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Trafficking and Why Grooming on Social Media is a Major Issue

Human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry that includes sexual exploitation and forced labor.  In December 2021, the Biden Administration released The National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. For this brief, Overwatch is focusing on sexual exploitation.

Sex traffickers generate an estimated 99 billion dollars per year globally.  Exact statistics for how many victims of sexual exploitation there are in the United States differ.  Per the Polaris Project, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that combats human trafficking, in 2020, “10,583 situations of human trafficking were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline involving 16,658 individual victims.”

However, according to the U.S. State Department, “It is hard to find reliable statistics related to human trafficking.  The quality and quantity of data available are often hampered by the hidden nature of the crime, challenges in identifying individual victims, gaps in data accuracy and completeness, and significant barriers regarding the sharing of victim information among various stakeholders.”

Sex trafficking is an industry that continues to proliferate, with predators taking advantage of lax monitoring on social media platforms and grooming their targets through online friendships.  For this brief, we identified failures from Facebook in identifying sexually pervasive content and potential exploitation, and we researched how predators target their victims online and build relationships with them.  In addition, we interviewed two subject matter experts on the front lines of this issue.

Facebook (Meta) and Instagram

Facebook, which rebranded to Meta in October 2021, is the most popular platform for traffickers to identify victims and groom them.  Online grooming is when a predator establishes a relationship and trust with their potential victim.  According to McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Detective Joseph Scaramucci, who has worked on the problem set of human trafficking for seven years, Facebook is the “#1 source of grooming for trafficking.”

Scaramucci told Overwatch, “In my experience, Facebook is the #1 source of grooming for trafficking.  There are obviously countless other apps that have chat features, which increases the likelihood that grooming can occur and should definitely be monitored, but overwhelmingly Facebook and Instagram are at the top.”

Scaramucci explained how traffickers use Facebook and Instagram to target their victims.  “Generally, it’s as simple as dialogue, which opens the door to start grooming.  Oftentimes traffickers watch posts made by potential victims to identify potential vulnerabilities, like being in a single-family home, low self-esteem, etc., then start messaging them and acting like the knight in shining armor.”

Jeff Tiegs, who served as a U.S. Army Ranger and Delta Force Operator, is the Chief Operating Officer of All Things Possible Ministries.  Tiegs uses his expertise and experience to counter human trafficking.  Tiegs’ comments provided an additional view of how traffickers operate on social media.

He said, “The ability to recruit and groom victims is at an all-time high.  Facebook.  Instagram.  Snapchat are riddled with predators.  They are all over Minecraft and Roblox.  They use mediums where you can share photos/videos.  They are on Whisper.  They are on Scout.  They are on all the dating sites.”

“A trafficker could be talking to a hundred girls at once and weighing his odds on who he thinks is most vulnerable.  These pimps are using proxy pimps to be a step removed in the targeting.”

Despite Facebook’s policy against pornography and sexual exploitation, analysts identified multiple Facebook groups with suggestive and pornographic material themed around finding a girlfriend and/or strippers, as well as Whatsapp numbers to connect with the people who posted the photos.

In one group on Facebook, which has 424 members, a user who we are not identifying posted an image with a link to her OnlyFans.

Photo Credit: Facebook/Screenshot.  Images are censored by Overwatch.

OnlyFans is known for its pornographic subscription content. Tiegs told us of OnlyFans. “With the rise of OnlyFans, which went through the roof during COVID, the pimps are diversifying, the girl is being sold physically to a buyer, and they can film the acts and sell it on OnlyFans. When you talk about it from a grooming perspective, if you can convince a young girl to show her body on OnlyFans, it is easier, in the long run, to get her to do the actual physical acts.”

Continuing Research on Individual We Are Not Identifying

Further research into the individual identified a Twitter account for her.

In a post on Twitter, she uploaded an explicit video with a caption that shows she does outcalls.  “Outcalls” mean that person will travel to the buyers’ location.  Analysts conducted searches on the user and found profiles on Sumosear.ch, which hosts many escort pages.  On Sumosear.ch, there is a Snapchat photo of the individual, where she lists the areas, she does outcalls.

Photo Credit: Sumosearch/Screenshot.  Images are censored by Overwatch.

In addition, she has a profile on Callescort. Both the Sumosear.ch and Callescort pages provide her phone number, which has a Maryland area code.

Analysts cannot confidently say that this individual is a victim of sex trafficking, but her escorting and social media posts suggest that it could be possible.

How OSINT is Used to Hunt Traffickers

Scaramucci said of OSINT efforts to counter human trafficking.  “OSINT helps oftentimes identify who the traffickers are, as well as who the victims are.  A large majority of sex trafficking occurs on and through the internet, which is hard to escape in any way these days.  Being in photographs, sharing on social media, even things as simple as purchasing food all happen on the internet.”

“They’re constantly leaving the crumbs that can be used to follow them.  It can also provide glimpses of where they have been, which can lead to federal charges if we can show they transported their victims across state lines.”

At Echo Analytics Group, we participate in Skull Games with All Things Possible Ministries.  Skull Games is an event where vetted OSINT experts use their online research skills to identify potential victims of human trafficking as well as the potential pimps controlling some of these girls.  Once a victim or person of interest is identified, the analysts write up a report containing the path of discovery to the identity.  That report is then provided to Law Enforcement in the field to action as they see fit.  During our most recent Skull Games, analysts provided Law Enforcement with the identification of 25 potential sex trafficking victims and eight persons of interest.

OUR ASSESSMENT

We assess that sex traffickers will continue to use major social media platforms to target their victims, as there are no significant security or monitoring measures to prevent the targeting from occurring.  Traffickers will take advantage of public groups on Facebook with themes like finding a girlfriend and strippers because pornographic material is posted repeatedly on such pages, making it easier to share their content in those groups.  Additionally, we identified many other sumosear.ch links on Facebook through a basic Facebook search, suggesting that the platform is not thoroughly following its policy against sexual solicitation.

Based on the lax policing of traffickers/groomers online, the number of traffickers will grow, not decrease, in 2022.  As a result, sex trafficking revenue will increase, providing more funding for criminals to operate and commit their illicit acts.  Without tech companies dedicating a significant amount of time and resources to counter sex trafficking, the problem will persist significantly, making it harder to identify those targeting people online for sex trafficking.

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