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How traffickers use the “Romeo Effect” to lure victims

  • Published on
    February 20, 2024
  • News Source Image
  • Category:
    Human Trafficking, Survivor Stories
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The Toronto Star recently published the story of Nicole, a 20-year-old woman from a small town in Canada who fell victim to human trafficking. Nicole found a way out and is telling her story to help raise awareness and help prevent others from being entrapped by human trafficking and sex trafficking the same way she was.

Traffickers’ tactics are “indiscriminate and insidious”

Nicole’s trafficker was someone she trusted and cared about who used a common tactic called the “Romeo Effect” because the trafficker plays the role of a caring partner at the beginning of the relationship. Once the trafficker is in a trust relationship with the victims, they groom them incrementally over time, love bombing victims with lavish dates, gifts and affection.

Nicole said:

“I can honestly say I fell in love. I wasn’t even aware that I had been trafficked until much later I just thought I’d been in a very abusive relationship that had gone in such a bad direction.”

Once she was “in love” with him, her trafficker convinced her first to take a job as a stripper, then began pimping her out as a high-priced escort and isolated her in a basement apartment far from home. This follows the typical pattern for “Romeo” traffickers of victims finding themselves isolated from their family and subjected to increasingly abusive language and behavior and finally sex trafficking. In Nicole’s case, she came from a small town and a “good” family, and it had never crossed her mind that she could become a victim of human trafficking.

Human trafficking doesn’t usually look the way Hollywood envisions it

Thanks to Hollywood, the way many people picture what human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, looks like is more the exception that the rule. Images of Eastern European or Asian women transported into western countries or young girls grabbed off the streets, then being forced into prostitution are what most people think of. While these scenarios can sometimes be true, they don’t represent most of the sex trafficking cases reported in Canada or the U.S.. Det.-Const. Nick Randall, with the Human Trafficking Enforcement Team of the Toronto Police Service said that the myths surrounding sex trafficking don’t just pertain to the public, but also apply to law enforcement.

In talking about the “Romeo Effect” Randall said:

‘What (traffickers) do is find whatever vulnerability that these victims have, and they exploit it, whether it’s a love relationship, whether it’s a drug or alcohol dependency, or a fear, vulnerability…they impose dominance and fear to maintain control.’’

With 99% of victims identifying as female, sex trafficking is often a gendered crime. But the stigma of reporting the crime keeps many victims, male and female, from reporting. In addition, being retraumatized by having to tell intimate and humiliating details to a total stranger is enough to keep many from coming forward.

A heinous crime that “sneaks up on people”

Young people are particularly susceptible to the “Romeo Effect” as they are often more easily manipulated. Through social media traffickers have access to potential victims hidden in plain sight, and it isn’t limited to any location or community. Janet Campbell, CEO of the Joy Smith Foundation, which has documented more than 7,000 sex-trafficking cases notes the average age of a sex-trafficked person is 13.

Campbell states:

“What we’ve seen is that this happens across all social, economic, ethnic communities. What we know from the work we do is that so many of these cases go unreported.”

By sharing her story Nicole hopes to be part of changing that and helping others understand just how gradual and deceptive the journey from lover to trafficker can be. It is also part of why Det.-Const. Nick Randall’s unit takes a proactive approach to try and encourage victims to come forward by not demanding a statement from them for the purposes of prosecution. By trying to put survivor’s needs at the center of their approach and by being willing to share their stories, units like Randall’s and survivors like Nicole are part of positive changes in how we see and react to the issue of sex trafficking.


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Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams
4 months ago

I had little idea of this particular kind of trafficking, let alone that it is the most predominant kind. Insidious, indeed, and no doubt harder to track down than the “kidnapped and forced” version. I applaud Nicole first, for her courage, and those others like her. I also applaud Randall and his unit and wish each of them every success.

4 months ago

Full support

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