Modern communication technologies – namely the internet, social media, and mobile applications – have significantly impacted how organized crime groups involved in international trafficking in human beings operate, a new report from Europol says. Technology has broadened criminals’ ability to traffic human beings for different types of exploitation, including sexual and labor exploitation, the removal of organs, illegal adoption of children and forced marriages.
Human traffickers are using increasingly modern communication technologies to exploit their victims multiple times over: from advertising and recruiting victims, to blackmailing them with photos and videos to control their movements.
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 capitalized on the boom of e-commerce culture and on legislative discrepancies in regulating and providing data.
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).
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.
Technology also acts as a force multiplier for trafficking activities as it enables the commercialisation and exploitation of victims on a massive scale. Victims are repeatedly exploited as criminals replicate the same advertisement and livestreaming on multiple platforms in order to maximise outreach and profits.
While the procurement and delivery of sexual services has largely shifted to the online arena, the criminal proceeds are still predominantly collected in cash. A few, more technologically savvy criminal networks are using more innovative methods to conceal their earnings. These methods include digital wallets and Fintech, which offer virtual banking services and quick access to virtual currencies. To date, very few criminal networks have been found operating with cryptocurrencies.
There is some encouraging news for law enforcement engaged in thwarting human trafficking crimes however as criminal moves online leave digital footprints and allow investigators to find leads.
Investigators are able to discover information on identities, roles, structures, locations and criminal assets from the online activity of suspects. Another valuable source of digital evidence is the financial transactions made by criminal members to upload online advertisements. A major challenge to law enforcement engaged in proactive human trafficking investigations is the ability to spot exploitation signs among the magnitude of online advertisements. Reactive investigations are simpler, as they offer a starting point, such as the testimony of an identified victim and/or the account or webpage that was used for recruitment or exploitation purposes. While law enforcement agencies are becoming more skilled in the use of digital technologies and forensics to combat these crimes, the constant development of new technologies and change in business models used by traffickers keeps the race going between traffickers and law enforcement.
Europol says investment in equipment and training (including in terms of data privacy, ethics and informed consent) is key for the development of investigative tools. Furthermore, there is a need to amend the existing legislative and policy framework to promote information exchange and cooperation between law enforcement and the private sector. There is also a clear need to develop international investigations as the perpetrators, victims and online platforms involved in the same THB case are often based in different countries.
The report warns that an economic recession in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis could also result in dangerous consequences in the human trafficking landscape. Criminals could have access to a wider pool of individuals in economic distress, and potentially increasingly prone to accept any kind of job opportunity.