you can make a call to someone who will answer.

Communicate with the captors and let them know if medication or other physical care is needed. Try to build a relationship with the people who are responsible for you so that they are inclined to hesitate before harming you.

Kidnaps for ransom have become increasingly commonplace in countries like Mexico and Colombia. Travelers should have a plan in place before leaving home for a lawyer or third party to help negotiate release. A loved one should not be responsible for negotiations, because they can bring too many emotions into the transaction.  

One area where your family or loved ones can help, is having a prepared list of "signs of life" questions for those aiding in the release or rescue; statements or facts that only you and that person know. These can be communicated by the captors to the loved one so that they know the person is, in fact, alive. Duress phrases, such as, "make sure you water the garden," (when, in fact, you might not have a garden) that signal safety or distress without the captor's knowledge can be useful.

Finally, in a rescue operation, you should know that law enforcement or the military might not immediately recognize you as the victim. Let the operation unfold, keep low, and keep your hands visible so that you're not inadvertently harmed in the cross fire. 

Skills for life. While working as a CIA officer abroad, I traveled and worked for decades without a badge or weapon and learned to bring the aforementioned skills to bear to keep myself and those for whom I was responsible safe. With or without the support of an executive protection program, traveling solo requires a person to rely primarily on himself or herself for basic security.

The five elements of a personal travel security program—preparation, detection, deterrence, delay, and defense—should be thought of as mental pegs. Take the details that go under each concept and hang them on those five pegs. Then you can quickly and effectively grab the tools needed in high-risk situations and environments. Internalizing these skills will help build good instincts, increase your awareness, and ultimately provide life-saving protection.


Charles Goslin, CPP, Principal & Owner, CG Security Associates, LLC, is a retired CIA operations officer and veteran of U.S. Army Intelligence with 35 years of experience. He is a member of the ASIS International Houston Chapter and serves on the Book of the Year Award Committee. He is the author of the book Understanding Personal Security and Risk: A Guide for Business Travelers. ​