How human traffickers are recruiting victims in a digital age

The way most traffickers first reach their victims is not like Hollywood movies lead you to believe – a dramatic abduction of a child walking home from school.

Experts describe the way traffickers typically target kids or teens as pretty subtle. It can happen in schools, at the mall, or anywhere. However, nowadays, it most commonly begins with just one click, like, or friend request.

“Social media is what I call the hunting ground for traffickers,” stated Kathy McGibbon, a sex trafficking survivor who now uses her experience to help others. Most recently, she became a community advocate for Street Grace.

McGibbon says traffickers seek out a possible victim’s vulnerabilities.

“Vulnerabilities look like regular life stuff. So, if you're having a bad day, if you had an argument with your parents,” she listed.

The initial contact can be a like, friend request, or follow.

Mariah Fountain, Director of the Trafficked Persons Assistance Program with YMCA International of Greater Houston, says kids are taught about stranger danger. However, she adds, it often only seems applicable to meeting someone in person.

“Whereas social media kind of breaks down that barrier, right? Where I can access you by, hey, I just like your picture, right? And that sets the foundation of like easing [the relationship] in,” Fountain explained.

A national survey by Thorn found of the minors who became victims of sex trafficking in 2015, 55 percent met their traffickers through a website or mobile app. Experts say traffickers will take months or even longer to groom their victims online.

Janet Kasper, with the Governor’s Office Child Sex Trafficking Team, recalls a case where a teen was groomed through social media for about a year.

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“Then, she found herself in a crisis situation and posted a little bit on social media and he was like 'I’m there, I’m there for you,” she told FOX 26.

She adds the trafficker picked her up and exploited her for over a month. Some of the social media apps traffickers use include common ones like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. However, they also use other lesser-known messaging apps and even gaming apps like Discord.

McGibbon says predators may also use online ads for job opportunities, particularly modeling.

She highlighted one survivor's story.

“It looks normal when she first walked in, fill out an application, be seated, wait her turn,” she said. “And, then the final interview is when she was introduced to this ‘manager.’”

He asked her to completely undress. McGibbon says the survivor was scared, vulnerable and complied.

“He knew that he could capitalize on her vulnerabilities and that's how her journey started,” she said.

The internet also makes it easier for traffickers to sell their victims. The Thorn survey also found 1 in 7 who were advertised on the street reported more than 10 buyers a day, whereas 1 in 4 advertised online reported more than 10 buyers a day.

“Until [your children are] of age and until they can understand the dangers of what's really going on, then we have to be in their business,” McGibbon insisted.

The Texas Center for the Missing has recommendations to help parents with internet safety. The tips include:

-Defining which sites your child can visit

-Setting time limits on computers and digital devices

-Creating a family charging station where all devices are charged overnight

For the full lists of tips and other resources, click here.

McGibbon also recommends knowing your kids’ passwords and using a monitoring application to see what they are doing on their devices. However, the most important tip, she says, is talking to your kids.

“The best way to prevent sexual exploitation is through open discussions,” she concluded.

For if you suspect someone may be a victim of human trafficking, click here for a list of warning signs and contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.