Human traffickers are exploiting social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, as well as dating apps such as Tinder, Blendr, and Yellow to hunt for potential underage victims, reveals a new study.
Traffickers educate themselves by studying what the victim posts on these sites to build trust, said the study by the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute of the University of Toledo in Ohio, US.
The study, which was requested by the Ohio Attorney General's Human Trafficking Commission, revealed how traffickers quickly target and connect with vulnerable children on the Internet through social media.
Grooming children for sex trafficking consists of convincing someone to send a risky picture and then using it to extort them.
The traffickers use fear of repercussions as a way to compel the youth to move from a monitored page to a less monitored page by saying, "You don't want your parents to find out what we're talking about", the study suggested.
Technology offers traffickers ease in advertising multiple victims at one time.
"It is vitally important to educate parents, professionals and youth - especially our middle school or teenage daughters who may be insecure - about the dangers of online predatory practices used by master manipulators," Celia Williamson, Professor of Social Work at the University of Toledo, said in a statement released by the university.
"Through this outreach and education, we can help save children from becoming victims of modern-day slavery," Williamson added.
For the study, the researchers conducted 16 in-depth interviews with knowledgeable members of Ohio law enforcement, judges, direct service providers, advocates and researchers who engaged with victims who were trafficked online.
The study outlined how traffickers connect to vulnerable youth online, groom the children to form quicker relationships, avoid detection, and move the connections from online to in-person.
"The transition from messaging to meeting a trafficker in person is becoming less prevalent," Williamson said.
"As technology is playing a larger role in trafficking, this allows some traffickers to be able to exploit youth without meeting face-to-face. Social media helps to mask traditional cues that alert individuals to a potentially dangerous person," Williamson added.