Special Report

Biggest Ransoms Ever Paid

As a get-rich-quick scheme, holding people for ransom is one of the oldest strategies known to humankind. It also carries with it elements of danger and desperation. Implied in the deed is the threat of harm or death. No one, including heads of state, is off limits. And the payoff can be substantial – assuming that you never get caught.

To determine the biggest ransoms ever paid, 24/7 Tempo gleaned information from Guinness World Records and archived news articles about kidnappings from media sources such as the New York Times and Reuters

Many of the largest ransoms ever paid were made during the 1970s, a decade in which kidnapping became something of a fad. Most of those occurred in Argentina, a country that was battling insurgent leftist guerrillas and at the same time trying to quell runaway inflation that was destroying the livelihood of low-income workers. The guerrillas kidnapped foreign business executives to exact ransom that they claimed they would distribute to those in the working class. Some of these ransom incidents ended in tragic shootouts.

Offspring of the rich and famous were targeted for ransom in that decade. too. These included John Paul Getty III, grandson of oil mogul John Paul Getty; Sam Bronfman, scion of Seagram’s distillery owner Edgar Bronfman; and Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst media empire. (Speaking of wealthy Americans, these are the highest paid CEOs at America’s largest companies.)

Audacity certainly goes with the territory of abducting people for money. Infamous Hong Kong mobster “Big Spender” Cheung Tze-keung kidnapped two deep-pocketed Hong Kong business figures in the 1990s, then had the gall to contact one victim’s father to seek advice on how he should invest the ransom money. (“Big Spender” would eventually pay the ultimate price.)

Click here to see the biggest ransoms ever paid

As of late, the biggest ransoms are occurring on the high seas. Two of the incidents on our list involve Somali pirates who captured oil supertankers in the Indian Ocean. Such acts appear to be trending downward, though. In 2021, maritime piracy and armed-robbery attacks fell to 132, their lowest recorded level since 1994, according to the annual report of the ICC International Maritime Bureau. By comparison, there were 195 instances of piracy and armed robbery worldwide the previous year. (Read about the most infamous pirates in history.)

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