The Use of the Internet to Recruit Children by Traffickers


The internet has revolutionized the way traffickers recruit victims, and children are especially vulnerable.

Sex traffickers increasingly turn to social media and online platforms to recruit children for trafficking schemes.

In 2020, considering the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified a 22% increase in online recruitment into trafficking schemes and reported the internet as the top recruitment location for all forms of trafficking.[1]

From 2019 to 2020, there was a 125% increase in recruitment on Facebook and a 95% increase on Instagram since the previous year.

This article examines the methods employed by traffickers to exercise control and deception over child victims, convincing or persuading them (in some cases, to leave their home countries) using fraudulent promises made over the internet for their recruitment.

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Children are Easy to Target 

Traffickers take advantage of the vulnerabilities of children, which can be of any kind, whether physical, psychological, emotional, family-related, social, or economic, to lure them and recruit them for their commercial sexual exploitation.

By taking advantage of that child’s vulnerable position, traffickers induce compliance.

Traffickers give or promise the child gifts, money, or other benefits.

Typical venues include social media platforms, web-based messaging applications, chat rooms, dating apps, classified advertisements, or job boards as tools to target and recruit child victims for sex trafficking.

Common Tactics Used by Traffickers to Recruit Children Online


Traffickers can employ various tactics to groom children, such as building a “true friendship,” to gain control over them to engage in online sexual activities or recruit them for commercial exploitation.

Offenders may use social media platforms, chat rooms, or online gaming communities to initiate contact with potential victims.

Through these strategies, which often involve blackmailing victims using compromising images, victims are deterred from complaining to law enforcement authorities or escaping, and they feel that the only option is to submit to the trafficker’s requests, including meeting offline.

Other commonly used tactics include:

1. False identities: Traffickers often create fake profiles, pretending to be someone the child knows or can relate to, such as a peer or a trustworthy adult.

Offenders may use attractive profile pictures and fabricate personal details to deceive the child into believing they are interacting with a genuine person.

2. Exploiting vulnerabilities: Traffickers identify and exploit vulnerabilities in children’s lives, such as low self-esteem, emotional distress, or a need for attention.

Offenders may provide emotional support, offer compliments, or exploit the child’s desire for affection to manipulate and control them.

3. Sharing explicit content: Predators may request or exchange explicit images or videos with children, often starting with innocent or flirty conversations and gradually escalating to more explicit content.

Once the predator obtains compromising material, they can use it as leverage to manipulate and blackmail the child into further exploitation.

4. Online coercion and threats: Traffickers may employ coercion, threats, or intimidation tactics to force children to comply with their demands.

They may threaten to harm the child, their family, or their reputation if they do not comply with their requests.

5. Absence of control from parents or caregivers or their lack of knowledge: Traffickers often target children whose parents are absent, not adequately monitoring their online activities, or unaware of the potential risks of trafficking and exploitation online.

Offenders take advantage of the lack of parental supervision to establish contact and groom the child without detection.

6. Online peer pressure: Some traffickers recruit children by leveraging peer pressure: they may introduce the child to a group or online community where exploitation is normalized, and other children are already involved.

Through manipulation and the desire to fit in, the child may be coerced into engaging in sexual activities or agree to meet offline.

Two Main Recruiting Strategies Used by Traffickers


The UN Office On Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has identified two primary online exploitative strategies that traffickers use to recruit victims, including children:[2]

Hunting Strategies

Fishing Strategies

Proactive pursuit of specific victims (on social media, online chat rooms, or dating apps) and potential buyers online.

Passive pursuit of victims – posting advertisements online available to everyone (e.g., false job advertisements or fake employment agencies)

Trafficker initiates contact based on information/characteristics such as economic, emotional, or other vulnerabilities, making them susceptible to exploitation.

Victims initiate contact by responding to online advertisements promising high pay or other benefits (e.g., travel) with little job information.

Initially friendly, then more aggressive  as the relationship develops

Advertise jobs to attract any number of victims–online classified advertisements, social media platforms, job boards, and specialized websites for sexual services.

Globally, according to cases collected by the UNODC in 2020, the majority of cases to recruit victims involved fishing strategies rather than hunting strategies.[3]

Commonly Used Recruitment Websites for Child Sex Trafficking

Traffickers misuse any apps, social media, and other online platforms.

The following online platforms often link to online recruitment and child sexual exploitation:[4]

View and Comment Social Media Sites

Instagram

Facebook

Snapchat

Post photos/videos to profile, comment on each other’s posts, send and receive private messages from friends or others.

Post photos/videos to profile, comment on each other’s posts, post statuses/life updates, send texts through messenger.

Post pictures/videos publicly for 24 hours, share pictures/videos and messages privately that may disappear or last indefinitely (at sender’s discretion).

Can have second account with different name/username making it harder to find.

Private or public profiles


“finstagram” or “fake Instagram”



Common characteristic: Traffickers will gather information children post about their lives and themselves and then like, comment, and build a relationship with them to groom and recruit.

Conversational Websites

WhatsApp

KIK

Encrypted messaging app in which messages are not saved on a server (only those communicating can access messages).

Messaging app without a phone number, messages not saved on a server.

Must be at least 16 years old, but does not have an age verification mechanism.

Must be at least 13 years old.

End-to-end encryption communications present a lower risk of immediate detection of child traffickers by law enforcement authorities.

Common characteristic: Grooming or solicitation of children can occur.

Grooming interactions can lead to recruitment.

Conversations can happen with children and youth, and traffickers may gather information on a view & comment site before reaching out or after finding out their name.

Vulnerabilities and Online Recruitment

Traffickers connect with vulnerable youth.

Traffickers understand youth’s vulnerabilities and fill a need of the child, inducing the child into exploitation and a controlling relationship.

Some examples of how grooming strategies interplay with online child exploitation and online recruitment of child victims include:[5]

Emotion

Trafficker’s Response

Need understanding

I understand you

Emptiness/lack of love

I love you

Need for desire/allure

You are beautiful

Disappointment

I am proud of you/You are enough

Lack of connection

I care about you

Lack of freedom

You are an adult who can make your own choices

Fear

I will protect you

Strive for success

I will make you successful

Insecure

Trust me

Traffickers often look for people who feel misunderstood or dissatisfied; social media allows longer conversations and more intimate relationships to form between traffickers and potential victims.

Children who live in poverty, foster care, or struggling with addiction, trauma, abuse, or unstable housing are all at comparatively higher risks of becoming victims of human trafficking.

Online Recruitment and Control Methods


Traffickers manipulate and exploit children through psychological coercion.

In these cases, traffickers use charm, promises of money, affection, attention, romantic love, and an offer of a place to stay and feel included, targeting vulnerable victims, including those they perceive as potential romantic partners.

Some common internet coercive and manipulative methods used by online traffickers to recruit victims into commercial sexual exploitation include:

1. The “lover boy” method: Traffickers may lure underage victims by showering their targets with excessive compliments, attention, and affection to create a false sense of intimacy and connection, and a sense of attachment and dependency on the trafficker.

2. Lying and twisting facts or gaslighting: This control technique involves manipulating the child’s perception of reality, making them doubt their own experiences or feelings.

Predators may use gaslighting tactics to confuse and control their child victims, making them question their own judgment and increasing their reliance on the predator.

Traffickers may make promises of a better life and opportunities, including in some cases leading the child to leave their own country.

Traffickers often target people who do not have strong family or support systems.

3. Fake job offers or employment: Traffickers create deceptive job advertisements on online platforms or job boards.

These postings may promise high-paying or easy-to-obtain positions to attract potential victims.

Through this tactic, traffickers may initiate the recruitment process by asking victims to submit online applications or conduct virtual interviews, leading victims to believe they are pursuing a genuine job opportunity.

Traffickers may also request to victims’ sensitive personal information such as social security numbers, bank account details, or copies of identification documents.

Traffickers use this information for identity theft, financial fraud, or other illicit purposes.

Through these power and control techniques, traffickers lure individuals, including children, gradually to normalize their actions and make their victims more compliant.

Traffickers manipulate the emotions and psychological well-being of their victims.

Traffickers engage in gaslighting, threats, or manipulating emotions to maintain control, instill fear, and prevent the victim from seeking help.

Recommendations for Law and Policy

• Governments should enact comprehensive laws and regulations to ensure the protection of children from trafficking activities occurring online, including detecting and investigating recruitment.

• Governments should strengthen the capacity of law enforcement authorities through adequate training and resources to effectively investigate methods to combat human trafficking online (at all the stages, including online recruitment), prosecute traffickers, and identify victims.

• Governments should improve coordination among executive departments, agencies, and offices to maximize effectiveness in addressing child trafficking and online child exploitation, including online child sexual abuse material and other forms of child exploitation.

• Governments should increase cross-border cooperation; Online child exploitation often crosses national boundaries, so that international cooperation is crucial.

Governments should collaborate with other countries to share information, intelligence, and best practices to track down and prosecute offenders.

• Governments should enhance and expand data collection and research regarding online crimes against children for sexual purposes.

Conclusion

Preventing the recruitment of children by online traffickers requires a multi-faceted approach involving various stakeholders that includes implementing stricter laws and regulations to hold predators accountable and protect child victims, promoting open communication, fostering digital literacy, and educating parents, educators, and children about online safety.

Collaborative efforts involving electronic service providers, social media platforms, law enforcement agencies, and community organizations are crucial in identifying and reporting suspicious activities and providing support for victims.

What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?

We at Human Trafficking Front recognize that the combat against online sexual exploitation of children requires ongoing efforts and collaboration from various stakeholders, as the nature of online crimes against children continually evolves.

Therefore, Human Trafficking Front provides expertise and advice to assist in the following key approaches to combat online child sex trafficking and child exploitation:

Prevention

• Conduct outreach and education (programs and public awareness campaigns).
• Build capacity of first responders and professionals.
• Build capacity of individuals in the community to better protect children from online exploitation.

Protection

• Promote victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches to engaging with victims.
• Promote victim assistance.
• Connect victims to social services.

Advocacy

• Influence legislation to comprehensively address all forms of online child exploitation.
• Influence legislation to safeguard victims, including child victims, from inappropriate penalization.
• Increase coordination among relevant stakeholders to increase accountability for human trafficking.
• Strengthen the understanding of human trafficking.
• Enhance information sharing.
• Disseminate evidence-based advocacy resources to combat human trafficking and online child 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 14). The Use of the Internet to Recruit Children by Traffickers. https://humantraffickingfront.org/the-use-of-the-internet-to-recruit-children-by-traffickers/

References

[1] Polaris. (2020). Analysis of 2020 national human trafficking hotline data. Polaris Project. https://polarisproject.org/2020-us-national-human-trafficking-hotline-statistics/ 

[2] UNODC. (2020). Global report on trafficking in persons 2020. UNODC Research, at 127, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/tip/2021/GLOTiP_2020_15jan_web.pdf.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Kunz, R., Baughman, M., Yarnell, R., & Williamson, C. (n.d.). Social media & sex trafficking process. University of Toledo, at 10, https://www.utoledo.edu/hhs/htsji/pdfs/smr.pdf.

[5] Ibid. 

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.