Facing the end of his athletic career, a famous sports figure decided to try his hand at movies. He had a good shot at some lead roles and everything seemed to be going his way-but his personal life. A security firm he'd hired found out his girlfriend was not all she claimed to be. She'd been a prostitute, had a substance abuse problem, and those were just the issues they knew about. Feeling he wasn't in love with her, the actor decided to sever ties.
But his girlfriend wasn't going to go that easy. She warned him that if he dumped her, she'd run to the tabloids claiming he was drunk and abusive. The fact that it wasn't true was irrelevant. He saw his promising movie career being jeopardized. He decided to offer her a monetary settlement. He and his attorney invited the woman to lunch in a public place, with his security detail in tow. The attorney offered the woman $500,000 to $1 million if she would sign a cease-and-desist contract and walk away. She suddenly stood up, refused the offer, became irate and started to leave. As the attorney tried to calm her, she grabbed a steak knife and lunged at her ex-boyfriend, slashing the knife in the air near his face. The attorney intervened and was slashed across the arm before the security detail could grab her. She was booked for assault with a deadly weapon. She eventually agreed to a settlement and the actor dropped the charges.
"The attorney earned his keep. And so did we. But it's an example of how things can really get out of hand," says Alon Stivi, whose firm, Direct Measures International, provided the sports star's security.
Stivi, who counts Warren Buffett among his former clients, says he's dealt with wealthy individuals for almost 20 years, and the biggest challenge for them is knowing whom to trust.
"Us regular people don't have to worry about that. But once you become ultra-wealthy, especially if you made a fortune or got an inheritance or you invented something, people come out of the woodwork pretending to be your long lost friend, and it can become a serious problem," Stivi says.
The wealthy walk a minefield, security experts say. From needy relatives and parasitic partners to unstable individuals or employees with ulterior motives (such as a nanny who takes the job to infiltrate their home), the rich are constantly surrounded by people who have the potential to do them harm. And that harm can include everything from identity theft to extortion, even kidnapping.
"Most prominent people, at one time or another-whether they're from the entertainment or business community or politics-are going to attract the attention of someone who will focus on them more than they would the average person, simply because of their wealth," says William Besse, an executive director with the security firm Andrews International. "Money has its advantages. But it also attracts an element who may intend to do wealthy people some harm, to take advantage of that celebrity or wealth."
While affluent people need security, they don't always need men with dark suits and earpieces standing vigil. What they do need is to screen more and reveal less personal information, according to experts.
One of the biggest leaks in a wealthy family's security is their children's Facebook accounts, experts say. Highly sophisticated criminals will prowl the Internet for any information they can get about their target, and Facebook pages are ripe with things like vacation photos and people's dates of birth. So while the parents in a wealthy family may have a heavy security detail around them, their children may unknowingly be their weakest link.
"A lot of clients don't really think they're vulnerable until we actually point things out," says Dorothy Sarna, senior vice president of Risk Management Services for the Private Client Group at Chartis, which insures one third of the Forbes 400.
Whom To Trust?
It takes time for the wealthy to be able to decipher who is trustworthy and who is not, Stivi says. Some fall back on childhood friends, thinking they can trust the people who knew them before they were rich. But those relationships can sour when the wealthy individual hires a security firm that vets all of her friends and intimate partners. Many clients are reluctant to do background checks on their friends for just that reason, Stivi says.