Parent Alert: Sex Traffickers are Lurking

New insight into how young girls are bought and sold through common online avenues

Social media and online spaces — which seem so benign in some ways — are anything but when it comes to how our children, particularly our daughters, nieces, cousins, and other close relatives (even our sisters and close friends), can be snagged by the most evil of people.

Among other things, technology now offers virtually unlimited avenues for traffickers to peddle sex. Every day, new web pages such as offer sex for sale under the guise of the “in search of…” model that is often used in online dating ads.

“Backpage is the beneficiary of the effort in 2010 that forced Craigslist to shut down their adult services,” John Vanek, a law enforcement consultant who assists a variety of agencies with sex trafficking crimes, told LifeZette.

“I wouldn’t say Craigslist is 100 percent out of the game,” Vanek continued. “There was an effort by the National Association of Attorneys General that pretty much took Craigslist out of that space. All the people who advertised on Craigslist just moved over to Backpage.”

In addition to working on sex trafficking crimes, Vanek has also researched the subject for his new book, “The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery.”

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Sex Trafficking Statistics” source=”>”]Women and girls make up 98% of victims.|About 2 million children are exploited every year in the sex trade.|At least 20.9 million people are bought and sold worldwide into sexual servitude.[/lz_bulleted_list]

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“The clear mention of sex for sale is never a part of the Backpage postings,” advised Vanek. “Instead, photos of scantily clad young women are posted, with something that perhaps reads, ‘Young woman looking to hook up.’ And it may read also, ‘A donation of 100 roses is requested,’ which is slang for a fee for sex.”

Traffickers are smart — they’ll never advertise a girl’s real age. Sweet young thing euphemisms are used instead, and bait and switch is employed as well.

“Sometimes the woman or girl the person thought was going to show up – that pretty young girl – is replaced by another sex worker,” Vanek explained.

How the Sting Works
Law enforcement are trained to read ads, and a sting is often put in place when a target is identified. “Law enforcement will answer the ad, surveillance is set up, and an undercover officer arrives at the ‘date,’” Vanek says.

The victim is interviewed afterwards, and law enforcement has to try to find out why she is selling herself for sex. If she says, “I really don’t want to do this, but he says he will beat me — or, he has beaten me,” then a condition clearly articulated as force is established, Vanek said.

Coercion, an illegal but much more subtle practice, is trickier to identify. Law enforcement has to try to learn whether the person is being coerced into selling sex.

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Sex traffickers worldwide are using social media to contact vulnerable citizens and sell them over and over again, from one person to another. They’re also quick to adopt the latest online platforms that are popular with teenagers.

Traffickers can now message thousands of people daily through Instagram, Facebook, Kik, Tagged and Twitter, using them all day every day to lure vulnerable people.

Sex “buyers” can easily make their transactions via social media. “If just one of them answers … traffickers can make thousands of dollars off that girl very quickly,” Andrea Powell, founder and director of FAIR Girls, a U.S.-based NGO which helps trafficked girls worldwide, told Reuters.

‘Disappearing apps like Snapchat are often used. Any form of communication that is used by a target audience — teenagers and early 20s — can be exploited by traffickers,” explained Vanek. “Traffickers meet people, form relationships, and then manipulate and coerce.”

Traffickers are now, apparently, as adept as law enforcement.

“As agile and as forward-thinking as law enforcement is, so are traffickers,” he said. “Facebook used to be used by traffickers, but the kids think the Facebook is for older folks now, so they move on — and so do the criminals. Traffickers are going to exploit any platform they can.”

“Plenty of disenfranchised kids from good families are victims of trafficking.”

Victims can also be tracked by their pimps using technology. “If I call a number listed on Backpage, a woman will answer, not her pimp,” said Vanek. “And if he is not physically escorting her, he is definitely tracking her with software on the cellphone. He can also go old-school, and say, ‘Text me when you leave, text me when you arrive’ — the technology doesn’t change the control. It just lends a technological element to it.”

Traffickers target anyone that is vulnerable.

“Plenty of disenfranchised kids from good families are victims of trafficking,” Vanek said. “If you are in the foster care system, if you come from a life where there is lack of affection, lack of concern, lack of care, and instability — the trafficker steps in and offers a family, basically.”

“’You can be a part of our stable, our family, they tell the girls,” said Vanek. “But, oh by the way, you have to have sex, too.”

Vanek emphasized the end game is always the same for the trafficker: How can I profit from this person’s labor?

“Trafficking is a state of mind crime,” he advised. “We have to figure out, what is the victim’s state of mind? Why are they doing this? What does ‘love’ mean to them?”

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