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Human Traffickers Use Social Media to Find Victims

08 October 2018

Dr. Celia Williamson, professor of social work at the University of Toledo and director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute. Source: Dan Miller, University of ToledoDr. Celia Williamson, professor of social work at the University of Toledo and director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute. Source: Dan Miller, University of Toledo

Researchers from University of Toledo's Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute have studied human trafficking and social media by the request of the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission. The study investigates the way that social media is used by traffickers to contact, recruit and sell children for sex. Social media is a quick way for traffickers to contact potential victims.

"It is vitally important to educate parents, professionals and youth - especially our middle school or teenage daughters who may be insecure - about the dangers of online predatory practices used by master manipulators," said Dr. Celia Williamson, UT professor of social work and director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, "Through this outreach and education, we can help save children from becoming victims of modern-day slavery."

"We know predators are using the internet to find their victims, and this eye-opening study highlights what a predator looks for in a victim and helps parents recognize the signs that their child may be a target," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, "Using real-life examples, this study provides valuable information that parents can use to start open and honest conversations with their children about staying safe online."

The researchers behind the study conducted 16 in-depth interviews with members of the Ohio law enforcement, judges, direct service providers, advocates and researchers who have worked with child sex trafficking victims.

During the study, the team found out how traffickers connect to vulnerable individuals online and form a fast relationship, while avoiding detection and attempting to connect in real life too.

"The transition from messaging to meeting a trafficker in person is becoming less prevalent," Williamson said. "As technology is playing a larger role in trafficking, this allows some traffickers to be able to exploit youth without meeting face-to-face. Social media helps to mask traditional cues that alert individuals to a potentially dangerous person."

In order to find the right people to target, traffickers study a potential victim’s public social media posts to learn more about them and try to figure out how to gain the victim’s trust. They look at Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, dating sites, webcam sites and more.

The team found out what kind of posts that traffickers are looking for. These posts include things like:

  • "Nobody gets me."
  • "I am so sick of being single."
  • "I am so ugly."
  • "How do I look?"
  • "My life sucks."
  • "She's not my true friend."
  • "My parents don't trust me."
  • "I'm being treated like a kid."
  • "I need to get out of here."

They then figure out what needs to be said to gain the poster’s attention and trust. The traffickers will then say things like:

  • "I understand you."
  • "I love you."
  • "I think you're beautiful. I'll encourage you to show your body. Use your body."
  • "I'll make your life better."
  • "I'll encourage you to take risks. You're an adult."
  • "I'll protect you."
  • "I'll make you successful."

Traffickers will also look out for posts about substance abuse, runaway activity and tough home lives. Kids who post about these things are much more likely to be targeted. The traffickers will convince their victims to send a risky and inappropriate photo, which they will then use against the victim and threaten them with releasing the photo in order to get the victim to do what they want.

"These guys, they learn about the girls and pretend to understand them, and so these girls, who are feeling not understood and not loved and not beautiful ... these guys are very good at sort of pretending that they are all of these things and they really understand them and, 'I know how you feel, you are beautiful,' and just filling the hole that these girls are feeling," said a professional contributing to the study.

"They will use fear of repercussions as a way to compel the youth, coerce the youth [to move them from a monitored page to a less monitored page]... by saying, 'You don't want your parents to find out what we're talking about,'" said one expert.

"Parents who are educated can wage a worthy defense against potential recruitment and recruitment of their youth online," Williamson said. "Parents who work to build healthy, open and communicative relationships are more likely to have youth that share information about where they go and who they talk to online."

To learn more about this study, visit the University of Toledo website.

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