Internet and Facebook Most Utilized Venue for Human Trafficking Recruitment: Report

By Neil Campbell | June 15, 2021
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
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Billboards displaying a campaign against human trafficking are seen at Knight Center Metrorail station in downtown Miami, on January 9, 2020. A study by Human Trafficking Institute found most human trafficking recruitment each year occurs online, with Facebook as the majority source.
Billboards displaying a campaign against human trafficking are seen at Knight Center Metrorail station in downtown Miami, on January 9, 2020. A study by Human Trafficking Institute found most human trafficking recruitment each year occurs online, with Facebook as the majority source. (Image: EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)

A new examination of sex trafficking and forced labor cases in the United States has shown that the dark industry has primarily moved its operations to the Internet, uses Facebook as one of its top recruitment methods, and perpetrators are primarily composed of individuals rather than organized cartels. 

The 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report, is an annual report published by the Human Trafficking Institute (HTI). The HTI says this year’s report is special because it showcases all 20 years of federal prosecution data since the enactment of the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.

The Institute says it composed the report with the help of seven practicing attorneys and eight law school students, who analyzed every single human trafficking case found in the U.S. Federal Court system in 2020. 

The investigation, which only counts prosecutions in Federal Court, excluding the state-level and investigations in progress, broke its data set down into sex trafficking cases and forced labor cases. It found the overwhelming majority, 93 percent out of 2,093 over the course of 20 years, were sex cases. 

When it came to 2020’s numbers in specific, HTI found of the 579 active criminal prosecutions, 94 percent were for sex trafficking. However, out of the 200 civil suits active in Federal Court, the dataset swung sharply the other way: 91 were sex trafficking and 109 were forced labor related.

Human traffickers are more likely, contrary to pop culture belief, to control their victims with non-physical methods. HTI found 59 percent of cases involved a tactic such as fraud, threats, or the withholding of pay or immigration documents compared to physical abuse.

Demographically, victims were overwhelmingly female. The report found 44 percent were women, 50 percent were girls, and only 3 percent were men and boys each. 

HTI found in the cases currently still active in 2020, while 82 percent of defendants were male in sex trafficking cases, 100 percent charged with being a “John” were male. The gender imbalance swung dramatically in forced labor cases, with women appearing as a defendant 43 percent of the time. 

In new cases filed in 2020, 278 victims were named in court documents. Among the group, 38 percent had a pre-existing vulnerability of substance addiction, 28 percent had run away from home, and 17 percent had undocumented immigration statuses. 

The study found of the 1,499 victims appearing in all cases still open in 2020, 53 percent were children with an average age of 16. 

Only 13 percent of all victims were foreign nationals. Foreign national victims were primarily found in forced labor cases at 57 percent of all cases, but only 9 percent of sex trafficking cases. Of these victims, the study found 83 percent were trafficked into the United States from a foreign country. 

Of the 462 defendants in the currently open cases, 43 percent knew their victims in advance. The most common source of contact was social media at 31 percent, followed by spouse or intimate partner at 21 percent. 

The study found the Internet remained the most common venue for recruitment, as has been the case since 2013, at 41 percent of all victims in 2020. Of all the cases involving an online venue, 59 percent occurred on Facebook. 

HTI also found Facebook was a considerably greater venue for recruitment of children than adults. While 59 percent of online cases involving children utilized Facebook, that number shrunk to 36 percent for adults. 

The two top methods of recruitment used across all of 2020’s victims were fraudulent job offers and feigned romance.