How do stay-at-home orders, closed businesses, restricted movement, and quarantining affect traffickers and their victims? You might think that it would slow down, but the reality is that trafficking does not stop. In fact, as with other disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new “opportunities” for traffickers.
Traffickers target vulnerabilities.
Economic insecurity, homelessness, abuse or conflict at home, and a sense of isolation are all vulnerabilities that have the potential to impact more people due to the current situation.
Statistics show that there are more people making domestic violence calls, filing for unemployment, filling prescriptions for anxiety and depression medications than before the pandemic.
Traffickers play on a person’s need for value, approval, love, and security. Traffickers who are grooming their victims will seek to win them over with affection. They make promises of security and offer “unconditional” acceptance and approval. They may provide clothing, food, or shelter.
Many young people who are in need of the basics will trade sex for things like food and shelter. This is often called “survival sex,” but is considered sex trafficking for minors.
Targets are spending more time online.
Young people, those most vulnerable to trafficking, are online now more than ever. With schools being closed down, many schools have provided devices to their students in an effort to continue their education online. New at-risk populations are now online and accessible to traffickers who use online platforms to lure victims.
In addition, young people have much more free time and very little else to do with it. As you would expect, activities like video streaming and gaming have seen increases.
How do traffickers lure victims?
Predators may acknowledge that they are older, and seduce young adults by being understanding, sympathetic, flattering, and by appealing to their interest in romance, sex, and adventure.
They may also pose as someone the same age to build trust. They look for youth who are unhappy with their parents, dissatisfied with life, or who have a desire for adventure or romance. They share their own “frustrations” to get others to open up and share about theirs, then they make false promises to lure their victims.
A perpetrator may start by asking for a photo. Then, regular photos progress to more and more sexual photos. Those photos are then used to blackmail and manipulate the victim into doing things they would not otherwise be willing to do.
What are their access points?
Basically, any platform that has a one-to-one communication option, like social media sites and gaming platforms.
Social media sites
Traffickers target young people on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or Snapchat. Deeper conversations continue on social media sites like Kik, Yik Yak, ChatRoulette. Basically, any app that has a chat feature can and has been used to connect with potential victims.
Online predators are increasingly using gaming platforms and chatrooms to traffic children, especially boys. Lots of online games have dynamic voice chats where players can communicate to large groups or in one-on-one settings. It's common for players to chat frequently with people they've never met, both inside the game and on related apps.
Traffickers pose as younger than they are to build relationships with their victims over days, weeks, and even months to gain their trust. Predators may offer gifts, money, or promises of free travel to lure a child into meeting them in person. It's not uncommon for perpetrators to offer children gift cards for a game in exchange for a photo, or to meet them in person.
Victims and predators are often in the same house.
With domestic minor sex trafficking, the predator is often a family member or someone else living in the home with the victim. Family members are involved in nearly half of all child trafficking cases, maybe more since statistics are hard to determine.
Child pornography victims are often abused by someone they know. Data from 2013 showed that 18% of content was produced by a parent or guardian. 25% of content was produced by a neighbor or family friend.
During the current situation, a minor may not be able to be trafficked out of the home, but child pornography is a big problem, too. In addition, live streaming of sexual child abuse has become more prevalent. In these situations, buyers pay to watch the abuse take place in real time.
What should you do if you suspect someone is being sex trafficked? Call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
If a child is involved, be sure to make that clear.
If you’re not sure what the signs of trafficking are, enroll in Red Flags, our online, interactive course that will train you to recognize the appearance, behavior, and communication red flags of victims of sex trafficking.