The Traveler

Issue: February 2017

An informational bulletin on security, medical, and travel related issues






Regional Information

Africa - East Asia - Europe - Near East - South Asia - Western Hemisphere


Virtual Kidnapping Trends: Global Expansion, Increasing Scope and Sophistication

The threat of one type of extortion, called virtual kidnapping, is spreading to new locations around the world, and criminals are using new tools to find more information about individuals in order to extort money from friends and family. Virtual kidnapping, unlike traditional kidnapping, rarely involves an individual being physically captured or harmed. Instead, criminals contact their victims via phone, email, or another means of communication and convince them to wire or deliver money in exchange for an individual’s release, even though no individual has been kidnapped. 

Virtual kidnapping, which was once mostly confined to developing countries where traditional kidnappings were also common, has become a global threat. Virtual kidnapping is not a new phenomenon. It has been a persistent threat in much of Central and South America, particularly Mexico, since the early 2000s and has become increasingly common in the Philippines, Indonesia, Oman, and Nigeria in the past three years. While accurate reporting and statistics on virtual kidnapping are lacking as cases frequently go unreported and the perpetrators are rarely caught or prosecuted, security services in the US and Europe have noted cases in the past year. According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Interpol, dozens of cases of virtual kidnapping were reported in the US and Europe in 2016 with many of the victims having never traveled outside of their home country. The FBI noted a significant increase of cases in California, Texas, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, DC in 2016, and Interpol reported cases of virtual kidnapping in Spain, Germany, France, and the UK.

Virtual kidnapping schemes vary in scope and level of sophistication. These schemes initially targeted the friends and family of travelers to a country or region where traditional kidnappings or organized crime are a well-known threat. Schemes involving travelers typically have a higher rate of success because the traveler is often in less frequent contact with friends or family and because they often play on the victim’s anxiety and prior knowledge of the threats associated with travel to that particular country or region. The kidnappers often gather information on travelers by requesting they fill out a phony product giveaway form or by stealing their mobile device and wallet. The criminals then use the contact numbers gleaned from the product giveaway or stolen mobile device, along with a description of the victim, to contact a friend or loved one and convince him or her that the traveler has been kidnapped. As virtual kidnapping schemes have become more sophisticated in recent years, criminals may seek to expand their collection of personal details by searching social media or hacking email accounts. Perpetrators using more sophisticated tactics may gather information about their target’s physical appearance and itinerary or class schedule via social media or hacked emails. 

These types of extortion schemes have also expanded from primarily targeting travelers to targeting others, such as families whose children are away at college. Several educational institutions, including Georgetown University, University of Maryland, Arizona State University, George Mason University, and the University of Texas at Arlington warned students and parents about the threat of virtual kidnapping in 2016 after criminals targeted students or nearby residents. Once contact is made with the target family, virtual kidnappers often employ someone to scream in the background while the kidnapper is on the line with the victim to convince the victims of the veracity of the kidnappers’ claims. In October 2016, a man claiming to have kidnapped a White Plains, Maryland, woman’s daughter, who attended  the University of Maryland, had a woman scream and plead for help on the phone when he called the victim. 

Unlike traditional kidnappers, virtual kidnappers make every attempt to keep the victims on the phone to prevent them from contacting the police or the abductee. While still on the phone, the kidnappers often direct the victims to ATMs or shops where they can make wire transfers. The perpetrator in the White Plains case similarly ordered the victim to remain on the phone. Her husband managed to contact the police, but only after they had wired USD 1,300 to the caller.

Preventing Virtual Kidnapping
Simply being aware of virtual kidnapping, the common tactics that criminals employ, and knowing the differences between virtual kidnapping tactics and those used by traditional kidnappers can help safeguard individuals from becoming victims of virtual kidnapping. Virtual kidnappers try to keep their victims on the line to prevent them from contacting the alleged abductee or the authorities while traditional kidnappers tend to strictly limit call times to prevent the call from being traced or monitored. Virtual kidnappers will avoid answering questions regarding the alleged abductee and cannot offer proof of life since no one has been taken.

While traveling abroad, it is important for individuals to safeguard personal devices to prevent theft. Password protection for mobile devices is recommended because doing so prevents would-be virtual kidnappers or other criminals from accessing contacts and other personal information. Using social media privacy settings to limit the amount of information strangers can access is another recommended practice that reduces the risk from virtual kidnapping and other crimes. Travelers should also be cautious about discussing their itinerary with strangers or posting travel plans online. 

If an individual receives a call from a purported kidnapper, he or she should try to identify the tactics used by virtual kidnappers while attempting to contact the alleged victim, the police, or his or her embassy from another phone or with other communication tools, such as social media. Individuals should remain calm and try not to let the caller get them worked up, as that is the caller’s goal. Call victims should also request that the kidnappers offer some sort of proof that the person who has reportedly been kidnapped is safe.
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Low Threat of Zika Virus Contraction for Travelers in the US 

Prior to the summer of 2016, Zika virus cases in the US were predominantly imported, meaning a traveler had acquired the virus in a different country and was in the US when it was diagnosed. Health officials have identified at least 4,385 imported Zika virus infections in 2015 and 2016 throughout most of the continental US, and several imported cases have led to cases of individuals getting Zika virus through sexual transmission. Officials reported on July 19 that the first locally transmitted Zika virus infection in the US was found in Florida. As of Dec. 14, officials have identified over 250 locally acquired Zika virus cases in southern areas of the state. Cases have been identified in multiple counties, but officials believe those involved were infected in Miami-Dade County, specifically in the neighborhoods of Little River, Miami Beach, and Wynwood. Since Nov. 28, 2016, five confirmed locally acquired cases have also been identified in Brownsville, Cameron County, Texas.

The threat of travelers contracting Zika virus in the US is very low, even in locations with recent outbreaks as authorities have implemented effective mosquito control efforts. Since July 2016, outbreaks of locally acquired Zika virus cases in the US have remained restricted to specific locations in Texas and Florida, and as of Dec. 28, there are currently no areas in Florida with active disease transmission. After health officials identified the first locally transmitted case of Zika virus outside of Florida in a resident from Brownsville, Texas on Nov. 28, officials increased mosquito control measures and disease surveillance in Cameron County.

However, the threat of Zika virus cannot be ruled out in areas of the US where the Aedes mosquito lives. Zika virus is primarily transmitted by this mosquito, which also spreads dengue fever and chikungunya. As such, imported Zika virus cases may lead to limited local disease activity in areas where the Aedes mosquito is present, including Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. In rare cases, the virus can be transmitted by contact with infected blood or through sexual contact with an infected individual. Officials have also observed vertical transmission from infected women to in utero or newborn children. 

Zika Virus Symptoms
Symptoms of Zika virus infection generally include fever, reddening of the eyes (conjunctivitis), rash, and temporary pain or swelling of joints - typically in the affected individual’s hands and feet. These symptoms are usually mild and last four to seven days. However, research suggests that infection can lead to neurological conditions in any patient and that infection during pregnancy can lead to fetal birth defects. If travelers develop Zika virus symptoms within two weeks of being in an affected area, they should seek medical attention.

Tips to Avoid Zika Virus
No vaccine or specific treatments are available for Zika virus infections, so travelers should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites in general. If a traveler is in an area where there is a threat of Zika virus, he or she should wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and socks, or use insect protection containing DEET, picaridin, or another approved repellent. Pregnant women or those who are trying to conceive should consult a doctor before traveling to these areas. Travelers to Zika virus-affected areas should use condoms or abstain from sex if their partner is pregnant. 
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A Hotel that's Good for Your Health?

Vitamin C showers, circadian mood lighting and aromatherapy.

These sound like holistic amenities you'd find in a lush spa -- not your hotel room.

But the Stay Well hotel room, available at select Marriott and MGM Grand hotels across the United States, is designed to help guests breathe a little easier on their next business trip or vacation... quite literally.

"We saw a gap in thought," says Paul Scialla, founder and CEO of Delos, creator of the Stay Well concept and specialist in what it calls Wellness Real Estate. "There was really not much being done to the room itself, where the guest is spending most of their time."

From air purifiers to organic mattresses, the rooms are equipped with the latest wellness features that aim to improve water and air quality, mitigate jet lag, enhance mood, ensure restful sleep and decrease exposure to germs.

And of course there's a Stay Well app replete with health-conscious content and meditation training.

Healthy from the ground up
But where Stay Well really stands out is in the offerings you can't see.

It's pioneered a "well" built environment that's healthier from the ground up by incorporating health-driven infrastructure during its construction and design process.

This includes everything from anti-microbial countertops to posture-supportive flooring. Its holistic offerings are supported by the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Deepak Chopra.

Wellness-focused hotels aren't new.

IHG created the healthy hotel chain EVEN in 2012, offering nutritious food options, large gyms and group workouts.

Wyndham has a "fitness room" option at select Tryp hotels, with workout equipment in the room and other healthier on-site amenities.

"I spent about 18 years on Wall Street. During my final few years there, I took note of the sustainability movement in real estate, and wondered why most of the dialogue was surrounding the environmental impact, and not enough on the human condition: our cardiovascular health, respiratory health, cognitive health, what have you," says Scialla.

Merging assets with industry
From Wall Street... to wellness? An odd turn it might seem, but Scialla found a unique, untapped link between the two.

"The prospects of merging the world's largest asset class, real estate, a $180 trillion asset class, with the world's fastest-growing industry, health and wellness, a $4 trillion a year annual spend, made a lot of sense," he explains.

Today's hotels are very much aware of the need to create environments and rooms that promote wellness and healthy living.

But is it all just a gimmick?

The question becomes how costly these ventures are.

"These programs are exhibiting about a seven-week, break even, on the entire capital expense required to convert a room to a Stay Well room ... That's just an economic no-brainer," says Scialla.
And for the guest, for an upcharge of about $30 dollars a night, a Stay Well room is pretty affordable.

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From the Assist America Case Files

Hip surgery in Ohio

Elaine and Lenny* traveled by car to Cincinnati, OH to attend a family party for their niece.  Elaine fell, fracturing her hip and shoulder. Lenny was concerned about his wife’s condition, and how he would to transport her back home post-surgery on his own. The drive to Cincinnati took over four hours, and Lenny knew that the trip back home could seriously negatively impact on his wife’s condition and it was more than he could manage.  

Lenny called Assist America using the tap to call feature on the mobile app.  Assist America’s coordinators immediately began medically monitoring Elaine’s care and evaluated the proper means of transportation for her trip home. After undergoing surgery, it became clear that Elaine would need ongoing rehabilitation at a dedicated facility close to home. Assist America worked with Elaine’s health plan to secure a bed at an in-network facility, then arranged and paid for her to be transported to the facility comfortably via ground ambulance with a dedicated medical team, monitoring her needs.

*name changed for privacy
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Farm to Tray Table: How Airline Meals went Gourmet

Unsavory, unhealthy and unprofitable: That's the, somewhat deserved, reputation airplane food has acquired over the years.

Back in the golden age of flying, a delectable three-course meal served on fancy glassware was to be expected.

But as the airline industry grew and gave way to the economy class, providing high-quality in-flight dining became unsustainable.

Complimentary meals in the US -- even the drab old "chicken or beef" we once laughed at -- have disappeared altogether from most economy class cabins on domestic flights.

On international flights where the hours are longer than our stomachs can go without food, plane food is served whether we like it or not.

Airline food gains wings
But in recent years, many airlines have recognized that the best way to a customer's heart, and wallet, is through their stomach.

So in came the celebrity chefs, exotic ingredients and nutritious, delicious options.

JetBlue's Mint class passengers can now enjoy food from renowned New York restaurant Saxon + Parole, along with a drinks service curated by wine expert Jon Bonné.

United Airlines has crafted a refined culinary experience, with palate-pleasing main courses that read like an upscale restaurant menu. Duck confit ravioli, anyone?

Farm-to-traytable movement
In 2013, Delta airlines took a different approach to the way its on-board cuisine was prepared for premium class passengers on select Delta One flights: thinking locally, to serve globally.

The farm-to-table food movement began in the 2000s as part of a mission to reimagine what healthy food means, using buzzwords like "organic," "non-GMO" and "locally grown."

This "real food" model unifies chefs and farmers in sustainable agriculture, through direct sourcing straight from farms to restaurants.

For Delta this means organic produce and meats from Wes and Charlotte Swancy's Riverview Farms in Ranger, Georgia, just 90 minutes' drive from Delta's Atlanta headquarters.

Then homegrown chef Linton Hopkins, a household name in Atlanta for his upscale but down-to-earth, farm-fresh Southern fare, takes the regional flavors to new heights.

"If we don't build a menu with a sense of identity in place, I think you really lose people," says Hopkins.

"I said [to Delta], 'Let's just cook from scratch, just outbound Atlanta. Let's move the menus to seasonal and then start with local artisans,'" he says.

Preparation and presentation
Most carriers leave the cooking to an airline caterer, like GateGourmet. Chef Hopkins does things a little differently.

He has a full kitchen staff dedicated to preparing and cooking the meals that end up on Delta One flights outbound from Atlanta.

The same ingredients are used here as in his renowned Restaurant Eugene.

"All I have to do is cook. Then we deliver every day in our refrigerated truck, all the components of these dishes already prepped so that they [GateGourmet] just have to put them into a box."
Appearance is just as important as premium ingredients and flavor, according to Hopkins.

"We work with the flight attendants to train them on how to plate the food," he says.

Delta's take
"Customers want healthy, but I think they also want authentic meals," notes Brian Berry, Delta's director of on-board services.

"They want to know where their food comes from, right? Was it mass-produced? People care about that.

"Just because it's on the plane doesn't mean a customer shouldn't be able to eat how they eat in their real lives," he says.

It's been a success so far, but not without some trial and error. And the airlines aren't always the ones to blame -- our taste buds are significantly impaired 30,000 feet in the air.

"Linton actually flew with us when he first started working with us. He came back and changed the recipes because he did realize that it does taste different on board," Berry says.

Why go through all the trouble of doing all of this?

"It's about creating a different experience for the customer," says Berry."

We don't just fly customers A to B. When they get on board Delta, we want them to have an amazing experience. The food is an important part of that piece."
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Woman Shatters World Traveling Record

Cassie De Pecol has quite the passport, a historic one even.

CNN reports on the first woman to visit every country on the planet. More remarkably, she did it at an amazing pace.

As the report states, conquering 196 nations took this traveler all of 18 months and 26 days, which begs the question of what we managed to accomplish over the last year and a half.

Not many of us can beat a Guinness World Record in half the time, which is what De Pecol is able to claim.

But the journey wasn’t about fame and glory. It’s about spreading an important message of peace, love and conservation.

In fact, De Pecol is determined to plant a massive amount of trees to offset the carbon footprint of this remarkable adventure.

“It's tough to figure out to get permission to plant a tree in a lot of countries, but I've been trying to do that as much as possible. I've planted close to 50 trees now but there's about 500 more, so that's just a goal,” she tells CNN.

Her trip around the world was part of her ambassadorship for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism. Its mission statement explains the IIPTT is, “a not for profit organization dedicated to fostering and facilitating tourism initiatives which contribute to international understanding and cooperation, an improved quality of environment, the preservation of heritage, and through these initiatives, helping to bring about a peaceful and sustainable world.”

It’s this work that allowed De Pecol to spread the organization’s vision of peace and sustainable tourism as she met with mayors and dignitaries from around the world.

As for the brevity of each stop on the itinerary, De Pecol tells CNN: “It all comes down to two words: time management. One could spend Saturday and Sunday chilling at home watching Netflix -- totally OK, I am guilty of that at times -- or traveling to five places within one country, five countries within those two days.”

Of course, you may be wondering what a trip like this costs. According to CNN, the initial budget was nearly $200,000.

De Pecol reportedly acquired various sponsors to aid her journey and utilized a frugal travel manner she honed in a post-graduate trip to Europe.

There were the obvious hardships, such as getting into some countries that prove difficult for American tourists.

When it comes to North Korea, you better save up if you ever want to enter the hermit country: “The visa was like $1,000 for three days, whereas I went in with a group of Chinese tourists and their visa was like $300 for three days.”

De Pecol still managed to enter North Korea, which was just one of 196 sovereign nations the 27-year-old can now lay claim to having visited.

But it’s not like the travel bug dies easily because this prolific traveler now aims to visit Antarctica. And with it, she can cross off every last continent on this planet. The only thing left for her to go now, it would seem, is up. 
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Regional Information

For the latest, up-to-date information regarding key regions, click on the links below:



East Asia




Near East


South Asia


Western Hemisphere

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