Cyberspace: a Fertile Hunting Ground for Sex Traffickers

By Lisa Thompson, Kristen Martinez, and Layne DeHart

As technology advances, sex traffickers adopt and adapt new online capabilities to target and exploit victims and create “market” opportunities. With technology now reaching nearly every corner of the globe, sex traffickers today have access to more people than ever before. They use various interactive online platforms to groom, recruit, exploit, and advertise victims, as well as manage illicit transactions. Sex traffickers connect with virtual sex buyers (exploiters) around the world through use of live streams, escort service websites, coded verbiage on certain websites, chat rooms, webcams, recording devices, and pornography sites. Sex traffickers are able to decrease their operations on the streets and move them into a virtual space as the Internet and digital platforms provide them with more options for engaging in sexual exploitation and illicit financial gain.

What is Technology-Facilitated Sex Trafficking?

Cyber or technology-facilitated sex trafficking is simply sex trafficking in which sex traffickers use Internet technologies to perpetrate the crime. The use of Internet technologies by sex traffickers is increasingly common

In an effort to evaluate strategies of cybersex traffickers, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime(UNODC) examined 79 trafficking cases (involving a total of 491 victims) where the Internet was used to recruit, exploit, and advertise victims. Several victims were affected by 2 or more of these trafficking strategies. The analysis found that of 31 of the 79 cases involved cyber recruitment (affecting 221 victims), 12 cases involved virtual exploitation (involving 112 victims), and 44 cases involved online advertising (affecting 278 victims). Additionally, 51% of the cyber trafficking victims within the study experienced sexual exploitation via the use of social media platforms.

Use of the Internet allows sex traffickers to increase the scope and financial gain of their illicit activities. For instance, cybersex traffickers can expose victims to an unlimited number of sex buyers. This is more cost effective for sex traffickers since they do not have to transport victims or buy/rent locations when using virtual platforms to provide access to victims. 

Hunting Vs. Fishing Strategies used by Single or Groups of Traffickers

Sex traffickers now have the power to target and access more people than ever before, due to technology that can reach into homes around the world. Two of the most prevalent methods used by traffickers are referred to as “hunting” and “fishing.”

Hunting:

  • Sex traffickers actively search out and target potential sex buyers and victims.
  • Strategies entail planning and targeting based on information collected on social media.
  • Socioeconomic status, vulnerability factors, mental health, history of abuse, or other factors could make individuals more vulnerable to exploitation.

Fishing:

  • Sex traffickers place advertisements that lure in potential sex buyers and victims. 
  • Strategies entail luring in victims with the promise of a job or other future plans. 
  • This method is more commonly used than hunting.

Who is most at risk of being targeted?

Regardless of their geographic location or socioeconomic status, youth who have access to technology and the internet are considered to be at a higher risk of being groomed and exploited by sex traffickers. Adolescents’ media use via internet-connected devices and interactive platforms has increased dramatically, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This reality grants sexual exploiters unprecedented levels of access to minors which they can utilize to initiate contact with children via social media,  video game platforms, or other interactive platforms. The National Center on Missing and Exploited Children found that between 2019 and 2020 there was a 97.5% increase in reports of online enticement.

Types of Platforms

Sex traffickers have utilized classified ad listing sites, tech apps, and social media platforms for exploitation. Unmonitored and unsecured Internet platforms have played influential roles in the sexual exploitation and trafficking of victims around the world. According to the 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report, the internet is the most common location for recruitment by sex traffickers in the U.S with 41% of victims in active cases being recruited online. In 2020, 59% of online victim recruitment in active sex trafficking cases occurred on Facebook. Despite Facebook’s reputation as a less popular platform among teenagers, 65% of child victims recruited on social media were recruited through Facebook compared to 36% of adults.  After Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounted for 14% and 8% of child recruitment, respectively. In their analysis of websites and apps used to recruit victims irrespective of age, the 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Reportfound that the most common sites in sex trafficking cases were Facebook (59%), Instagram (13%), WeChat (9%), and Snapchat (7%).

Researchers have discovered various methods of exploitation used by sex traffickers within the cyber realm.  These include webcams, chatrooms, livestreams, and other types of recording devices. Examples of the major online marketing and communication platforms used by sex traffickers can be seen in the table below. 

Platform DefinitionExamples 
Online Gaming Online games where predators can connect with children through video with the intent of using them for human trafficking purposes RobloxDiscord
Dating SitesDating sites that include commercial arrangementsSugar dating sites such as SeekingArrangement.com 
Social Media AppsSocial networks used by traffickers to recruit victims, proliferate their trafficking operations, and control victimsFacebook, Instagram, SnapchatTwitter
Classified and Prostitution WebsitesWebsites with prostitution specific advertising where individuals can post advertisements or browse for items or services, including sex services Backpage.comCraigslistcityXguideMegapersonals,Eros
Messaging Apps Apps used to distribute CSAM and other sexually explicit material WeChatWhatsAppKik
(Note: Backpage.com was taken down by the FBI in 2018)

How to Stop Online Sex Trafficking

Technology-facilitated sex trafficking also presents several challenges for law enforcement. One of the biggest difficulties that arises is the increase in anonymity among sex traffickers. Technology allows sex traffickers to hide their identity by using Virtual Private Networks or creating fake profiles on social media networks to communicate with victims. Additionally, the creation of non-identifiable electronic payments such as cryptocurrency further facilitate the sale of sexual services without the risk of being identified by authorities. 

Further fueling the problem, technology companies have the resources and technological capacity to better safeguard against sexual exploiters online, but many have failed to prioritize the safety of their products. A textbook example of this is seen in the case of John Doe v Twitter.  

In order to aptly mitigate against technologically-facilitated sex trafficking, it is integral that non-profits, law enforcement, government, and technology entities continually monitor, research, and reassess the cyber and technological landscape in order to keep pace with the growth of technologically bolstered sex trafficking. 

The public also plays a crucial role in combatting technology-facilitated sex trafficking by advocating for legislation which will protect individual privacy and online safety. Currently, there are several bills that fulfill this need. 

The bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) focuses on the type and amount of content minors are exposed to online. This bill will impose new safeguards, tools, and transparency requirements to protect children and prevent the destructive impact of social media. Additionally, KOSA will provide parents with new ways to spot and report harmful behaviors online. This bill will require entities to conduct an annual audit of risks of harm to minors on their services and issue a public report with its findings. 

The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2022 (EARN IT Act) is another bill which advances online safety by incentivizing companies to put customers first and prioritize justice for survivors. This act creates a new online child exploitation prevention committee with oversight from Congress. The EARN IT Act also changes the term “child pornography” in legislation to “child sexual abuse material” to ensure that it is treated as evidence of a crime. Additionally, this act allows survivors of child sexual abuse material to restore the privacy they have lost because their abuse was uploaded to the internet. (Note: not all CSAM is the result of sex trafficking, but sex trafficking and CSAM can and often overlap.) 

However, children are not the only vulnerable group in cyber or technology-facilitated sex trafficking. Adults also need protection against the harms of sexual exploitation. The Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act of 2022 establishes a Bureau of Digital Services Oversight and Safety within the Federal Trade Commission that has the authority and resources to hold online companies accountable for the promises they make to users, parents, and advertisers. This act will help inform updates to the laws that govern the internet. 

While each of these bills have been introduced, they have not yet become laws. Please contact your Members of Congress, both U.S. Senators and Representatives, and urge them to co-sponsor and support these acts.  

Sex traffickers rely on the perceived anonymity of the internet As law enforcement and the public collaborate to pass legislation, protect freedom, and bring offenders to justice, the epidemic of sexual exploitation and illicit financial gain through trafficking can be stopped if we work together to create and enforce common sense protections online. 

The Numbers

300+

NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.

100+

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.

93

NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.

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