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Cybersex Trafficking: Grooming & Exploitation Online

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Cybersex trafficking is the exploitation of a person through the internet via webcam, photos, videos, or other digital media. Like sex trafficking, the victim is forced to provide sexual services via force, fraud, or coercion. Unlike sex trafficking, victims will likely never come into contact with most of their buyers. Instead, their traffickers may assault, live-stream, film, or photograph them from a central location—which can be anywhere in the world with an internet connection—and send the material to paying online predators.

 

A Crime on the Rise

The internet has created a way for people to instantly connect with others around the world, and connections are only becoming faster and stronger as technology continues to evolve. While this is wonderful for families, long-distance friends, and those with common interests, it also makes it easier for traffickers to find, recruit, and exploit unsuspecting victims without getting caught.

Worldwide, more than 4 billion people are using the internet, which is well over half the world’s total population.1 This gives traffickers virtually limitless marketing potential and direct access to many vulnerable populations, such as unmonitored children, runaways, those experiencing homelessness, and those living in isolation or poverty.

 

A Replacement for Traditional Forms of Human Trafficking

Governments are increasingly taking notice of human trafficking and dedicating laws and forces to suppress it. Due to a generally stricter stance on this problem in many countries, traffickers are seeking opportunities to continue their operations without leaving traces of their location or identity for law enforcement to find. For many, this means moving their operations into cyberspace.

The internet can provide traffickers with a layer of protection against the law. In many cases, perpetrators are able to remain essentially anonymous—using pseudonyms, fake photos, and virtual private networks (VPN). Additionally, the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—popular on the dark web—make monetary exchanges harder to trace back to personal bank accounts.


Traditional Sex Trafficking

Cybersex Trafficking

Trafficker exploits the vulnerable to a limited amount of customers, who are physically present at scene of crime.

Trafficker exploits the vulnerable to a potentially unlimited number of customers, who do not have to be in same physical location.

The cost of attracting and hosting customers can be high and can involve things like: advertising, rent, staff, security, etc.

The cost of attracting and servicing customers is incredibly low and can include only: a computer, internet services, small room, etc.

Trafficker must be hyper-aware of concealing crime.

Trafficker has protections available to conceal online activity.

Trafficker may have to transport or sell victim in an attempt to evade arrest.

Trafficker can remain at single location while exploiting victim.

Governments are likely to have personnel trained to arrest and/or prosecute crime.

Governments may not have manpower or resources to investigate caliber of crime.


Grooming Children Online

In the United States specifically, nearly 80% of the American population owns smartphones2 and up to 98% of middle school students have access to Wi-Fi.3 Worldwide, youth aged 15–24 are the most connected age group; 71% of this demographic is currently online.4 Platforms like social media, forums, discord/private chat servers, and online games—all places where children and youth are highly active—are ideal environments for traffickers to both recruit and exploit victims. 

Traffickers can take the shape of faceless online “friends” who spend months grooming (befriending and building a relationship with) children to build trust over time so they can coax them into a life of abuse and exploitation. By initially giving the victim attention, care, and gifts or making enticing promises, traffickers can gain the confidence of unsuspecting youth.

Traffickers use many similar deception tactics online as they do offline. They might promise a good job to a poor student, pose as a role model or caring significant other to create dependence, or entrap a victim through indentured servitude for a compounding loan. Once a relationship is established, the trafficker can then manipulate or coerce the victim into performing sexual acts online, on the street, or both.

 


“What happens now is a lot of boys and girls being lured into the sex trade and exploited through the internet. There are many young boys and girls at internet cafés, on Facebook, and playing online games who are tricked by messages offering jobs. By the time they realize that they will be forced to sell their bodies, they’re already trapped. Most of the cases we see, even as high as 90%, are young boys who are lured in and sold on social media with the promise of money.”
–The Exodus Road Thailand Country Director

 

Operation WEB | Thailand

The Exodus Road has been involved in several trafficking cases with cybersex elements in Southeast Asia—where the internet is easily accessible to anyone via internet cafés. Young boys and girls are often groomed online and then sexually abused.

 

While many traffickers take shrewd advantage of the veil of protection the digital realm can provide, they aren’t infallible. In Operation Web, ALPHA Team found a public post on social media with a brazen statement that said, "14-year-old boy sold for sex. Anyone interested in the service, call this phone." 

TER operatives immediately launched investigations into the case to learn more about the pimp who posted the message and the young boy he was selling. They found out that the boy, Kamon*, was a 9th grader from a poor family in a rural area who had dropped out of school because his parents could no longer afford it. The 20-year-old pimp told the boy’s parents (whom he knew well) that he'd give their son a job carrying luggage at a hotel to make money. In reality, the trafficker recruited Kamon to provide sexual services for older men.

 

Kamon's abuse had been ongoing for an entire year. But as soon as TER’s team saw the social media post, it only took two weeks to gather enough evidence to present to law enforcement to conduct the operation. The pimp was arrested by local Thai police, and Kamon was rescued and given counseling at the safe home where he currently resides. 

One of our Thai staff members gave us a recent update on Kamon and said he is now learning a trade and plans on returning to school in the near future. His social worker reported, “He looks totally different. The boy has a new life. He looks so very happy. At the moment, he is not exploited by anyone anymore, and he has a future.” 

*Kamon is representative and means “from the heart.”

 

Know How to Report It

If you, your friends, or your children notice suspicious behavior online, report it immediately. In severe cases, in which images or advertisements show underage individuals, file a report containing any relevant information you find—screen names, user IDs, links, etc.—with the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s online tip form or the NCMEC’s cyber tipline.

In short, if you see something, don’t hesitate to speak up. Your tip may help prevent someone from becoming a victim, lead to the rescue of a victim, or cause the arrest of an online predator. To learn more about sex trafficking, download our free ebook: "The Truth About Sex Trafficking."

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SOURCES

1. "Global Digital Report 2018." We Are Social. 

2. "Mobile Fact Sheet." Pew Research Center. 

3. "Percentage of Students in The United States With Wireless Access at Home and School." Statista.

4. "Children In a Digital World." UNICEF.