Travel overseas is upon us again. Business trips to all parts of the world are once again becoming common practice in many of offices, facilities and cleared factories. What needs reminding is not only the dread actions of civil unrest and social upheaval in many countries cleared personnel visit. Rather, more common pitfalls are those we must warn our travelers of the most.

How Security Officers Can Prepare Personnel for Travel

Security officers should begin by referring travelers to The State Department is a treasure of travel information and offers the latest country guidance. Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). You can do this online, and it allows you to get updates and advisories of changing situations in your target country. You can also enroll with the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate. This means you can be contacted in an emergency if necessary. Your colleagues, friends, and family will have a common place to know how they can reach you at all times.

Physical Security

Most important is knowing your documents are safe. Empty your wallets and purses before you leave. Put back in only what you will need to travel. That way, if you get robbed, they will only get those documents you know you brought. Before you depart, make copies of all your documents, and leave them with someone you absolutely trust and can reach while you are away. This way, if pick-pocketed or robbed, you’ll know you can call home and say, “Start cancelling all my credit cards.” Time is of the essence. Insure, if you take a cell phone on travel that you’ve verified you can use it oversea.! Never use your cell phone to discuss business. Methods of compromising phones are so easy today that it is recommended to take a ‘burner’ phone which will not lose all your data if compromised.

Keeping Classified Documents Safe

I’ll not discuss the required pre-travel classified briefing. This will tell you what places to avoid, precautions to take, and where and how to deliver any classified documents. This is a separate briefing altogether. Not only will such precautions prevent loss to wandering espionage thefts, but also will protect you from ‘information brokers’.  The lowliest sneak thief knows he can fence important documents he steals from people like you. If he spies you carrying documents in a briefcase, he knows what you are carrying will probably be of value to someone…not least of all anyone who knows what your company makes, and wants it for themselves.  Then he has another option. He can hold the documents for ransom.

Minding Country Pitfalls

Other common pitfalls vary by country and itinerary. Train station exits are well known zones of thievery. Train station terminals in major countries, such as Amsterdam and Rome, are notorious for thefts. Some travelers use the ‘throwaway’ wallet, which can be used for daily use. If spotted, and stolen, the ‘throwaway wallet’ might protect the real extra money you carry. This can be stored in a money belt, or contained on a lanyard around your neck, inside your shirt.

Know what a U.S. Embassy can or cannot do for you. Before you go, read the travel advisories for your destination. This, and awareness of the address and contact numbers of the embassy are your best moves. You should do this as soon as your register in the STEP program.

Learn From Others

Employ the knowledge of those who have previously been on the trip you are taking. They can tell you, for instance, that your greatest threat in London is not looking in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic! Just as you’d ask for the best hotels and restaurants, ask for the best guidance on security. Know that you don’t have to respond to every Italian claiming he ‘lost his wallet,’ and could you help him with just a few dollars?

Foreign adversaries and common thieves alike will hope overseas travelers will have forgotten their own well-developed strategies for keeping both themselves and the information they have access to safe. Security officers, in particular, should refresh their awareness of overseas travel risks and be prepared to brief their personnel accordingly.


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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.