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Vigilantes and Human Trafficking

Many consider slavery to be a thing of the past, but one form of modern-day slavery, also known as human trafficking, is still very much a problem.

Girl inside a Cargo container due to human trafficking

Human trafficking is defined by the US Department of Justice as “a crime involving the exploitation of a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” Vulnerable adults and minors can become trafficked. While human trafficking is especially prevalent in poorer nations, it is also an ongoing problem in the United States of America.

In the U.S., human trafficking can include sex work and forced labor. According to the Polaris Project, people in the U.S. are most often trafficked by relatives, intimate partners and employers.

RSnake spoke with author Pendleton "Penn" Parrish and Detective Joe Scaramucci of the McLennan County Sheriff's office in Texas to find out more about human trafficking in the U.S.

Human Trafficking by the Numbers

It is important to note that all statistics related to human trafficking are estimates. “If anybody is throwing out statistics at you, when it comes to anti-trafficking, they’re wrong. Period,” said Scaramucci. “There’s no way to quantify something that’s hidden.”

However, organizations do attempt to gather information on human trafficking to understand the problem. An estimated 40 million people were trafficked globally in 2016, according to a report carried out by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation. This included adults and children involved in different forms of forced labor, sex work and forced marriage.

In the U.S., the numbers are even more difficult to define. Trafficking organizations such as the National Human Trafficking Hotline keep records of potential cases reported to them. According to their website, “In 2020, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received a total of 51,667 substantive phone calls, text, Webchats, emails, or online tip reports nationwide.”

However, this does not accurately represent the number of verifiable cases, only phone calls or messages. Secondly, their statistics only represent people who know about the hotline and can access it.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics also collects data on human trafficking cases, focusing on cases that go through the justice system. In 2020, for example, 2,198 people were referred to U.S. Attorneys as human traffickers and 1,343 were prosecuted. These data only reflect traffickers who interacted with the justice system and don’t account for those who continue to operate under the radar.

The Demographics of Human Trafficking

Scaramucci shed some light on the victims of human trafficking. “Kids that come from impoverished communities are vulnerable, because of the financial disparity,” he said. He also noted that many victims of sex trafficking have a history of being sexually abused as children.

Citing self-reported statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Scaramucci explained that women and girls tend to be trafficked more often than men or boys. However, he went on to clarify that law enforcement professionals tend to focus their efforts on areas where women and girls will be found, as opposed to places where men, boys and transgender individuals might be trafficked.

Scaramucci also shared that the self-reported age of entry into trafficking is 18-19 years old and that trafficking victims are predominantly adults. The 2020 National Human Trafficking Hotline Data Report showed that 76% of reports involved trafficked adults.

Trafficking victims can be U.S. citizens, permanent residents or foreign nationals without legal standing in the U.S. Scaramucci explained that people overstaying on their U.S. visas often become trafficked. The National Human Trafficking Hotline report showed that foreign nationals accounted for over 50% of calls or other reports related to labor trafficking. It is, however, important to note that this information was not recorded consistently for all calls or messages.

Inside Human Trafficking

People can become ensnared in human trafficking in a number of different ways. For example, Parrish’s book Can You See Me? focuses on an 11-year-old girl who was orphaned in Mexico, and subsequently became trafficked by cartels. In the U.S. some children are trafficked by parents or other family members.

Scaramucci noted that it is likely no coincidence that the point of entry for many victims of trafficking is at the age of 18-19, when they are no longer in school, and trying to find a place in the world. Impoverished and other vulnerable youth become involved in trafficking when recruiters make sex work seem like easy money.

Parrish noted that once people become trafficked, it can be very difficult for them to change course. Scaramucci explained, “It’s a psychological game… you’ve been taught to be helpless.” Parrish also pointed out, “A lot of [victims] are kept under the influence of narcotics.”

Prostitution laws also make life difficult for victims. Since prostitution is illegal in the U.S., victims of trafficking are often arrested. As a result, their criminal records make it more difficult to get jobs outside of the sex trade.

What Laws Are in Place to Prevent Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is covered under both federal and state laws. The federal legislation in place is called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed in 2000. It was most recently reauthorized in 2018. Under this law, penalties include imprisonment, sometimes for life.

However, it can be difficult for the federal government to deal with human trafficking. “Federal agencies are not very good at human trafficking investigations… They’re not designed for it, they’re not set up that way,” said Scaramucci. He explained that problems can arise when federal agencies have to deal with state laws they are unable to enforce.

Every state has laws against human trafficking in place, but legislation varies. States differ on many aspects of human trafficking, from the actions that constitute trafficking to penalties. For example, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi businesses can be prosecuted under trafficking laws. In Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont, they can be dissolved or refused licensing instead.


What Role Does Big Tech Play in Human Trafficking?

Modern technologies are frequently used by traffickers. A Polaris report found that the majority of victims were recruited using the internet. Scaramucci explained that any technology with a private chat function can be used to recruit victims.

As a result, there is increasing pressure on big tech companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to aid in the fight against human trafficking. Facebook has come under fire for not doing enough to combat human trafficking. However, the company stated in 2021 that it can detect what it calls communication-related to “domestic servitude” and remove that content.

Scaramucci explained that from his perspective, Facebook does an adequate job of flagging problems. “Two years ago, there were 21 million cybertips to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 20.3 million of those came from Facebook.”

On the other hand, increased monitoring by tech companies also creates privacy concerns. Facebook currently monitors private messages, for example, a fact that alarms privacy advocates.

RSnake pointed out that technology used to identify traffickers could be “weaponized by a government” to identify people involved in protests or other political dissidents. “It’s very easy to turn this benign and good cause to something awful – a weapon,” he said.

What You Can Do

People passionate about human trafficking may be tempted to take matters into their own hands. RSnake shared that as a hacker, he and a friend founded an organization called EHAP (Ethical Hackers Against Pedophilia). They worked together to find people engaging in child pornography and report them to the authorities.

This type of action is not recommended. First, hackers run the risk of being mistaken for offenders. Scaramucci explained the “number one excuse” offenders give for being caught with images on their hard drives is that they were saving them for law enforcement. “If you want to be the police, I’ll show you where the police academy is,” Scaramucci said. Parrish echoed, “Leave it to the professionals.”

Parents have a role to play in preventing human trafficking and other types of online extortion. RSnake, Parrish and Scaramucci all emphasized the need for parents to be especially proactive and establish appropriate boundaries when it comes to their children’s internet use. Facebook, for example, expects users to be at least 13 years of age. Scaramucci shared that in his experience, much younger children often have Facebook and Instagram accounts.