Skip to main content

As the situation in Ukraine evolves, businesses should be mindful of potential risks to their people, assets, operations, or supply chains in the region and globally. Marsh, as part of the Marsh McLennan family of companies, has created a page with information, tools, and resources related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Please visit the page for the latest information.

October 5, 2016

International private client security: Do you know how to recognize, avoid and respond to elicitation?

Elicitation is a common surveillance and intelligence-gathering approach used by some nation-states, businesses and organized advocacy groups to gain insight about an individual or sensitive information.

Mike White

Request a Personal Insurance Review

Know what elicitation is – and be on the lookout for it

Elicitation is a common surveillance and intelligence-gathering approach used by some nation-states, businesses and organized advocacy groups to gain insight about an individual or sensitive information. On an international trip, someone could use elicitation to determine the reason you are traveling. This can be as simple as being asked by a concierge or baggage handler, “Are you here for business or pleasure?” When you answer the question, it could lead to more seemingly polite questions or offers to help.

An “innocent” conversation can lead to blackmail

One of my former colleagues – who worked in a communications role traveling in advance of the executive he worked for – met someone in a similar field who inquired about the type of laptop he used for work. The two discussed their perspectives on the best software to use for various communications work – a seemingly innocuous conversation that executives in the communications profession have every day.

  • At some point, the new “friend” told a sad story of his cousin whose computer had been hacked with a virus and how all the resources they had could not fix the laptop. In the spirit of promoting good relationships, my colleague agreed to take a look at the laptop to see if he could help.
  • This led to a grateful “cousin,” an invitation to a social event which my colleague accepted, pictures taken at the event that could be interpreted as compromising, and a blackmail attempt.

The follow-up investigation revealed the whole event had been orchestrated as an attempt to gain access to the communication executive’s laptop to obtain information and to put him “on the hook” to provide information in the future.

Don’t be paranoid: Just alert and aware

I am certainly not saying everyone who asks questions about your travel plans is trying to gain information about you. In fact, most of these questions are completely innocent, but they should put you on notice and encourage you to have a heightened sense of awareness.

You can try this yourself and see how easy it is. Ask someone you have never met before, but who you have a reason to interact with, about their family, where they live or line of work. I guarantee that nine times out of 10, this will result in a conversation that leads the other person to provide you with information that could be used for nefarious purposes by someone seeking to cause the individual harm.

If you are approached in a social environment, public venue or hotel by someone who shows extra attention to you, consider it a warning flare. Elicitation works – and it may be used as a tactic to compromise you. A motto in the security field is that if you are a “7” at home and all of a sudden you are treated like a “10” in a foreign country – something is out of whack.

Private client security: Expect the unexpected

When you travel to another country, you may not be aware of the cultural norms. Even in international cities such as London or Paris that you may visit often, you could be surveilled by a third party who does not appear to be English, French or even European. It is common for surveillance teams to operate outside of their own countries or regions to get information about high-profile people, their business interests or families.

In many of the briefings I was given regarding the surveillance to anticipate in a foreign country, it was not just the people of the host nation we were advised to be aware of. For example, in South America the last person you might be expecting to surveil you is someone who appears Asian. In fact, someone who appears to be a tourist in a foreign country taking pictures would appear normal to most. Yet this tactic provides the person conducting surveillance with a natural “cover” to take pictures and even approach you to ask for help or assistance.

Surveillance is a professional occupation for members of government agencies and businesses alike. You can protect yourself by becoming aware of practices that can make surveillance more difficult and having a plan to manage it if you suspect it is occurring. If you believe you, your family or your business may be targeted for surveillance, you should have a plan formulated and clearly established protocols for notifying anyone who may be impacted, as well as the authorities.

Resources exist in nearly every country to report surveillance activity and let those who are experts deal with it. Additionally, I recommend that you maintain some type of record when you notice unusual activity – recorded observations that can be compared with the notes and experiences of other family members or business partners to identify any similarities that, taken by themselves, might not raise any red flags.





Used with permission. Copyright © 2016 Hillard Heintze. All rights reserved.