Trigger Warning: This blog discusses the highly sensitive and distressing topic of human trafficking. The content includes information about online vulnerabilities, statistics, and safety measures. Reader discretion is advised, as the details may be triggering for individuals who have experienced trauma or are sensitive to discussions about violence and exploitation. If you find this topic distressing, it is recommended to approach the content with caution or seek support as needed.
Every day, countless people fall victim to online predators, and among these is the more heinous act of human trafficking. As we kick off National Human Trafficking and Prevention Month, it’s important to talk about this issue and recognize that even the internet isn’t safe from predators. Since the rise of COVID, the National Trafficking Hotline reports that 65% of recruitment into trafficking takes place online. North Carolina, unfortunately, is not exempt from this and is 9th in the nation for human trafficking reports. Fortunately, A Safe Place in Wilmington, NC is a non-profit organization that focuses on prevention, advocacy, and restoration to assist victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. We have partnered with Dawn Ferrer, Executive Director at A Safe Place, to share ways to stay safe online, how to report suspicious behavior, and how CloudWyze is working to prevent Human Trafficking in North Carolina.
Defining Human Trafficking and Online Vulnerabilities
Human trafficking refers to the illegal and exploitative trade of human beings. This involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of individuals through force, coercion, fraud, or deception. The ultimate aim is to exploit these individuals for forced labor, sexual exploitation, or other forms of involuntary servitude.
Recruitment tactics for trafficking and exploitation include familial trafficking, grooming someone vulnerable, using a female recruiter who is also a victim herself but has been designated as the recruiter for the trafficker, and approaching people at public events or public spaces. However, as we learned above, most of the recruitment for human trafficking is now taking place online. This, similar to the grooming process for in-person recruitment, includes tactics such as:
• Providing a lot of compliments and pretending to share interests
• Pretending to be younger if the target is a minor
• Engaging in sexual conversation/role-playing as “boyfriend and girlfriend”
• Asking for sexually explicit images or sharing images of them
• Offering an incentive such as gift cards, alcohol/drugs, lodging, transportation
• Offering manicures, pedicures, haircuts, expensive clothing, and accessories
• Friending the person’s friends on social media first so they are more apt to trust
• Asking them to chat off mainstream social media where it is less likely to be monitored
• Threats to safety
• Sextortion where the trafficker threatens to expose the pictures and videos sent to them to family members, schools and place of employment in exchange for money or sexual favors
How to Stay Safe Online
The internet, while a vast source of information and connection, also harbors risks and dangers, especially in the context of human trafficking. Awareness of these dangers is the first step to staying safe online. From social media precautions to recognizing and avoiding phishing attempts, we’ll provide practical insights into navigating the digital landscape securely.
Maintaining a secure online presence begins with a conscientious approach to privacy settings on social media platforms. Think of it like setting your own comfort level for what you share online. Most privacy settings on social media platforms can be found under settings, then “security”. Facebook even has a “Privacy Checkup” tool and other resources that can easily help manage your privacy settings.
Caution is the name of the game when it comes to dishing out personal info; not everyone has good intentions. Be careful when it comes to sharing your personal plans, location, and photos – especially of your children and home.
One of the most important ways to stay safe on social media outside of privacy settings is to be aware of who you are engaging with. Only accept friend or follow requests from people you know. If you get a friend request from someone who you are already “friends” with, it could be a scam. When in doubt, always be sure to reach out to the person you know directly through text, phone, or email to confirm.
One of the more common online crimes, phishing is a tactic used to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords, credit card details, or personal data. Typically, phishing attempts come disguised as trustworthy entities, like banks, government agencies, well-known stores, or even coworkers, aiming to deceive users into providing confidential information.
To steer clear of these attempts, it’s important to stay aware. Be wary of unexpected emails or messages requesting urgent actions, like clicking on suspicious links, providing gift cards, or sharing personal information. Legitimate organizations won’t ask for sensitive details via email. Check the sender’s email address for inconsistencies or misspellings, and hover over links without clicking to preview the actual URL.
If something feels off or seems too good to be true, it probably is. Trust your instincts, and when in doubt, verify the request through official channels rather than responding directly to the suspicious message. If you come across a phishing attempt, always report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Online Dating Safety
In a digital age, dating online is becoming more and more common. However exciting it may be, it’s essential to prioritize safety to prevent human trafficking attempts. When creating your profile on a dating site or app, consider creating a separate email address to maintain some level of anonymity. Similar to staying safe on social media, be cautious about what information you share on your public profile. When you start messaging with potential connections, don’t share personal details too quickly, as human traffickers may exploit vulnerabilities. If you come across someone you connect with, always conduct a quick online search on your potential match to ensure their legitimacy. Arrange to meet in public places for the first few encounters and share your plans and location with a trusted friend. Trust your instincts; if something feels off, it probably is. Always prioritize your safety, disengage, and report any suspicious profiles.
Securing Personal Devices
Keeping your personal devices secured, such as your phones, laptops, and tablets, is a vital step in safeguarding against potential human trafficking threats. Start by updating your device’s software and applications, ensuring you have the latest security features. If you don’t have your notifications on for this, be sure to turn them on in your settings so you can always download the latest security updates.
When it comes to apps, research the app before downloading it and only allow it to have the most basic information it needs to function. Once downloaded, be sure to regularly review app permissions to limit data exposure. Disable location services for apps that don’t require them, minimizing the potential for unauthorized access to your whereabouts.
Always use strong and unique passwords that include numbers, special characters, and capitalization. When you are able, enabling two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of defense making it more challenging for hackers to gain unauthorized access. Consider using virtual private networks (VPNs) to protect your online activities, especially when using public Wi-Fi at restaurants, hotels, airports, and other densely populated areas.
Resources and Support for Human Trafficking Attempts in North Carolina
A Safe Place is the pioneer organization in the Wilmington, NC area to work with sex trafficking survivors and those who have been commercially sexually exploited. Through prevention, advocacy, and restoration, A Safe Place provides a holistic trauma-informed approach to help survivors begin the path to healing and helps educate the community about vulnerabilities with the hope of preventing them from occurring. The program and services include:
• Law enforcement assistance
• Drop-in Outreach Center
• Long-term residential program
• Individual/Group Therapies
• Life Skills Classes
• Employment Assistance
• Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor
• Court Advocacy
• Jail Outreach
• Online/Business Outreach
• Supportive Housing Program at a Recovery House
• Training/Community Programs
• Minor Prevention Programs including the training “Online Predators and Social Media” and a 10-week after school program EmpoweredMe! for middle school aged girls.
Reporting Human Trafficking Attempts and Suspicious Activity
A Safe Place operates a hotline where anyone can call about suspicious activity whether it occurs online or in the Wilmington community. They have an extension for anonymous tips and any information provided is immediately forwarded to local law enforcement or the FBI Task Force. Their hotline number is (855) 723-7529 and the anonymous tip extension is 2.
When reporting any human trafficking attempts or suspicious activity, it’s important to document as much information as possible including a description of the people involved, the specific location where it was observed, license plate numbers, vehicle descriptions, and any other identifying information. While A Safe Place’s hotline is not 24/7, the National Trafficking Hotline is 24/7 and their phone number is (888) 373-7888 or 233733 to text. They also have a “language line” to request help and report tips in many different languages. Individuals in the community can also contact local law enforcement or their local FBI office to report suspicious activity by asking to speak to someone responsible for trafficking cases and/or online criminal/predatory activity.
How CloudWyze Helps Fight Human Trafficking
As a North Carolina Internet and Managed Service provider, Cloudwyze is committed to fostering a secure online environment for both our employees and the communities we provide high-speed internet to in rural North Carolina. In 2023, A Safe Place led a training for our employees on the dangers of Human Trafficking. By staying vigilant and informed about online safety, we not only prioritize the well-being of our team, but also extend our efforts to empower our clients. To help the communities we serve stay safe online, we partner with Kramden to bring their Computer Basics course to residents in Nash and Harnett counties. In this course, students of all ages learn how to operate a computer, the basics of navigating the internet, and how to stay safe online.
Together, we can work on bridging the digital divide to fight human trafficking throughout the state of North Carolina. Through awareness, education, and supporting local organizations like A Safe Place, we can create a community that stands up against exploitation. Share this article with a friend so we can all enter 2024 staying safe online.