Captive Market: A Consultant, His Girlfriend And The Kidnapping Business : Planet Money This is a story about a man trying to plan for the unimaginable: What would he do if his girlfriend were kidnapped?
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Captive Market: A Consultant, His Girlfriend And The Kidnapping Business

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Captive Market: A Consultant, His Girlfriend And The Kidnapping Business

Captive Market: A Consultant, His Girlfriend And The Kidnapping Business

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This next story is about a man trying to plan for the unimaginable - if his loved one is kidnapped and held for ransom. He's not a cop or a crime expert. But he does have a skill that he thinks could help him crack a kidnapper's code. NPR's Gregory Warner sent this report with the help of our Planet Money team.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The man in the story's name is Yaw. He's a business consultant for an international firm in Nigeria. So he visits a lot of offices, big banks and other clients. And he meets a lot of employees with kidnapping stories.

YAW: How they have been kidnapped - and they know other people who've been kidnapped.

WARNER: Nigeria is Africa's biggest economy, but that growth has nurtured a shadow industry of kidnapping for ransom. Nigeria is now ranked fifth in the world for kidnapping cases. One story stuck with him.

YAW: This guy who - the money wasn't enough, so they kept melting a plastic bag onto his feet. It's madness. And so these things just get me scared about Emily.

WARNER: Emily is Yaw's American girlfriend. Now, we're only using their first names at their request because they still live in Nigeria. But Emily will tell you that the thing about Yaw is that he can take an analytical approach to almost anything. Even if she just wants to vent about a bad day, he's there analyzing what went wrong.

EMILY: Sometimes he says do you want me to be your boyfriend or do you want me to be a consultant right now? And most of the time, the answer is I want you to be my boyfriend.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: The way Yaw decided to deal with this boyfriend fear of his girlfriend being taken was to put on his consultant cap. What if he analyzed kidnapping as he in his day job analyzes other African industries? Could he protect Emily against kidnappers by understanding their economic strengths and weaknesses?

YAW: Let's start with who does the kidnapping. If you're in jail, we go to the prisons. Let's go to victims who have survived.

WARNER: So he sets up dozens of interviews with all kinds of people.

YAW: Private security services who protect rich people.

WARNER: And then after the information gathering, he starts this thought experiment.

YAW: I sort of had to think of myself as if I was the ringleader?

WARNER: What if I were a kidnapper?

YAW: Where in the bush would you keep people?

WARNER: Like, how do you run a kidnapping business?

YAW: The real everyday job.

WARNER: Now, one thing he was surprised in this process to discover is the high cost of holding a hostage. You have to pay for guards. You have to pay for a cook. You pay off police each day. And because kidnappers tend to keep one victim per hideout, there's also an opportunity cost. Every day you're holding one hostage is another you can't go grab.

YAW: So inventory holding is a real problem. And you need to have high turnover. People need to come in and leave in two days - one day even better, half a day best.

WARNER: Now, Yaw, imagine you're that family member on the other side of the ransom negotiation.

YAW: Another strategy clearly is if you are able to wait it out a bit in terms of your family members dragging on and saying no, listen, we're still struggling to find the money. We need another few days. The ransom came down significantly.

WARNER: And so Yaw came to the conclusion that if Emily was kidnapped, he would likely try to bargain with the kidnappers. Now, to be clear, it's not because he wants to save money, but because he's learned that the entire kidnapping business model is based on adjustable pricing.

Kidnappers will charge as much ransom as they think the family can pay. If the ransom money's going to be lower, then they need you out that much faster so that they can get more hostages. Now, Yaw has never actually done any negotiations. So I put this theory to a professional - Mark Courtney in South Africa. He's now semi-retired, but he's been a kidnap and ransom negotiator for more than a decade. And he says he's never lost a hostage.

MARK COURTNEY: The boyfriend - he is essentially correct. And the time does come into it. If you agree to pay the ransom too quickly, they will believe that you must have access to more money.

WARNER: And then the ransom will climb up and up.

COURTNEY: Correct.

WARNER: But on the other hand, be careful not to bargain too hard. Remember that guy Yaw met who had a plastic bag melted onto his feet because his family wasn't paying up fast enough. So you might be wondering at this point, what does Emily think? Would she want to be bargained over? What's her strategy? But Emily, early on in Yaw's research, decided that she didn't want to learn the kidnapping game. She didn't want to put herself into the mind of a kidnapper.

EMILY: It's not going to make my life better to do that, right - to be thinking like a criminal?

WARNER: She would leave the strategizing to others. And Mark Courtney, the negotiator, thinks that's the best strategy of all.

COURTNEY: I'm with her. I'm with her.

WARNER: He says it's very dangerous for any family member to try to negotiate with kidnappers no matter how much they've studied the game.

COURTNEY: It's not very dangerous - it's lethally dangerous.

WARNER: Leave the negotiating to professionals like him, he says. Because when a business consultant like Yaw comes to analyze an industry, his key advantage is distance. He parachutes into a company unbiased by prior relationships or fears of its future. He gives his advice and then he leaves. The terrifyingly profitable thing about kidnapping is that no matter how solid your analysis, with one phone call, all that rational distance is gone. Gregory Warner, NPR News.

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