Online Recruitment of Children for Sex Trafficking

The Internet: A Recruitment Tool for Child Sex Trafficking

Although traditional methods of recruitment continue, the internet allows traffickers increased access to a larger number of potential child victims, thereby exposing children to greater risks and dangers.

According to the 2021 Federal Human Trafficking Report, more than half (57%) of all criminal trafficking cases involved child victims, with the primary method of buying and recruiting victims happening online.[1]

This article discusses how traffickers misuse internet platforms to facilitate the recruitment of children for sex trafficking.

Traffickers can now use websites and social media to recruit children while also advertising them to an increased range of customers for sexual encounters.


The U.S. government recognizes the impact of technology on the recruitment of trafficking victims.

In 2013, the special note of the United States Global Report on Trafficking in Persons recognized that technology has the potential to be used for good and evil: traffickers use technology to advance their activities, including for purposes of recruitment of minors, while the government, along with anti-trafficking advocates, use technology to fight back against traffickers.

Traffickers can simultaneously recruit many child victims, reaching a wider audience, within and across nations.

Global Statistics

Online recruitment is a trafficking act affecting almost half of the total victims in court cases considered by the 2020 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

31 of 79 court cases worldwide have reported online recruitment, with half of the total trafficking victims affected.[2]

The 112 victims in these cases were comprised of 40 men, 32 girls, 23 women, 11 boys, and 6 undefined.

National Statistics

• In the United States, approximately 40% of sex trafficking victims are recruited online.[3]

• From 2019 to 2020, there was a 125% increase in recruitment on Facebook and a 95% increase on Instagram.[4]

• In 2021, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook were the most common venues.[5]

Traffickers are now executing recruitment tactics remotely.

Stages of Human Trafficking Recruitment through the Internet

The process of grooming and recruiting victims online for exploitation involves several stages:

1. Identification: Predators or traffickers identify potential victims through various means, such as social media platforms, chat rooms, online forums, or gaming communities.

Offenders may search for vulnerable individuals, in particular children based on age, location, interests, or other factors.

2. Online Grooming: Once a potential victim is identified, the predator initiates contact.

Offenders may use fake profiles or adopt false identities to establish a connection.

The predator aims to engage the victim in conversation and build a rapport with them.

Grooming is a manipulative process in which the predator gradually gains the victim’s trust and establishes emotional connections.

Offenders may shower the victim with attention, compliments, gifts, or sympathy.

Grooming can involve building a false sense of friendship, love, or mentorship.

As the grooming process progresses, the predator introduces sexual content into the interactions.

They may ask for personal information, share explicit material, or request the victim to send compromising images or videos.

The predator exploits the victim’s vulnerabilities and may escalate the requests or demands over time.

3. Online Control and Manipulation: The predator exerts control over the victim through various tactics, including emotional manipulation, threats, blackmail, or coercion.

They may use the explicit material obtained from the child to blackmail the victim into further compliance or to keep them silent about the exploitation.

The trafficker arranges an in-person meeting with the victim.

Victims are forced or lured by fraudulent promises made over the internet to have an in-person meeting and sometimes even leave their home countries.

4. Meeting in Person (recruitment): A face-to-face encounter occurs between the trafficker and the minor during which the child is actually recruited.

5. Transportation (optional): Minors can be moved to a different location, where they are forced to or are deceived into engaging in commercial sex acts.

Children can be transported only a short distance away from their homes or over long distances, even across borders.

6. Commercial Exploitation (Physical): The exploitation transitions from online to offline. 

The victim may be subjected to ongoing sexual or labor exploitation, generating illicit profits for traffickers.

It is important to note that these stages can occur in different sequences and may vary based on individual circumstances.

Additionally, not all victims progress through all stages, as some may be exploited solely online without physical meetings.

Human Trafficking and Money Laundering

Human trafficking is likely to be associated with money laundering.

Offenders should be held accountable for laundering money—illicit profits—generated by trafficking activities.

According to a country’s domestic legal system, money laundering may be charged separately or utilized as alternative charges to increase the chances of a conviction.

Money laundering can help to prove that the trafficking crime was committed so that it can be considered among a group of offenses that are part of underlying offenses.[6]

The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) mandates its states parties to establish offenses relating to money laundering, including human trafficking.[7]

Due to the association between trafficking and money laundering crimes, countries should criminalize the laundering of the proceeds of trafficking in persons’ offenses, often associated with organized crime groups, at the domestic level.

Can Technology be Used to Control Victims After they are Recruited?

Once the victims are physically in the hands of traffickers, the traffickers can keep using technology to monitor and control their victims.

Offenders can use victims’ phone records (manually or through spyware), location-tracking applications, and cameras in smartphones (e.g., video calls such as through FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Skype) to monitor their victims and surroundings.

Are Online Recruiters Traffickers? 

Different individuals actively or passively can play a trafficker role throughout the process of trafficking.

Traffickers are individuals who commit any trafficking act, including but not limited to the recruitment, transportation, or provision of a person for the purpose of his or her exploitation.

Anyone intentionally engaged in the trafficking process–including online recruiters at the beginning of the chain–is a trafficker.

During the trafficking process, recruiters, including online recruiters, who exercise control over victims for their exploitation should be held accountable.

Recommendations for Electronic Service Providers

As part of its prevention measures, it is crucial that electronic service providers embrace more robust scanning practices and accelerate the development of methods for detecting trafficking activities online, including online recruitment.

Electronic service providers should implement human rights due diligence policies and processes to identify and address cases of child sex trafficking and exploitation in their services and platforms, such as traffickers utilizing technology to recruit child victims.

Recommendations for Law and Policy

Human trafficking is an adaptable crime.

The recruitment of child victims evolves based on new opportunities offered by the evolution of the internet and digital technologies.

Stricter national online child protection frameworks are needed, preferably harmonized at the international level, to address the legislative challenges related to online and technology-facilitated child sex trafficking.

Efforts to combat the online recruitment of child victims for sexual exploitation require stricter legal frameworks, strict law enforcement, improved technology safeguards, support services for child victims, education on online safety, and public awareness campaigns.

What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?

• Human Trafficking Front disseminates evidence-based best practices and effective strategies to prevent and counter child sex trafficking using technology.

• Human Trafficking Front provides specialized trainings, including to law enforcement, criminal justice practitioners, legal professionals, and relevant groups, to build sustainable responses to the misuse of technology by child traffickers.

• Human Trafficking Front educates parents, caregivers, and the community to minimize the exposure of children to technology-related risks for sexual exploitation.

Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.  

Additional Details

This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.

Recommended Citation

Human Trafficking Front. (2023, July 13). Online Recruitment of Children for Sex Trafficking. /


[1] Lane, L., Gray, A., Rodolph, A., & Ferrigno, B. (2022). 2021 federal human trafficking report. Human Trafficking Institute, at 4,
[2] UNODC. (2020). Global report on trafficking in persons 2020. UNODC Research, at 121,
[3] United Nations. (2021, October 30). Traffickers abusing online technology, UN crime prevention agency warns. UN News.
[4] Polaris. (2020). Analysis of 2020 national human trafficking hotline data. Polaris Project.
[5] Lane, L., Gray, A., Rodolph, A., & Ferrigno, B. (2022). 2021 federal human trafficking report. Human Trafficking Institute, at 39.
[6] UNODC. (2009). Anti-human trafficking manual for criminal justice practitioners: Module 1. United Nations.
[7] See United Nations General Assembly. (2000). United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, Article 6, paras. 1 and 2. According to article 6, paragraph 2 (a), states parties shall seek to apply the money-laundering provisions to the “widest range of predicate offences,” including therefore to offences of the Convention itself and the Protocols, if the state has become a party, and also, to all “serious crime” (art. 6, para. 2 (b)) as defined by the Convention.

Human Trafficking Front

Dr. Beatriz Susana Uitts is a human rights specialist, Internet child safety advocate, and founder of Human Trafficking Front, a research and advocacy organization for the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Uitts holds a J.S.D. and LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens, FL, and is the author of the book Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace regarding the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. In this book, she proposes solutions to prevent its spread and promote a safer Internet for children and adolescents worldwide.