Parents Need to Lock the Virtual Door on Traffickers | Opinion

There is a common perception that a nondescript van is canvassing neighborhoods snatching trafficking victims in plain sight. While this does happen, the reality for most victims is that a trafficker is canvasing the internet for potential prey using a keyboard, not a van.

As a child of the 1980s, my parents locked our front door to keep potential "bad" people out. Today's parents cannot just lock their doors to keep people out because that door has changed from a physical door to a virtual opening to the entire world with no lock. Traffickers are walking right through this virtual doorway into a potential victim's home with seeming impunity.

Recently, the Human Trafficking Institute released the 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report with alarming metrics. The report stated over 41 percent of victim recruitment came from the internet, with 59 percent from Facebook alone. Yes, from Facebook, not from a dark corner of the web but right in front of our eyes on one of the world's most popular social media platforms.

Traffickers are also using other mainstream internet platforms from Snapchat to Instagram to exploit children. With the advent of COVID-19 lockdowns, internet usage by children and teens has risen steeply. With increased online use, there is more opportunity for trafficking.

To understand what potential danger lurks on the internet, we must identify who a trafficker is—you cannot pick a trafficker out of a crowd. Traffickers can be from any walk of life, from individuals to criminal networks, to acquaintances or strangers, from pimps to business owners, both men and women.

A person holds a smart phone
A person holds a smart phone. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

One common thread runs throughout the trafficking world; traffickers are masters at manipulation and luring victims into their world. I discussed this with Salvador Hernandez, a senior intelligence analyst with the non-profit counter-trafficking organization DeliverFund. Hernandez explained that traffickers use anything they can to find a gateway into the victim's psyche, from simply saying "you look nice" to asking more in-depth questions about the victim's life to find something to exploit. The traffickers do anything they can to find an access point to exploit the victim and bring them into a life of sexual servitude. A disturbing fact is the traffickers are not focusing on only one victim. Hernandez said traffickers' prey on many potential victims over an extended period, from two weeks to over a year in some cases. Traffickers target numerous victims concurrently and pull them into the trafficking world through coercion and false promises. Each victim is a potential illicit source of income for traffickers and their goal is to have as many sources of income as possible.

Traffickers scour social media searching for potential victims that display signs of low self-esteem, no support network from family or friends, drug and alcohol abuse, and/or developmental disabilities. They are looking for any way in, preying on the victim's need for support.

I worked in law enforcement for over 21 years, from narcotics trafficking to human smuggling and beyond. As I research and write about human trafficking, I am continuously shocked about how prevalent trafficking is in our society. It is happening in plain sight. It must be stopped now.

The time for difficult conversations with your children about what potential dangers lurk on the internet needs to happen now, not later. There are government to non-profit resources available to help breach the topic of trafficking with your children. The key is to start the conversation today.

If you believe you may have information about a trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888.

Dr. Jason Piccolo has been a federal agent for over 21 years and is a former U.S. Army Captain (Operation Iraqi Freedom). You can find him regularly on CourtTV.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.