This module is a resource for lecturers  


Technology facilitating trafficking in persons


Technology increases the ease with which traffickers can locate, recruit, coerce and control their victims. Technology and the Internet - both cybercrime tools - are harnessed by the sophisticated end of the trafficker spectrum (Latonero, Wex and Dank, 2015; Latonero, 2012; Latonero, 2011). They can use these tools at each stage of the process, from the identification and recruitment of potential victims, through the process of coercion and control, to advertising and selling goods and services produced from their exploitation and finally to the laundering of profits. The use of technology can apply to all types of trafficking.

The communication opportunities afforded to traffickers by technology within and beyond their own organized groups has been recognized. One such example involved a paedophile publisher's advice to other paedophiles on websites on the dark web, such as Love Zone (Davies, 2016). The proliferation of information goes beyond merely communication among individual criminal groups. It facilitates illicit business and abusive opportunities.



The Internet provides traffickers with access to a greater number of potential victims through phones, emails, instant messaging, websites and phone applications (or apps).

The recruitment tactics of traffickers include (but are not limited to):

  • Preying on emotional or psychological vulnerabilities
  • Promises or threats
  • Theft of ID documents.
  • Kidnapping

At the recruitment stage, traffickers are far more likely to use 'clearnet' websites to establish initial contact with victims. Using 'clearnet' websites (the surface web or visible websites that are indexed by search engines, like Google or Bing, (see Cybercrime Module 5 on Cybercrime Investigation and Module 13 on Cyber Organized Crime for more information) allows traffickers to engage with a wider pool of Internet users, who are less likely to have a sophisticated understanding of technology. These websites, which can facilitate text and video chat, image exchange, dating and other interpersonal activities, provide traffickers with unprecedented access to potential victims. In addition, these forums provide the trafficker with information that can be used to identify victims' vulnerabilities that can be leveraged to gain victims' trust and confidence (for example, online grooming) (Latonero, 2012). On social networking websites and applications traffickers can research their victim and readily monitor their likes and dislikes. This means traffickers are able to tailor their approach to each victim, improving the effectiveness of their manipulations. In the context of labour trafficking, victims can be recruited through offers of work, usually through sham employment websites, online advertisements or recruitment agencies, and through social networking sites. For example, in 2018, the United States Department of State, in its annual report on trafficking in persons, revealed that "Cuban nationals abroad [were] recruiting victims in Cuba through telephone and Internet with false offers of employment, promises of financial gain, and romantic relationships" (United States. 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report. p. 157).

Although difficult to measure with any precision, recruitment occurs in both trafficking and smuggling. Smartphones can facilitate recruitment within a range of communities. There does appear to be a correlation between the level of mobile telephone and Internet penetration in a country and rates of trafficking, especially where the spread of information and communication technology is not accompanied by appropriate education about the associated risks, as evidenced by a study carried out in Rwanda (John 2018).

Depending on users' knowledge and use of privacy and security settings, and their digital footprint online (i.e. the scope of data about them available on the Internet; see Cybercrime Module 4 on Introduction to Digital Forensics for further information), apps, social media and other online platforms could provide traffickers with access to a range of useful information that could be used to target and groom victims, including:

  • Location data
  • Identity details and information about lifestyle, routines and habits
  • Images
  • Contacts

In more developed countries, the ubiquity of smartphones among the population of children and young adults has resulted in apps playing an increasingly significant role in the exploitation of young victims. Apps often have GPS tracking capability, allowing traffickers to track the physical location of potential targets, and teen-centric social apps encourage imprudent interaction and disclosure of private information, often without any verification of the identity of the other party to the communication.

The following table has been developed as an overview of commonly used connection and recruitment websites for human trafficking:






Commonly used sites

Facebook, Instagram (post photos to their profile, can comment on other photos, receive private messages, and have a second account that parents do not know about called "finstagrams" or fake instagrams)
Snapchat (picture messaging and posting publicly, disappears after being opened, and private message/picture/video sharing function)
Tinder (dating app to chat with people you match with, private message to communicate, meet and date)
Blendr (dating app with private chat, GPS location to locate others
WhatsApp (encrypted messaging app where service providers do not keep copies of messages on their servers and only the two people communicating can access those messages)
KIK (messaging app that is not connected to a phone number, messages are not saved on a server for access outside of the chat)
Chat roulette (webcam with strangers where individually, users can rotate through multiple strangers and webcams with a private chat box under the webcam screen)
Omegle (webcam with strangers where individually, users can rotate through multiple strangers and web cam with a private chat box under the webcam screen)
City guide (classifieds, escort site with advertisement)
Skipthegames (escort site with individuals advertising services)
Bedpage (new website after backpage shut down, classifieds, escort site with individual advertisement of services)
Seekingarrangement (dating, sugar daddy site, profile site similar to dating profiles with messaging)
Sugar-babies (sugar babies advertising site with profiles for johns/sugar daddies to browse and message)

Less common sites

YikYak (anonymous posting with comment section, GPS location allowing others to identify where users are within a certain radius)
Whisper (anonymous posting with ability to comment and send private messages to users anonymously)
Yellow (dating/friends app for youth with swipe function, "tinder for kids")
#1 Chat Avenue (chat room for kids with strangers in one large group, one can message in a large group, or privately message)
Monkey (webcam with strangers for limited number of seconds, youth need to add users as friends for unlimited time, advertised to youth specifically) Less common sites cannot be identified as the landscape is rapidly changing after the FOSTA/SESTA legislation, "the whole scene went dark and now it's all scattered all over.... it's gonna take a while before another site comes back, but another site will come back" - Ohio Police Officer


Potential traffickers may like, comment, ask to be friends, and gather information that they can then use to recruit and groom youth with. Chatting with young person, possibly after gathering information on a view & comment site. Grooming can occur on these messaging apps & sites, convincing someone to send a compromising picture and then using it to extort them. Fill vulnerabilities, build trust, and get them to share more of their body in pictures. Move them from monitored page to less monitored page. Move them from sharing to selling pictures online of themselves.
Source: Ryan Kunz, Meredith Baughman, Rebecca Yarnell and Celia Williamson (2018),   Social Media and Sex Trafficking Responses, University of Toledo

Another related trend in the recruitment of victims is the use of online gaming platforms. Advanced game consoles provide the same functionality as desktop computers and are increasingly being used in commission of crimes (Dorn and Craiger, 2010). The high concentration of young people on gaming websites means they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in this way.



Control can take several forms, among them coercing, physically luring and transporting the victims away from their home, controlling finances, and blackmail. Technology allows traffickers to avoid physical and face-to-face contact with victims, which makes investigation of trafficking in persons even more difficult. Nevertheless, "virtual control" of victims is a common tool.

Control may include monitoring victims through manual examination of phone records or accessing phone applications through cloud-based applications or by deploying spyware. Even after a victim is no longer under the control of the trafficker (for example, they managed to escape), they can be tracked using location tracking applications on their mobile phones. Traffickers can also send threatening communications to victims who manage to escape, in an attempt to maintain or regain control.

Fraud, threats and deception may be used by traffickers who obtain compromising information about the victim (such as images or videos) as a means to gain control. For example, by promising modelling work and asking for nude photographs from the models, followed by making threats. This does not require face-to-face contact between traffickers and the victims; everything can be achieved in the virtual space.

Another development that has attracted less academic attention is that of traffickers hijacking the social media of victims and adding content suggestive of consent to exploitation, coupled with sexually graphic content to damage the victim's reputation and credibility as a complainant. This may result in the account being closed by the service provider, isolation and loss of digital identity and a loss of contact with family and the community.



Human beings are considered a commodity offline and online (Maras, 2016; Maras, 2018). For profit, traffickers advertise human beings and services they can provide, seeking clients to purchase these services. These traffickers advertise on clearnet (the visible web) and the deep web.

The deep or "dark" web is part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by open search engines (see also Cybercrime Module 5 on Cybercrime Investigations). Content is often password protected and encrypted. It has been used for illicit activities and hampers law enforcement investigations of human trafficking by making it more difficult for investigators to identify the traffickers. Encryption is encouraged in legitimate business (such as legal services or health records) and different jurisdictions allow for differing levels of State access and surveillance. See, for example, Europol's online sting operations (2017).

However, human beings are primarily sold on easily accessible websites because traffickers want to ensure their ads are accessible to the greatest number of clients, many of whom may not be technologically proficient (Maras, 2018). In the United States, for example, websites such as Craigslist , Reddit,,, and have all been used by traffickers to advertise victims. On these and other advertisements, and escort and dating websites, traffickers advertise their victims' services under the guise of legitimate work (e.g. massage service) so that they are almost indistinguishable from the legitimate advertisements they appear alongside. The advertisements on these sites hide the fact that human beings are being sold - however, certain code words used ("fresh"), emojis (such as a cherry and cherry blossom to identify the victim as a virgin), and other phrases within descriptions of advertisements indicate that sex is for sale (e.g., "girlfriend experience") or a minor is being advertised (e.g., "I have a younger friend") (Maras, 2018).

An investigation by the United States Senate (2017) revealed that Backpage, an online classified advertisement site, knowingly facilitated trafficking in persons by editing advertisements that openly advertised human beings for sexual services and posting them online instead of denying them access to the platform. Nevertheless, attempts to hold Backpage criminally liable in the United States for these advertisements failed (Maras, 2017). This led to the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in 2018, which places responsibility on platform providers for third party content posted, which infringes decency legislation. After the passage of the Act, was shut down and the CEO and his co-conspirators entered guilty pleas to human trafficking and money-laundering, among other charges (Jackman, 2018).

Child exploitation can also occur through the use of live-streaming child sexual abuse. In 2018, the United Kingdom's Internet Watch Foundation conducted a three-month long study of live-streamed distribution, which tracked images across 78 different domains. These included banner sites, blogs, forums, social media networks and cyberlockers. The study revealed 73% of the imagery appeared on 16 dedicated fora with the purpose of advertising paid downloads of videos of webcam child sexual abuse. In some cases, children were being coerced into sexual activity in order to gain "likes" or comments from viewers.

As a lecturer, you may encourage your students to consider whether and how the development of algorithmic investigative techniques could assist law enforcement without compromising legitimate Internet usage.



Cryptocurrencies (discussed in Cybercrime Module 13 on Cyber Organized Crime in detail) are far more volatile than physical currencies, as they are neither regulated nor backed by banks.

Digital currencies, or "cryptocurrencies", such as Bitcoin, are virtual or electronic currencies that are traded online. These currencies have created a means by which criminals can receive payment and hide or move proceeds of crime. The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) states that cryptocurrencies are the primary means of payments for criminal services (Europol, 2018, p. 58).

There are several advantages to using digital currencies over cash, which extend beyond trafficking in persons to other organized criminal activities:

  • Digital currencies remove the need to launder cash, which is more difficult in most countries due to increasingly strict cash reporting and money-laundering compliance regulations. Substantial amounts of cash act as a "red flag", drawing the attention of the authorities to the enterprise. Most countries with anti-money laundering legislation impose investigation and reporting obligations on financial institutions for cash movements at or around a USD 10,000 limit.
  • Funds in digital form can be moved across international borders with ease, thereby circumventing limits on cash transfers across jurisdictions.
  • Using multiple digital "wallets" (a separate wallet for each transaction) creates additional challenges for police and anti-money laundering authorities to track transactions and monitor patterns.
  • Digital currencies provide relative anonymity.
  • There is a reduced risk of a counterparty reneging on a transaction relative to more mainstream financial based transactions. This is because many digital currency transactions are irreversible and can only be refunded by the receiving party (see Bitcoin: All You Need to Know).
  • Likewise, copious amounts of cash make traffickers potential targets for other criminals. There are examples of criminals stealing large sums of digital currencies from exchanges: In June 2018, the South Korean cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb announced that USD 35 million had been stolen by hackers (see CCN Report)

With regards to cryptocurrencies, it must be mentioned that the use of crypto involves new actors in the trafficking arena, such as "crypto traders", "crypto mixers", "crypto exchangers" and "crypto exchanges". Law enforcement and policymakers globally will have to endeavour to think how to add these new stakeholders to investigations.

Next: Technology in smuggling of migrants
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