This post is the first in a two-part series about technology and trafficking. The second post covers technology available to law enforcement and the public to fight trafficking.
The ever-changing, fast-paced world of technology has made it easier for criminals, especially human traffickers, to connect with and groom potential victims and to build anonymous, untraceable markets where victims can be sold or exploited. Social media, websites, and apps allow traffickers to easily avoid detection and evade law enforcement authorities.
The constant changes in technology can be difficult to keep up with, and it seems as though new reports of predators connecting with potential victims are released all the time. Most recently, YouTube had to disable the comments section of its YouTube Kids station and online multi-player games like Fortnight and Roblox have come under fire for allowing predators to connect with children.
According to a the most recent (2015) report by Thorn, a research hub for human trafficking data, most human trafficking survivors first meet their controller in person. However, 14% first met their controller online and that statistic is expected to grow as online communication becomes more prevalent. It is also true that younger victims are more likely to meet their controller online.
Thorn's report details the three main reasons controllers are able to build a relationship and quickly gain trust from victims.
Desire for family and belonging
While this is a difficult thing to define and quantify, 73% of the respondents in Thorn's study mentioned a feeling of neglect or lack of family unit cohesion or belonging as a factor in their attachment to their controller. If there are existing family issues, a predator will try to widen those family divisions in order to gain trust.
Feeling loved and supported
77% of Thorn's respondents mentioned a feeling of family love coming from their controller, including promises of protection, monetary support, and safety. By providing kind of father- or mother-figure love and support the victim is lacking, the controller is able to form a strong bond with the victim in a short amount of time.
Promises of romance
Controllers woo victims with convincing promises of romance, and 61% of Thorn's respondents reported having romantic relationships with their controllers.
Once the bonds of trust and love have been established, controllers often begin to psychologically manipulate victims to put them into trafficking situations.
So, what can you do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe online?
Spending time online is a reality. We can’t avoid the internet nor can we keep our loved ones from it out of fear that inappropriate contact might occur. Educating and empowering yourself and your loved ones to navigate the digital world safely is key. Communicate openly with your children about your expectations and concerns about proper online etiquette, such as:
when to accept friend requests or connections on social media
sharing photos or using a webcam
appropriate behavior in chat rooms
when to seek help from adults
Keep the conversation about online safety going so that your loved ones feel supported and empowered in their own online safety.
Beyond limiting screen time for children, parents and guardians can take steps to monitor online activity at age-appropriate levels.
Place computers in a public area of the home, rather than in private areas like a bedroom.
If your child mentions a new game or app they are enjoying, take the time to check it out yourself to see what kind of conversations may be happening.
Turn off in app purchases so that your child cannot spend money or receive payments from strangers.
See what parental controls are available.
Set up browsing and privacy rules on the devices your children use.
3. Check in on elder family and friends
Contrary to popular belief, children and teenagers are not the only ones at risk of being exploited online. Have a conversation with your elderly family or friends about their online use and the kinds of sophisticated scams that exist via e-mail, social media, dating sites, and elsewhere.
If you or a loved one do experience predatory contact online, be sure to take screenshots before deleting any inappropriate or dangerous messages and report it to local law enforcement. If you believe you have information about a human trafficking situation, report it to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC).