Carlos Barron worked for the FBI for 25 years and now seeks to put that experience in the service of travelers who find themselves in trouble overseas. Two years ago, Barron and several partners started a company called US Traveler Assist (USTA) to fill what he saw as a gap in what travelers needed when they are abroad – issues not covered by travel insurance and that local embassies would not handle.
For just $20 a day, clients receive a personalized security briefing; direct 24/7 access to an in-country point of contract security expert who has expertise, networks and command of the local language; on the ground support; immediate feedback from the contact in response to an incident; and proactive support communicating with local police or sourcing legal assistance if necessary and ongoing security advice prior to and during travel.
The services include: finding out who to call in case you are arrested or detained; learning what your rights are under local law and who you should contact first; how to retain a local lawyer; the most effective way of initiating US Embassy action; how to file a police report, etc.
The local contacts said Barron, are former senior U.S. Embassy officials (legal attaches) with extensive expertise in local law enforcement and embassy procedures, and whose network of local contacts are a resource in a safety/security emergency.
Of course, that $20 pays only for the accessibility of the contact. Any further activity or legal needs would cost additional money. As soon as a traveler signs up, they are introduced to their country’s contact, including a biography. The travelers can then contact the person before or during the trip. Recent clients, said Barron, have included parents signing up their children who are studying abroad, a grandmother whose grandson went to Naples; and a younger adventure-loving couple.
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Barron is eager to work with travel advisors. US Traveler Assist offers a commission to travel agents and works with them on an individual basis. Compensation depends on the total number of travelers as well as the duration of a trip.
Agents understand that discussing security with clients is a good idea, said Barron, but they don’t want to scare them. However, he said, if a client brings up these issues, USTA is a door they can go through. He calls it a supplement to insurance – not a tangible purchase, but an emotional one.
Barron says he can build on experiences like investigating drug trafficking organizations along the southwest border and investigating the 9/11 attack. He said that when he worked overseas, issues would be bounced to him from the state department and other agencies – not “red” issues like kidnapping or someone dying – but more typically criminal activities like a stolen wallet or watch or a traffic ticket which necessitated a visit to a police station. Knowing your rights in a foreign country, is complicated, said Barron. He said the responsiveness of an embassy depends on that particular embassy and the nature of the problem.
A number of Barron’s peers have remained in countries where they worked and maintain extensive networks of contacts. Barron’s idea was to bring in these ex-officials and use them as a resource for American travelers to give them peace of mind.
Barron said the growth of social media makes people feel connected and safer but “just because I can Facetime my mom when I’m in Rome doesn’t help me if something happens in Rome.” He said there are companies that have an 800 number and many specialize in services like bodyguards and armored cars, “but those are not what we are talking about. We are talking about the softer side, what I call ‘gray’ situations.”
US traveler Assist now has people in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia and is continuing to expand.
Barron thinks the market is huge because so many people are traveling and they do not want to think about safety until something happens. “My life has been about contingency – always prepared in case something does happen – this is how I see the world.
“I want people to travel,” Barron concluded. “ I grew up in Spain and California and my mother lives in Marbella, Spain. It’s important to see the world from the outside in. The world is great but you need to be aware, to have a plan and contingencies. We are a facilitator for that.”