Does your life suck?

If so, like many of us, you may have posted about your money troubles, your low self-esteem, or your relationship problems on social media or dating sites. But while it may feel good to vent, and while such posts may garner sympathy that can soothe the pain, the FBI is warning that human traffickers are attracted to the details of our misery like bees to honey.

On Monday, the FBI’s online crime division – the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) – issued a warning that human traffickers are increasingly using online platforms, including popular social media and dating platforms, to recruit and to advertise sex trafficking victims.

They’re also increasingly harvesting personally identifiable information (PII) by putting up fake job listings, the IC3 warned in January, and are recruiting labour trafficking victims who are “bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves,” the FBI says:

Human trafficking victims are beaten, starved, deceived, and forced into sex work or agricultural, domestic, restaurant, or factory jobs with little to no pay.

Many of us in the US unknowingly encounter trafficking victims as we go about our days, the FBI says, given that both the perpetrators and their prey come from all backgrounds and work in all areas. The bureau says that victims have been recovered in rural areas, small towns, the suburbs, and large cities.

Have you gotten an offer from somebody who said they were recruiting for a job? Or perhaps they claimed to be a modeling agent? Those are some of the fronts that traffickers hide behind, the FBI says, and it often starts with online grooming as they offer opportunities for a better life or a better job.

Human traffickers target vulnerable individuals by preying on their personal situations. Online platforms make it easier for traffickers to find potential victims, especially those who post personal information, such as their financial hardships, their struggles with low self-esteem, or their family problems.

Human traffickers target and recruit their victims by appearing to offer help, or pretending to be a friend or potential romantic partner. They leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities and coerce them to meet in person. After establishing a false sense of trust, traffickers may force victims into sex work or forced labour.

As the FBI warned in August 2019, it’s also seen an increase in recruitment of money mules through dating sites.

Forced into slavery and prostitution

The FBI gave a few examples of victims who were recruited through popular online platforms:

  • In July 2019, Ryan Russell Parks, a 26-year-old Baltimore man, was convicted on two counts of sex trafficking – of a 15-year-old girl and a 16-year-old girl. After he struck up a conversation with the 16-year-old online, she told Parks that she was hungry and homeless. He sent a car to collect her and within a day, her photo was being used online to advertise her as a prostitute. According to court testimony, Parks targeted both girls after they posted information online about their difficult living and financial situations.
  • In March 2019, a married couple was found guilty of conspiracy to obtain forced labour and two counts of obtaining forced labour, having looked for workers on the internet and through ads in newspapers based in India. The Department of Justice (DOJ) says that they lied about the wages and the work. Once the victims showed up at their home in California, Satish Kartan and his wife, Sharmistha Barai, forced them to work 18 hours a day, gave them scant food, paid them meager wages or not at all, and sometimes hit or burned them. It got worse for victims who said they wanted to leave.
  • In October 2017, a sex trafficker was convicted on 17 counts of trafficking adults and minors. Additional charges included child pornography and obstruction of justice. The perpetrator received a 33-year sentence. A victim from the Seattle area met the sex trafficker’s accomplice on a dating website. The trafficker and his accomplice later promised to help the victim with her acting career. After a few months, the victim was abused and forced into prostitution.

Save yourself

In the US, victims in immediate danger should call 911.

When the danger isn’t immediate, but if you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-888-373-7888 (TTY: 711) or text 233733.

Specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocates can give support in more than 200 languages. The hotline was fully operational, though the pandemic is forcing the hotline to refrain from answering general questions about trafficking or volunteering.

The FBI also provides a list of other agencies or centers you can contact. Find details in their bulletin.

In the UK, if you suspect human trafficking, Citisens Advice says you can…

  • Call the police. Call 999 if it’s an emergency, or 101 if it’s not urgent.
  • If you’d prefer to stay anonymous, call UK Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

In Australia, if you suspect human trafficking, contact the Australian Federal Police…

Save your communications

The IC3 asks that victims keep all original documentation, emails, text messages, and other communication logs if you’ve been victimised or think you’ve been targeted. Don’t delete anything before law enforcement has a chance to review it.

If you file a complaint about online scams, they ask that you be as descriptive as possible in the complaint form by providing:

  • Name and/or user name of the subject;
  • Email addresses and phone numbers used by the subject;
  • Websites used by the subject; and
  • Descriptions of all interactions with the subject.

“It is helpful for law enforcement to have as much information as possible to investigate these incidents,” the FBI says, but you don’t need to provide all of that to submit a complaint.

Stay safe online

That nice person who reached out to you online and then offered you food and a place to stay? Or who told you you’re the love of their life? Or that they’ve got a great job for you, in a new country with great pay and opportunity galore? Or how about a chance at a modeling career?

They might not be nice at all. They might well be peddling moonbeams. They could even be a predator whose real aim is to sell you. Increasingly, that’s exactly what they’re after, as the IC3 relates.

It’s hard to choose where to start when it comes to offering advice on staying safe online, but here’s as good a spot as any: How to have the difficult stay-safe conversation with kids. Those of us adults who frequent dating sites, or who could use a decent-paying job, are also targets. Check out our tips for staying safe on social media and on dating sites.

Please remember, if it’s coming from the internet and sounds too good to be true, it likely is.

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