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Europol/Digital EraBack
[Published: Monday October 19 2020]

Challenges of countering human trafficking in the digital era

THE HAGUE, 19 Oct. - (ANA) - Modern communication technologies – namely the internet, social media and mobile applications – have significantly impacted the way in which organised crime groups involved in international trafficking in human beings (THB) operate, says a new report published by Europol.

Technology has broadened criminals’ ability to traffic human beings for different
types of exploitation (including sexual and labour exploitation, the
removal of organs, illegal adoption of children and forced

The advantages of technology for traffickers include increased anonymity, the
ability to take part in real-time yet encrypted communications, the possibility of
reaching a broader audience (in terms of victims and clients), geographical mobility,
and the ability to control victims from a distance. Criminals also capitalised on the
boom of e-commerce culture and on legislative discrepancies in regulating and
providing data.

Today technology is exploited by traffickers during every phase of
sexual exploitation, from the recruitment and advertisement of victims, to
blackmailing them with photos and videos and controlling their movements. The
financial management of the criminal business is also often done online.

Technology affords traffickers the ability to recruit victims without face-to-face
interaction, thereby reducing the risk of being detected by law enforcement
agencies. Social media platforms in particular are used as virtual catalogues by
traffickers to identify new victims and develop grooming strategies, since a
significant amount of information on the psychological and personal background of
users (e.g. level of education, family ties, economic status, place of residence,
network of friends, etc.) is frequently displayed (often with pictures included).

Social media is also used as a psychological weapon, with traffickers threatening to
upload compromising pictures of their victims if the latter fail to comply with their

In terms of targeted groups, the majority of identified victims in THB cases which
involved an online component were adult females being exploited in EU Member
States. However, minors are also a particularly vulnerable target group due to their
poor digital hygiene. Online grooming is particularly concerning, as a wealth of
information on potentially vulnerable children is accessible on the internet,
allowing offenders to socially engineer their tactics.

Traffickers are now able to shape their recruitment strategy based on the online
profiling of their victims. Two different forms of online recruitment strategies can
be identified in this context: active and passive recruitment. Active recruitment
resembles the ‘hook fishing’ technique and involves criminals posting false job
advertisements on trusted job portals and social media marketplaces.

Criminal networks also set up full-fledged websites of fake employment agencies, often
promoted on social media to make them easily accessible to a larger number of
potential viewers. Sometimes these websites include live chats, ostensibly allowing
immediate contact with the alleged hiring managers.

The internet also affords human traffickers opportunities for a more passive
recruitment, which is far less detectable by law enforcement. Passive recruitment
resembles ‘net fishing’ in that criminal recruiters scout the internet and social
media and reply to announcements posted by job seekers looking for jobs abroad.

After initiating a brief conversation, recruiters will request a fee from the victims in return for securing the job abroad and helping with travel arrangements. It is not
until victims arrive in the new country that they discover the scam.

Importantly, modern technology means that human traffickers no longer need to
be in close proximity to their victims in order to control them. Traditionally, control over victims involved violence and physical restriction of movement. Today, control can be exerted via various forms of blackmail (e.g. by threatening to share photos and videos of sex acts online) as well as via virtual forms of movement restriction and real-time monitoring (e.g. GPS and built-in video cameras in smartphones, and location-sharing applications).

Much in the same way, victims are no longer required to have a fixed physical
location, where they may be more easily identified by police. The internet allows
clients to locate victims online and have them delivered directly to them.

As a result, victims are often moved, between cities but also countries, as exploiters are able to transfer their activity simply by modifying the details in online ads.

In addition, short-term stays in different countries enhance the feelings of confusion among victims and their dependency on exploiters, as well as making it more challenging for law enforcement to detect and safeguard victims.  - (ANA) -

AB/ANA/19 October 2020 - - -

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