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How Human Traffickers are Reaching Kids Online

February 4, 2020

Where it’s happening and what parents and teens can do today to avoid the dangers of human trafficking on social media.

Photo By Christiaan Colen under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

By Katie Gazella
Open Door Youth Services

One of the most common myths about human trafficking is that traffickers are literally kidnapping people off the street. While that scenario does sometimes happen, it is much more rare than people have been led to believe. The truth is, most human traffickers are luring in their victims in a way that is much more subtle. 

Human traffickers are always on the lookout for their next victim. The internet and social media bring that search right to their fingertips. Traffickers can now reach out to vulnerable children, teens, and adults on any application that allows for direct messaging. This includes apps like Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, SnapChat, Twitter, Roblox and Fortnite.

Without the proper privacy protections, traffickers can see what a child has posted online. Those posts may reveal to a trafficker the child’s vulnerabilities, where they like to hang out, and what their interests are. A survivor of human trafficking in Wisconsin once shared with me that her trafficker was someone who responded to the online ad she had posted about re-homing her pitbull. The trafficker sent her a direct message talking about his love of pitbulls. The message was something she could easily relate to. The chat was friendly, not threatening. This is how their friendship started.

Once the online friendship is started, traffickers look for ways to get closer to their victims. They might form a dating relationship, ask for favors, or test the victim’s boundaries. Most human trafficking survivors report that they knew their traffickers before anything bad happened. For most, the relationship started out very innocently. 

The dangers of human trafficking that exist online are real. That’s why it’s so important for everyone, especially parents and kids, to pay attention to their social media accounts and privacy settings. 

Here’s what you and your family can do today to stay safe from human traffickers online: 

  •         Always have your privacy settings at the strictest possible setting.
  •         Always have the location setting turned off.
  •         Never post your location or check in at specific locations.
  •         Only have contacts that you actually know in real life.
  •         Periodically check your privacy settings. Updates may cause your settings to revert back.

To learn more about online safety and how children and teens can stay protected online, check out the Protect Kids Online Podcast by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.