During a Saturday afternoon, in the middle of a crowd, I was pursued by a trafficker.

 

I was not aware of this someone, slinking in the shadows, looking to steal, kill and destroy. He was hiding just below the surface of my phone screen, grabbing at information and reaching for his new prey —me.

 

I didn’t realize at the time, but someone was scrolling through my social media —sifting through post after post, pinning himself to my likes, tags and interests. An entire universe spans beneath our thumbs when we pick up our phones and start posting; that day, my personal space of the cyberverse was touched by an intruder. On this platform he found what social media has made far too easy for him —access to me and information about my life.

 

He sent me a message, asking me how I was doing. He told me that he’s successful. Incredibly successful, in fact. He said that he knew of a job that could be mine, if I only reached out to him with interest. He knew my worries, he explained. And outside of that, he understood that I needed someone to take care of me.

 

“Come on,” he insisted in a message. “I know what you need. I can help you.”

 

I did not immediately respond to his prying pursuit. In fact, I had not even seen what was unfolding within my unopened phone. While he silently beckoned through rectangular speech bubbles, I sat at a conference, keenly focused on the speakers telling me to stay awake, aware and on-guard. To all those gathered, they explained the devastation that digs itself into our world: today, there are 40 million people enslaved in human-trafficking, and the number keeps growing…

 

In January of 2019, the United Nations released a report stating that human trafficking is on the rise. The number of trafficked children has increased by five percent since 2017, and now almost a third of victims are adolescents. Studies done by the University of Toledo blame this increase on the rising generation’s approach to social media. This study, requested by the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission, revealed that traffickers quickly target and connect with vulnerable children through social media platforms. One discouraged post is all a trafficker needs to fixate his or her hungry gaze on a target.

 

Traffickers take notice of children, especially young girls, who put their pain beneath a social media spotlight. According to Phys.org, traffickers are attracted to social media posts like: “Nobody gets me”, “I’m so sick of being single”, “I don’t feel pretty enough”, “My parents don’t trust me”, and “How do I look?” and more.

 

When traffickers read posts like these, they respond with words intended to lure those especially vulnerable youth to themselves. Quick-catching responses might include statements like: “I understand you”; “I love you”; “You don’t have to be single”; or “I’ll encourage you to take risks. You’re an adult.” Traffickers are masters of manipulation, experts in examining the wants and needs of the demographic they are desperate to draw in.

 

…And so, there I was, afraid and uncertain. I had a man, much older than me, telling me that he could take care of me —that he had a job for me, that he had a different life for me. I didn’t even want a different life.

 

I was sick. I had been hearing about men like this at the conference all day, and I immediately responded with the intention of telling him off.

 

“You can’t talk to women this way. You can’t talk to anyone this way. I know what you’re doing,” I furiously typed.

 

“No way,” he retorted. “I’m just trying to help you. Let me show you how much I want to care about you.”

 

“I’m going to report you,” I said over Instagram. But instead of responding, he terminated his account…

 

“Online recruitment may begin with commenting on potential victims’ photos and sending direct messages, carefully building the rapport and intimacy needed to entice victims into a false sense of trust,” explained the Polaris Project report.* “Traffickers may build an intimate relationship with a victim […] or advertise fake or deceptive job opportunities […] Recruiters of traveling sales crews even post brazen photos of daily cash profits to entice potential victims, and agricultural labor recruiters may advertise for U.S. visa contracts via social media.”

Data collected by Polaris revealed that from January 2015 through December 2017, 250 potential victims were recruited on Facebook, 120 were recruited on dating sites, 78 were sought after on Instagram and 489 were recruited on other types of internet or social media platforms.

 

It is imperative that all people are aware of the extensive recruitment tactics of traffickers on social media. Safety in online platforms begins with a hyper-awareness of the information we share and the people we choose to connect with. While it may seem a small place to start, keeping the private side of our lives off the web is a necessary first step toward shrinking online-recruitment statistics.

 

Simple actions such as switching online profiles to private and requiring that other users limit viewing access of personal pages help to keep strangers and predators from collecting valuable information. Along with this, reporting suspicious accounts helps to eliminate the number of predators prowling the internet, as most social media apps will delete flagged accounts within a number of days —especially when they are turned in as ‘spam’ or ‘inappropriate.’

 

Though the steps are small, they are steps of safety directed toward confronting and blocking traffickers online. Every precaution matters when protecting ourselves and our children against the sticky-sweet words of social media predators. Be sure to educate young children and teens on the dangers of interacting with strangers online, and set the example for others by making the necessary changes to keep personal profiles secure. Traffickers only find what we allow them to see, and what we want them to see is nothing.