New warnings about supposed sex trafficking schemes frequently go viral on social media. Many social media users have claimed traffickers have targeted victims by tying zip ties to their cars, using Snapchat to locate potential victims or – most recently – tracking them using Apple’s Air Tags.
Much of the online conversation around sex trafficking revolves around the fear people have of being kidnapped by strangers. Some of the largest anti-trafficking Facebook groups are filled with posts connecting missing person cases and kidnappings to sex trafficking. But how do most people actually become victims of traffickers?
Are most sex trafficking victims kidnapped by strangers?
- Megan Cutter, director of National Human Trafficking Hotline
- Polaris, nonprofit organization that operates National Human Trafficking Hotline
- Guardian Group, nonprofit organization that helps identify and locate women and children that are victims of sex trafficking
- Save the Children
- State of Delaware Human Trafficking Interagency Coordinating Council
No, most sex trafficking victims are not kidnapped by strangers. While there are some cases in which victims are forcibly taken by strangers, most sex trafficking victims are lured in by someone they know.
WHAT WE FOUND
“By far the most pervasive myth about human trafficking is that it always - or often - involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation,” a myth page from the State of Delaware Human Trafficking Interagency Coordinating Council says.
A myth page from the international nonprofit Save the Children adds that a majority of the time, trafficking victims are targeted by someone they know such as a family member, friend or romantic partner. (The Save the Children nonprofit group is not affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.)
While a trafficking victim can be kidnapped by a stranger, the Guardian Group says “it is more common for traffickers to build some type of relationship with their victim prior.”
“It's not a common form of recruitment for a trafficking situation for someone to be abducted,” said Megan Cutter, director of National Human Trafficking Hotline. “That's not to say it never happens. But most commonly, the trafficker is someone that the person being victimized knows whether they're a family member, a friend, an intimate partner, someone that they love and that they trust, even.”
This applies to all kinds of trafficking, including sex trafficking. “Trafficking is a crime of power and control, where traffickers identify a vulnerability in someone else, and then exploit that,” Cutter said.
Cutter explained that many of these vulnerabilities are systemic; issues like homelessness, lack of education or mental health treatment, and substance abuse are common. A trafficker will often appear to offer a solution to the victim. The trafficker could offer to house and feed a homeless person, Cutter said, offering an example. Once the trafficker has lured the victim in, they often change the terms of the situation. Cutter said the trafficker may stop letting the victim live with them for free, instead having them pay for their housing with a sexual act — while making it seem as if what they’re doing is normal.
But Cutter’s example is just one of several ways a trafficker can control a victim without using physical force.
“People in trafficking situations can be controlled through drug addiction, violent relationships, manipulation, lack of financial independence, or isolation from family or friends, in addition to physical restraint or harm,” Save the Children says.
From 2020 data the National Human Trafficking Hotline was able to collect, Cutter says the hotline saw a 47% increase in recruitment by family members and intimate partners in both sex and labor trafficking situations, compared to 2019.
“So 42% of sex trafficking victims that we heard from were brought into trafficking by a family member, and 39% of sex trafficking victims were brought into trafficking by an intimate partner or a marriage proposition,” Cutter said. “So I think, hopefully, those numbers are useful in kind of contextualizing what we're saying about this isn't typically a random crime.”
That means, according to data the National Human Trafficking Hotline collected, 81% of sex trafficking victims were brought in by someone intimately close to them.
Problems with sharing sex-trafficking claims online
Viral sex trafficking misinformation campaigns often claim it doesn’t hurt to share posts on social media, but that’s not true. Polaris explained the harms of these campaigns in a 2020 blog post immediately after Wayfair furniture went viral because some people falsely associated it with trafficking.
Polaris said such posts were harmful in three different ways: The barrage of conspiracy-related reports can overwhelm services meant for victims, the people implicated in the conspiracies may lose their privacy or otherwise be negatively impacted, and conspiracies distract from the more disturbing realities of how sex trafficking actually works and how people can prevent it.
Cutter encourages people to look out for those they have proximity to and have context about the situation they’re in. It’s a lot easier for the hotline or anyone else committed to stopping trafficking to act on a situation where they know the details about the victim and the situation. Someone making a call about a situation they read about in a Facebook post won’t have those details.
“What I would really encourage people to do is to learn a little bit more about how to identify trafficking and what the crime actually is,” Cutter said. “Because with that, they may be able to better identify people in their communities who do need help, who they could pass the hotline number along to or who they could reach out to.”
Another good way to help trafficking victims, Cutter said, is to support investment in improving systems that allow trafficking to happen.
And if you’re worried about being targeted by strangers in a parking lot, Cutter advises you to take the same safety measures you would to prevent other violent crimes like robbery or sexual assault. Be aware of your surroundings, find a supportive community and have a safety plan where you can reach out to a trusted person close to you if you’re ever in a situation where you feel unsafe.
More from VERIFY: Yes, people can use AirTags to track you without your knowledge