Online grooming and trafficking: what’s the link?

Human trafficking has been around since long before the internet, but traffickers have found a way to harness this tool to their advantage. Although it can happen to anyone, children and young people are the main targets. Grooming is often the first phase and can be the gateway to further exploitation or human trafficking. 

In an age where a huge proportion of the population is online, particularly younger generations, criminals like human traffickers are using social media more than ever to expand their activity. Common patterns involve traffickers sending friend requests to huge numbers of people, in the hope that some will accept. Alongside social media, online gaming sites and dating apps are the most common places where traffickers target their victims as they involve interactions with complete strangers. 

Stage 1: Relationship building and trust

Traffickers identify young people based on the content of their social media posts and then use this information to falsely claim that they are the same age or have similar interests. They identify potential victims and strike up a relationship with them. Trust is gained through the sharing of problems, empathy and emotions. 

Stage 2: Meet up and coercion

What sometimes happens next is for traffickers to arrange to meet their victims in a public place such as a hotel, café or park, where they might then be trafficked into a world of sexual or other types of exploitation. Online groomers will sometimes make their victim feel trapped before they have even met face to face. They use deception or coercion, even threats, to pressure victims into sending sexual images and videos of themselves. After the images are sent, the victim has no control over who views them. The threat or sharing, or selling, these images is a powerful blackmail tool to keep the victim under the trafficker’s control.

The trafficker will often ask for conversations to be kept private, while the content becomes more and more sinister. This enforced privacy alienates the victim, ensuring that they are isolated from anyone around them who might be able to step in and help. Sadly, when traffickers groom their victims online, it is only the start of a criminal operation involving the recruitment of young or vulnerable people for trafficking and exploitation purposes. 

Stage 3: The effect

There is often a lot of guilt and shame that builds up in the victim, often after sharing sexual content with a stranger online. It is important that young people know there is nothing to be ashamed of. This is a crime and groomers have sophisticated and calculating ways of exploiting vulnerable people for their own gain. It’s incredibly important young people know how to be safe online, and know how to spot the red flags. It’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for any signs of grooming in those around you. Being aware of the signs and how to respond could make a difference to someone’s life. 

Help and advice

Organisations like the UK safer internet centre, the NSPCC and Childline provide resources and advice for parents and young people about how to stay safe online. Our STOP APP enables people to report suspicious activity that may be linked to human trafficking, ensuring it gets reported to the relevant authorities. 

While the internet can be a dangerous and uncertain place at times, it also has the potential to be a massive force for good. Together we can use the power of technology to prevent and disrupt global human trafficking networks.

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