The rise of social media means that more travellers are being reported missing to a wider audience in a more timely fashion. But how many of these cases are genuine, and why should the travel insurance industry care? Robin Gauldie investigates
Last year’s film The Lost City of Z told the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, the legendary explorer who vanished in the Amazon rainforest in 1925. But not all missing persons cases involve journeys into unexplored jungle. Most begin in more familiar territory – and it has been suggested that insurers could do more to help those involved in tracing them.
“I can think of no occasions where an insurer has assisted in the tracing,” says Matt Searle, chief executive of the Lucie Blackman Trust, which provides British families with free information, liaison, advice and support throughout missing person cases overseas. “Normally, they kick in when it comes to repatriation after injury, illness, or death, but I’ve never seen any assistance in the actual searching stages. Perhaps a good working practice would be to provide details of our charity to all policyholders.”
“Modern technology means people are always in touch and when they aren’t, for whatever reason, people easily panic,” says Searle. “Many of our cases are down to technology issues – lost signal, roaming not allowed, poor quality networks. Facebook is everywhere, unless you’re suddenly in the middle of nowhere. That causes a lot of problems. I always recount one story of a young man who was suddenly out of contact and the family were convinced the worst had happened. We tracked him down to the middle of a rainforest – where, unsurprisingly, his mobile devices didn’t have good signal.”
Social media cuts both ways, agrees Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of the US State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services. “It can mean that when someone does not receive an expected phone call, text, tweet or Facebook post from a family member telling them that they have arrived safely, they will immediately contact us. Very often, we are soon after informed that the person in question has called and that there is no need to pursue a welfare whereabouts case.”
By helping travellers stay in touch, social media can be very useful when problems arise within a destination, she notes, and can reduce pressure on departments such as the Overseas Citizens Service: “We see that most dramatically in the aftermath of natural disasters or terrorist incidents, when relatives are often concerned for the safety of family members known to be in the area at the time. At such times, we urge travellers to contact people at home to reassure them, and that has led to a drop in the number of ‘welfare whereabouts’ calls to us after such events.”
Common sense advice
The Lucie Blackman Trust advises worried relatives or partners first to take certain basic steps such as contacting the last known lodgings at which the missing person was staying and checking social media: “In the case of younger people, consider the time of day – is it likely they may still be in bed with a bit of a hangover? Call the police and hospitals in the area to see if they’ve been taken ill, or perhaps got into a bit of trouble.”
Tracing a missing vacationer or business traveller frequently involves multiple entities. ABTA, the UK travel association, says that holiday companies can offer some immediate help in tracing missing holidaymakers in the destination in which they vanished: “If a customer on a package holiday goes missing, tour operator staff and their suppliers will do everything they can to assist local authorities, even to the extent of joining search parties. They will also support any other party members who are in [the] resort and inform the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), which will then take steps to inform next of kin in the UK.”
However, the advent of online booking means millions of people now arrange their flights and accommodation independently of conventional package tour operators, so there has to be another main point of information where travellers can be tracked – at least to some degree. And that’s where government safe travel websites come into play. “All travellers are encouraged before they depart to register their travel details with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT),” states the Australian government department on its Smartraveller website.
social media can be very useful when problems arise within a destination
Such entities as DFAT, the FCO and the US State Department, alongside national police forces in the missing person's home country, are normally the ‘first responders’ contacted by relatives who have lost contact with a family member abroad. Like DFAT, the State Department operates a Smart Traveler Enrolment Program and urges US travellers to file their planned itineraries before departure.
The British FCO tells those concerned about a missing person to make their first report to UK police ‘with a specific request that they inform the UK National Central Bureau of Interpol, who have the resources and jurisdiction to investigate missing persons and liaise with foreign police’.
However, Interpol’s role in the process is limited to liaison. If asked by a national police force, Interpol can issue an alert known as a Yellow Notice to forces in all member countries asking for their help in tracing a missing person.
Where in the world?
Even specially trained and well-equipped missing persons units of police forces in developed countries find such cases challenging; under-resourced local police forces in developing countries more so. As a result, they are sometimes accused by media in the missing person's home country of incompetence, insufficient enthusiasm and even corruption.
If a customer on a package holiday goes missing, tour operator staff and their suppliers will do everything they can to assist local authorities, even to the extent of joining search parties
“Thailand is our biggest provider of work,” says Matt Searle. “There is a lot of difficulty in any case in Thailand. Westerners are certainly not a high priority and there is often no support from police. Added to the high levels of alleged corruption, it is very difficult to get good results there.”
Cases involving ‘disappearing’ backpackers or businessmen attract most coverage, but this needs to be seen in perspective. More than 1,000 people go missing in Thailand every year, The Nation newspaper reported in 2014. Two out of three are Thai children. Only a handful are foreigners.
National government entities also emphasise that responsibility for conducting searches rests with local police. The FCO points out that it cannot conduct physical searches ‘even where the local investigating authority is not considered effective’.
Organisations involved in tracing the missing agree that there is no typical profile. British nationals being sought with the help of the Lucie Blackman Trust in 2017 range in age from under 10 to over 70 years old. “A lot of cases are middle aged men in Asia,” Searle told ITIJ. “Thailand is notoriously easy to disappear in, with cases of men falling for a Thai girl, or just running away from problems at home – we find people getting away from problems are much more frequently men than women.”
That has led to a proliferation in the number of private detective agencies based in Bangkok and Pattaya, Thailand's biggest resort. “I have done lots of insurance fraud cases,” says one Pattaya-based investigator. “We get hired to try and locate missing persons, normally by the insurance company's legal department, to determine if the insured is hiding out in Thailand, Cambodia or
Laos. Family members ask us to locate missing relatives as well. I've found plenty over the years, usually with a Thai wife. Sometimes they have children here also.”
Some travellers go astray only briefly, like 21-year-old Jordan Jacobs, who in 2016 reportedly called his mother claiming he was being held against his will on Ko Phi Phi Don, a Thai island, then failed to contact her for five days, prompting her to launch a Facebook appeal. He later said he had been unable to charge his mobile phone and had been ‘having a bit too much fun’.
The mother of Grace Taylor, a 21-year-old Briton, initiated a search after Grace failed to get in touch from Pattaya in February 2016. She called home six days later, reportedly ‘stressed and hallucinating’.
Some are accident victims, like Nathan Hansford, an Australian businessman who was located in Cambodia in March 2014 – reportedly suffering from amnesia after a vehicle accident – around six weeks after he went missing and a social media campaign was launched to trace him.
Some disappear apparently of their own free will. Justin Shetler (35), a US national, remains missing after reportedly posting from India’s Kullu Valley in September 2016 that he ‘wanted to experience the life of a sadhu (Indian holy man)’.
And a few vanish with fraud in mind. Stephen Kellaway faked his death while in Russia so he and his wife could claim on his life policy. He was discovered alive in Bangkok in 2011. Anthony McErlean did the same in Honduras to defraud his insurer of £500,000 but was caught.
DFAT says consular officials ‘will only pursue whereabouts enquiries that are based on a well-founded concern for the welfare of an Australian citizen overseas’. Before it will act on such an enquiry, DFAT expects enquirers to have exhausted all normally available channels. That can be a time consuming and challenging process. Dozens of explorers went in search of Colonel Fawcett – but his fate is still a mystery.
Travel insurers and their assistance partners are ‘very unlikely’ to play a key role around co-ordinating a search, according to Randall Gordon-Duff, head of product and corporate travel at UK-based Collinson Group. “An assistance company’s involvement might start once the person is located and there are medical circumstances that lead to a claim or request for assistance,” he told ITIJ. “In the case of business travellers, if a kidnapping is ruled out, usually there is no further cover to continue any investigation. In some cases, employers might request a specialist company to help locate the individual. This is commonly a private fee arrangement.”
As part of their duty of care, employers can work with assistance and travel management companies that offer tracking services that provide real-time information on where their employees are, Gordon-Duff notes.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” says James Page, senior vice-president and chief administrative officer at AIG Travel. “If a person is kidnapped and has travel insurance coverage but not a specific Kidnap and Ransom policy, AIG Travel may still be able to provide support through our security related products or by negotiating resources, such as security specialists, to assist with the search. In cases where clients go missing during a crisis or natural disaster, AIG Travel will work closely with local authorities, first responders, foreign consulates and embassies to locate clients.”
In other cases, where clients may go missing for an unknown reason, AIG Travel takes an active role in contacting foreign embassies, local area police and hospitals on behalf of the client’s family. “If the policy includes financial coverage,” says Page, “then we would work with the family member to cover financial needs in the search for the missing client or identification of remains.”
In situations where a client is missing for a significant period of time before being found, AIG Travel could, in certain circumstances, still play a role. "For example, if a client was to go missing while travelling, and was not found for a significant period of time – say another 12 to 18 months after being reported missing – depending on the circumstances, AIG Travel may still be in a position to assist the family in the recovery and/or the repatriation of the remains,” added Page.
There is no significant evidence that the increased popularity of adventure holidays in remote regions has contributed to an increase in missing persons in such cases, according to interested parties like Matt Searle and Phil Sylvester, travel safety expert at World Nomads, an Australian insurer that specialises in niche travel insurance. “Once upon a time, the world was a more uncertain place and it was easier to go missing,” Sylvester says.
The Lucie Blackman Trust averages around 3,000 enquiries per year, according to Searle: “Most are sorted out quickly and are what we could consider false alarms, but we take on around 800 cases a year. That’s been about the same for several years now.”
some policies might include search and rescue cover but this is largely limited to extensions around activities and winter sport policies
And in some cases, the government of the citizen can help in locating someone who is lost. “Very often, we can reach out to the travel insurance company or assistance provider in helping to find somebody and they will become involved if the person requires medical assistance or evacuation,” says Michelle Bernier-Toth. The issue of who pays, ultimately, is a topic for debate: As the FCO points out: “Costs should be met by relatives or the insurance company; some insurance policies will cover search and rescue costs.”
“In the leisure travel market, some policies might include search and rescue cover but this is largely limited to extensions around activities and winter sport policies,” says Randall Gordon-Duff.
That could change, though, if World Nomads adapts its policies: “We do not have anything in any of our policies, worldwide, addressing costs associated with mounting a search for a ‘missing’ person,” says Sylvester. “As such, it’s not covered. But I’m certainly going to take it to our product and underwriting teams. We’re always looking to improve our product, and this seems like a humane and compassionate service to attempt to provide.”
So sometimes, there is a happy ending! ⬛