Human traffickers use social media accounts to target women for prostitution

Gangs use the personal accounts of victims to lure them with fake job adverts

Europol, headed by executive director Catherine de Bolle, has warned that extremists are using Covid-19 lockdown restrictions to plot attacks. 
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Social media accounts are being used by human traffickers as “catalogues” in which to target women, an investigation has revealed.

Europe’s crime agency, Europol, has discovered international gangs are browsing social media accounts of vulnerable women and girls in a bid to entrap them.

Gangs use the personal background on their victims’ accounts, from their level of education to family ties and their network of friends, to target them.

The criminals’ aim is to con the women into leaving their homes, then exploit them for prostitution.

In a report published this month, entitled ‘The challenges of countering human trafficking in the digital era’, it was revealed that advances in technology have given traffickers greater anonymity and made it harder for them to be caught and prosecuted.

“Social media platforms in particular are used as virtual catalogues by traffickers to identify new victims and develop grooming strategies,” the report says.

“Social media is also used as a psychological weapon, with traffickers threatening to upload compromising pictures of their victims if the latter fail to comply with their demands.”

The report says the majority of victims are females and has identified two forms of recruitment strategy: the first by posting fake job adverts on legitimate websites, and the second by responding to the subsequent victims’ requests for work.

“Active recruitment resembles the ‘hook fishing’ technique and involves criminals posting false job advertisements on trusted job portals and social media marketplaces,” the report reveals.

“Criminal networks also set up full-fledged websites of fake employment agencies, often promoted on social media to make them easily accessible to a larger number of potential viewers. Sometimes these websites include live chats, ostensibly allowing immediate contact with the alleged hiring managers.

“The internet also affords human traffickers opportunities for a more passive recruitment, which is far less detectable by law enforcement. Passive recruitment resembles ‘net fishing’ in that criminal recruiters scout the internet and social media, and reply to announcements posted by job seekers looking for jobs abroad.

“After initiating a brief conversation, recruiters will request a fee from the victims in return for securing the job abroad and helping with travel arrangements. It is not until victims arrive in the new country that they discover the scam.”

The report says the key recruiters were often women, with men tending to be the kingpins who remained more distant, focusing primarily on money laundering and the transportation of victims.

“Human traffickers are using increasingly modern communication technologies to exploit their victims multiple times over: from advertising and recruiting victims, to blackmailing them with photos and videos to control their movements,” said Catherine de Bolle, Europol’s executive director.

“To counter this threat, we have to use the great advantage of shared intelligence and collect more digital evidence.

“Fighting human trafficking is one of the EU and Europol’s top priorities. Europol has a team of experts fighting human trafficking at the disposal of our Member States and partners. We analyse criminal information and can connect the dots between national and international investigations.”

The report says the coronavirus pandemic is “likely” to result in more victims and a major issue for investigators has been trying to identify fake online job advertisements.

“Information and communication technology have rapidly changed the criminal landscape with traffickers adopting new modi operandi to recruit, control and exploit victims,” said Olivier Onidi, the European Commission’s anti-trafficking co-ordinator.

“To address these challenges, we need to increase capabilities of law enforcement, ranging from data processing to decryption capabilities and develop a broad co-operation framework amongst authorities, internet companies and civil society fit for the digital era.”