A new study finds sex traffickers are using Facebook to find, target, and groom potential victims.
The Human Trafficking Institute gathered information from federally prosecuted cases of sex trafficking for a 20-year study of human trafficking. You can find its full report here.
In a majority of those prosecuted federal cases, sex traffickers went online to find their victims. And of those, nearly 70% used Facebook to target minors. One of the key takeaways is that it can happen fast and even with parents who are nearby.
“It happens so quickly. That they can kind of just get hooked in and start feeling that they’ve made a friend, and that is really all it takes,” said Lindsey Roberson, the director of legal engagement for the Human Trafficking Institute.
She says their study found sex traffickers are increasingly using social media to find and lure victims because it’s easy to do. It’s also effective. “They start sharing personal information that the trafficker can extrapolate and use and target vulnerabilities,” she said.
“A trafficker can say ‘send me a photo’, then ‘send me a more suggestive photo’. And before long the person who’s being targeted, the victim, doesn’t realize ‘I’m exchanging exploitive materials with this person that they can be used to exploit me. To create a situation where I feel I have to do the next thing they ask me to do because now they have these compromising images of me,” Roberson said.
To open the door of communication, Roberson said a sex trafficker may misrepresent who they are, they may connect with the victim using the pretense that they have similar interests. Finding information to start the conversation is easier to do online and with social media.
“When victims are providing personal information on their online platforms, it’s a perfect opportunity for a trafficker to say “how do i get a hook-in?’ Well, here’s a profile right here. I can look at that and tailor my approach to the information that’s provided in that profile.
It isn’t just Facebook. Instagram, Snapchat, online gaming platforms, apps that allow messaging. Traffickers are using anything they can to target and communicate with potential victims.
“Anything that breaks down the barriers that make it easier for traffickers to meet and recruit their victims. It also cuts down on the need to meet face-to-face,” Roberson said.
Adding that in-app messaging is easy for traffickers to use and difficult for parents to see.
“Any communication with strangers online, with people you do not know, can be really dangerous. And I think parents need to be careful about unattended screen time”.