Human Trafficking and Social Apps

Author: Cheri Miller

Social media has united the world. We now have the ability to connect with people instantly from every part of our nation and all around the world. While this can be beneficial in some cases, it can open many doors for predators to infiltrate your life or your kids lives. The Federal Bureau of Investigation states there is no place that is immune to human trafficking. Today, everyone knows and uses social media. A lot of people today can’t live without social media and will scroll through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram several times every hour. In a technology and social media centered society, the internet  and social media apps are reshaping our habits of  buying and selling, including each other. Social media has been used by traffickers to recruit victims, to proliferate their trafficking operations, and to control victims through restricting their social media access, impersonating the victim, or spreading lies and rumors online. With so many different avenues, we must be careful what apps and social media sites we use and allow our children to use. Human traffickers know how to search for their victims. A predator profile is any race, 18-78 years old, any family status, any socio-economic background, any geographic locale and any education level – in a word anybody.

A study done by the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission, revealed how traffickers quickly target and connect with vulnerable children on the internet through social media. Predators will also attempt to communicate and connect with teens about hardships or something that can be easily relatable, they are looking for vulnerable young people as potential victims. Parents, educators, and youth need to be aware of the top apps predators use to lure victims. Instagram, Kik, and Fortnite are only a few of the common apps used by predators. 

1. Instagram

Instagram is a photo and video-sharing social network service with 1 billion monthly active users as of June 2018. That makes Instagram the second largest app after Facebook, with the average age under 35. Instagram users and parents of users should be aware that in many ways, this app has become an unfiltered internet search engine. Do you want to see a baby elephant? Just search for #babyelephant. Do you want to see naked photos? Type #topless. Instagram contains pornography.

Unfortunately, Instagram does not currently have parental controls available and children can easily erase all search history, which can make it difficult for parents to control what Instagram is being used for. Users and parents should also be aware that people and predators can search the locations of your photos on Instagram, so it is important to turn disable the location feature. 

Human traffickers are also luring young aspiring models through Instagram, because many models use this app to promote their careers. They may even make false promises of a modeling career or pose as photographers, event organizers or brands offering to pay influencers to attend events.

2. Kik

Kik is an instant messaging mobile app. Strangers are able to connect with one another without being identified. Child predators can discreetly and anonymously contact children. A parent made this statement, “Shortly after starting to use this app, one of my daughter’s 11-year old friends was approached by some freak who wanted details about her level of sexual experience.” To open an account with Kik, all you need is an email address. This has made it easy for predators to access and groom minors through the app. While children and teens want to be up-to-date with the new popular apps and games, doing so may open up more doors of opportunity to become a victim.

3. Fortnite

Fortnite is an online video game that has gained millions of users since being released in 2017. The game is what’s known as an open-world survival game, in which players collect resources, make tools and weapons, and try to stay alive as long as possible.

Fortnite players and parents of players should pay attention to the chat function, which allows you to communicate with other members. Live streaming can also be dangerous because it allows the general public to have access to your game. Once trust or connection has been built (the stage known as grooming), predators can request information and ask to meet in person. 

Anthony Gene Thomas from Tallahassee, Florida was arrested for using Fortnite to recruit child pornography victims. Anthony Gene Thomas was 41-years- old and built a relationship with a teen. He also groomed the victims through gifts, credit cards, and a cellphone. In August 2018, Anthony and a co-conspirer drove the teen back to his home for sex. This teen was not the only victim abused by Anthony Thomas. Thankfully in the case the parents were aware and called the police, but many victims in similar scenarios who are not as fortunate have been dragged into a lifestyle that they did not choose. 

A sting operation in New Jersey resulted in the arrest of 24 men, all of whom used various online platforms to connect with their victims. While Instagram, KIK, and Fortnite are some of the most popular platforms currently being used, they are certainly not the only ones. With apps being created daily, predators are learning to adapt to a virtual world and lure victims.

In 2016, there were an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas. Of those 313,000, 79,000 were minor and youth victims. By becoming aware of the methods used by predators, we can prevent other youth and vulnerable people from falling prey to their tactics. 

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