AMU Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Human Trafficking: The Targets, Traffickers and Tactics

Note: This is the second article in a series about human trafficking.

Although certain populations are far more vulnerable – and therefore are more highly targeted – people of any age and background can become victims of human trafficking.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons, is a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts. The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological.  Exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is human trafficking, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud, or coercion was used.”

Human Trafficking Targets

Human traffickers will exploit anyone they believe can be controlled and profitable. However, their favorite target are the most vulnerable members of our population – especially young children and those who feel disenfranchised.

That population includes the LBGTQ community and those with disabilities or drug addiction, as well as any child who may feel alone.  Immigrants and refugees are also highly susceptible to human trafficking.

There is no single profile of a trafficking victim, but traffickers often find easy targets in those who have been marginalized by society, such as people who seek help from the welfare system. Human traffickers also attempt to lure people who have a criminal record – as well as runaways and the homeless. Even the elderly can fall victim to human trafficking and exploitation.

Poverty, Economics and Forceful Tactics Play a Role in Human Trafficking

Although human trafficking has become an extremely widespread and sophisticated global criminal network, it also happens on a local and even familial level as well. Abusive spouses, partners, and even family members can enslave or dominate victims and eventually traffic them for profit. 

Socioeconomic status also plays a role. This is especially true in impoverished regions around the world – where family members feel forced into selling their children into the human slave trade as they simply don’t have any other means to survive – or even the ability to feed themselves.

Some victims are even conscripted into local militias at gunpoint. Sadly, the victim sometimes chooses this hellish life willingly because living in poverty – or watching their family starve – seems like a far worse option. 

Quite often, people are lured away from their homes with promises of high-paying modeling jobs in other countries. Yet these are just tactics used by the human traffickers to lure victims in; once they are taken to another country, they become slave labor and are usually never seen – or heard from – again. 

Even those who participate in grooming and trafficking other human beings may themselves be victims of human trafficking. These global organized crime syndicates often recruit and force the front-line traffickers into the role of trafficking other human beings against their will. 

Through threats of violence to their families or other coercive means, human traffickers enslave their victims. Some of the lower-level traffickers are also coerced through threats of violence to their families.

In some regions, prosecution of these trafficking rings is nonexistent. This is why an emphasis on preventative education is so important in the fight against human trafficking. 

Human Traffickers Versus Illegal Drug Traffickers

Although profit is not necessarily a factor in human trafficking, if the victim serves an exploitative purpose, human trafficking is the second largest global criminal enterprise, second only in profitability to the illegal drug trafficking trade. However, the earning potential of an individual who sells a human being is much higher than a person who sells illegal drugs, since the latter must transport their goods across national borders every time – and their product can only be sold once.

Human beings can be brought across the border once and subsequently sold thousands of times. The published profit figures for human trafficking are often incorrectly low since many incidents go unreported.

Related link: The University Launches a Human Trafficking Awareness Course

Tactics of the Traffickers

Traffickers are becoming far more sophisticated, especially in their use of social media and other digital platforms. They lure children away from the comfort of their homes with promises of love, money or just someone who they believe really cares about them. 

Although many victims are still snatched off the streets or playgrounds, the networks have become so sophisticated – and so widespread – that it is estimated that one in six U.S. children has been contacted by a human trafficker attempting to groom them. 

Traffickers will contact marginalized kids and use tactics like love-bombing, negging (which means insulting or undermining an individual in the hope that decreasing his or her self-confidence might make them more vulnerable to advances), gaslighting, emotional blackmail, or a guilt trip. With their use of online platforms, the human trafficking trade becomes more and more sophisticated each year. 

Traffickers will quickly try to lure their victim to other platforms that are either encrypted or where messages cannot be viewed by family members or they are deleted automatically so they can never be viewed.  There are even websites designed to allow this type of communication, yet the application’s icon is fake. The icon on the screen of the recipient’s phone looks like it’s a calculator – or some other seemingly harmless item – to further hide the communications.

Human traffickers have become so sophisticated they are even concealing their messages with emojis or pictures. For instance, the set of emojis below seems harmless to most – a rose, a camera, a heart, an airplane and a crown. Not too many parents would find this alarming if they saw them on their child’s phone.

Yet this seemingly innocent string of emojis has a very dark message. According to a recent NBC News affiliate’s report, this particular combination of emojis means “to pay money to record having sex with an underage person who is being trafficked by a pimp.” 

Likewise, if a parent saw the two emojis below on a child’s phone, they would assume it means cheese pizza.

But these two simple emojis can be an advertisement seeking child pornography. Cheese pizza and child pornography both start with the letters C and P – and that is enough for them to send their dark messages without being detected. 

Related link: The Transportation Industry and Mitigating Human Trafficking

The Dark Web

Worse yet, human traffickers can easily change – and adapt – when this secret code has been discovered and continue these practices on public social media. They also have the dark web as a resource.  

The dark web is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous. Once used by political dissidents, the dark web has become the Internet’s black market, where visitors can buy anything from guns to drugs and fake IDs or trade child pornography. ­– Guillermo Contreras, San Antonio Express-News

The dark web provides an anonymous global marketplace for illegal activity and is often out of the reach of local and international authorities. The growing sophistication of not only the traffickers and their global criminal enterprises, but also the ability to remain anonymous on the dark web, poses an ever-growing threat to humankind. 

Tactics to Combat Human Trafficking

Once they know a victim’s whereabouts, global law enforcement – as well as federal and local law enforcement officials – provide excellent assistance in rescuing the victim and prosecuting any apprehended traffickers. There are also many programs which work with the survivors of trafficking to help with mental or physical trauma.

However, with the ever-growing threat, investing more in law enforcement initiatives, counseling, and other services which help survivors – is long overdue.

As long as human trafficking remains extremely profitable, it will be difficult to eliminate. The best tactics to combat human trafficking involve awareness and education. It’s important to demonstrate how widespread and profitable human trafficking is, and it’s equally as important that appropriate officials help provide awareness prevention programs to educate potential victims of trafficking before they are abducted or otherwise harmed.

Fully understanding the targets, the traffickers and the tactics that traffickers use is our best hope in combating this ever-growing threat to humanity. A simple understanding that a cheese emoji, followed by a pizza emoji, may not mean “cheese pizza” could save a life.

Although law enforcement is working diligently to investigate capture and prosecute human trafficking criminals, it is often very difficult. The tactics of these traffickers are becoming more sophisticated and more difficult to combat, and – when organized crime is involved – it is more difficult to apprehend and prosecute the top-level traffickers – even if street-level traffickers are captured.

Education, awareness and prevention is our best hope at fighting the ever-increasing threat of human trafficking. There are several organizations, including Anti-Trafficking International, which provide a broad range of awareness programs for parents, children, and even in specific industries where trafficking is most prevalent.

Steven Wynne earned his Juris Doctorate with a certificate in international legal studies from Loyola School of Law and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of the District of Columbia with a specialization in international business and marketing. He has worked as an international law and global business consultant for more than 30 years, working on strategic plans and with many different corporations in more than 80 nations. Steven has also taught at the graduate and undergraduate level for more than 20 years, focusing on international law and global business. He has consulted with Fortune 500 companies and governmental agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Steven has also worked with global nonprofits such as the ONE Campaign to help end global poverty, and he is currently the Community Ambassador for Anti-Trafficking International.

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