Child sex traffickers are now hanging out on social media and gaming sites, pretending to be poor, troubled teens like the victims they target.
It’s a process anti-trafficking campaigners call ‘grooming,’ where children, usually aged 11 to 15, are courted online by people who pretend to be their peers. Once they’ve gained their trust, they lure or coerce these children to send sexual images of themselves that are then shared online.
Some children even go to physically meet their online ‘friends’ at hotels, cafes, or parks, which can lead to them being trafficked.
“Grooming is the precursor phase,” said Hernan Navarro, head of campaign group Grooming Argentina. “It’s the gateway to more serious crimes like human trafficking.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation reports:
“Trust is now gained through empathy and emotions,” Bogota-based Arevalo, who has talked to hundreds of students about the dangers they face online, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Recruiters are of similar age (to their victims). They say, ‘I too have problems at school and with my parents’, ‘I’ve also broken up with my partner’.”
From the United States to the Philippines, a soaring number of young people are being trafficked online, fueled by the global spread of cheap, high-speed internet and rising mobile phone ownership, particularly in developing countries.
About 750,000 sexual predators worldwide are online at any given moment, the U.S.-based International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children said last year, often grooming children for sexual abuse as a first step to enslaving them.
Experts say that children who come from poor backgrounds or broken families are most at risk of falling prey to traffickers.
In the United States, last year the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found that 1 in 7 missing children was a likely victim of sex trafficking. Most of these children had been in the welfare system.
In response to the growing problem of grooming, numerous groups and telecommunication companies around the world are trying to educate children and parents on safe ways to use the internet.
Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica for one hosts workshops across Europe and Latin America to teach children about the risks of using encrypted messaging services where users can remain anonymous.
Meanwhile, Poptropica, a multi-player online game for children, only allows users to send scripted messages to each other rather than chat freely.
Still, as Navarro points out, parents have a key role in educating their kids about using the internet safely as “Children don’t recognize themselves as victims.”