No one wants trouble when they travel overseas. Recently, there seems to have been the appearance of strange variations of older scams abroad. These are of particular concern for cleared personnel, because what could be a shakedown for money could just as well be a trick to get classified information out of you. Yes, this concerns all U.S. travelers abroad, but it goes double for cleared personnel. The reasons may be intriguing, but they’re also concerning.

Recent travelers to the Holy Land made an interim stop in Istanbul, Turkey. After going through the security check, one of the travelers stopped to retie his shoes. There beside him was a Fitbit like device. He picked it up, and gave it to a nearby friend. This friend,also a fellow traveler to the Holy Land, put it in his backpack. As they began to head for their waiting area, police officials approached them. After a confrontation over the ‘missing Fitbit’, both were taken into custody. The ‘custody’ lasted over seven hours. They missed their flight, and were taken away to a police station miles away. Never learning under what circumstances they were arrested, they were compelled to buy ‘visas’ for their time in the country. When finally released after the intervention of a senior Turkish policewoman, the men were set free upon a street miles from the airport, at one in the morning. They walked back in the dead of night to the airport, where they had to pay extra to change their flights, and rejoin their tour group already in Israel.

Another American traveler found a deal online. She contacted the site, which put her in touch with a friendly travel coordinator. She could get free tickets to Europe in return for a simple transaction. She would deliver a package to the destination country, where she’d meet her contact after she exited at the arrival gate. Giving the package to the contact would conclude the business. Simple.

Don’t Fall for Scams: At Home or Abroad

While we warn our travelers time after time to beware of apparent gifts from nowhere, they never cease to fall for the scams they disguise. What should have happened in the first case is self-evident. The traveler should have told the security personnel at the station that someone lost their Fitbit device. Could the guard please take it under control? Issue over.

What if a traveler is confronted with any type of unaccompanied luggage? This is what should happen, as another real example illustrates. One traveler in line for a security check was asked by a stranger to ‘watch his bags’ while he went to the bathroom. In this day and age, that should never, ever, happen. It should certainly never happen in Israel, where one of the most stringent airport security services in the world exists. The traveler in this case refused, and the matter was resolved. But what if you see a bag with no one by it? Call security. They will appreciate your concern, and take the bags under control. This happened several times in my own travel, and airport personnel are grateful for the notification, often asking if I saw who left it. Many travelers, however, might say, ‘I have a flight to catch, and can’t be bothered’. A bomb going off is a bother, too.

In the case of ‘the free flight for delivery’ scam, report the bogus ‘delivery plan’ to airport TSA or federal authorities. Either the FBI or TSA will gladly take such tips, and this could lead to arrests of those scheming to harm travelers or deliver drugs. Do not ever avail yourselves of such bogus schemes.

These shakedown scams, and drug mule schemes, have an even more sinister aspect if you have a clearance. If you are caught ‘committing a crime’ you can be blackmailed for classified information you might know. Remember, never take classified material with you overseas. As for hand carrying classified documents, even within the U.S., transmitting it is the best method. Hand carrying it requires too much prior coordination (FAA/TSA), what to do if the flight is diverted, where will it be stored, etc. You can always deliver it securely through secure official email, or secure electronic fax. That still leaves what you know in your head susceptible to blackmail. No customs official, no security official, no agent alleged to be of a foreign government has any right to your information unless you know him by official identification through earlier coordination. That means if you should encounter anyone trying to relieve you of your laptop, or of information you know through ‘random’ interrogation, or any other means available to them, report it. One of our travelers, being quizzed about his project at a foreign airport by an official, contacted our U.S. Embassy who shot a representative down to the airport immediately. The foreign official was challenged, because he used our traveler missing his flight to exert pressure on him to answer his questions. Further, this official’s status as someone authorized to question official U.S. business was simply too transparent to be believed by anyone. Our traveler was released, his computer returned, and he was on his way, leaving the U.S. Embassy official and the foreign official in conversation. This is also why we say never, ever take a computer which may have protected information on it.

Don’t Want to Be a Target? Be Sure to Plan

Your trip abroad requires prior planning. Go to for the latest threats to travelers in the countries you intend to travel to or transit through. As you can see from the above cases, the threats change often, and often are nuanced and subtle. Have all the contact information of the U.S. embassy or consulate ready at hand. If you are traveling with others, make sure someone knows where you are at all times. Don’t hesitate to insure this is the case, even during long waits at flight lounges. If you plan a trip, always, always be sure your trusted friend at home has all your contact information and a copy of all your identification. This includes credit cards, ID’s and family members and work contact information. If you are robbed or held incommunicado, someone will know to advise your business and official counterparts, as well as your family. Enjoy your trip –  after you visit your security officer for a briefing.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.