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How human traffickers recruit victims online


The broad reach of the internet enables human traffickers to recruit their victims online more effectively. The perpetrators facilitate sex trafficking, as well as forced labor situations. Here's a look at common internet-based recruitment tactics. 

Offering promises of a better life on social media

People often share details of their problems in social media groups or on their feeds. If they don't have in-person support for those struggles, many think they can find it on the internet. Unfortunately, human trafficking online often starts via social media posts. 

Members of the Roma community in Hungary, for example, respond to social media content offering them marriages and opportunities to leave the country. They often end up doing sex work in strange places where they don't know the language. All the newness of the experience is so overwhelming to the trafficked individuals that they stay out of fear. The advertisements often mention travel, too, making an offer seem like an adventure. 

Many ads include housing and travel expenses as part of the deal, making it even more appealing. Traffickers often target people who don't have strong family networks, too. For example, they ask questions related to someone's parents. If the person responds, "They died when I was a baby" or "I'm estranged from my mom," those two things could make an individual prone to trafficking. 

Traffickers seek minors, too. Statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys are victims of sexual abuse. The sad thing is that many people who respond to ads on social media want a changed life. It does change, but not in the ways they expect. 

Data also indicates that females are more likely than males to abuse drugs or alcohol to cope with the trauma of sexual abuse. Thus, the events they endure during sex trafficking could lead to addiction or other damaging habits. 

Looking for people who feel misunderstood or dissatisfied

A study from the University of Toledo explored the kinds of social media posts that attract traffickers to potential victims. If a person says no one in their life gets them, they're tired of being single or they feel ugly, those sentiments may entice a trafficker to reach out. They then respond by saying something such as "I understand you" to engage in the conversations. 

The chat-based aspect of social media also gives traffickers more time to get to the heart of a person's distress and craft responses to lure them into bad situations. People who trafficked victims through in-person interactions before the days of the internet might only have minutes to determine what to say. Online chat enables substantially longer conversations, helping a victim start to trust the trafficker. 

The University of Toledo research also found that 42% of victims who met traffickers online never encountered them in person but still got trafficked. That conclusion sheds light on the networked nature of many sex trafficking efforts. 

Enticing people with job offers

Sex traffickers also appeal to victims online by presenting them with opportunities to work. A 2017 report from Polaris showed that traffickers often mislead their victims by offering them modeling contracts, complete with immigration permission assistance if required. The traffickers use online classified ad sites as their main platforms.  

Another tactic identified by Polaris involved advertising for job openings at places appearing as legitimate spas. People find out after getting hired, though, that the facilities force them into illicit sex services. 

A separate research effort examined sex trafficking attempts on a Lithuanian job website. It found that most ads appeared in Lithuanian, and more than a quarter (26.5%) related to work in food production. It was also common across many industries for the ads to request non-skilled labor or tell people the work concerned short-term contracts. 

Moreover, the study showed that providing accommodation was the most reliable indicator of the work being a trafficking attempt. More than 90% of the ads concealing trafficking promised it. If the advertisement indicated a person could or would work more than 40 hours per week, and that they did not need previous experience or language proficiency, those were other red flags. A recent FBI bulletin warned that online traffickers often frequent popular online platforms, but didn't say which ones. It did mention, however, that traffickers like to pose as legitimate recruiters, and that they often use information that victims post online, to shape how they interest them in offers. 

Human trafficking online is a serious issue

Anyone who's ever heard a friend or family member tell them that the internet is full of sex trafficking attempts should take that warning to heart. The research here shows it's a genuine problem that requires people to be on guard.

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