Targeted: human traffickers luring victims online

 The Netherlands, supported by Europol, coordinated a three-day long operational action targeting online criminal activities that enable human trafficking. The 2023 Hackathon took place from 18 to 22 September in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, and involved 85 experts: law enforcement officers from 26 countries (22 EU Member States and 4 third countries) as well as representatives from the European Labour Authority, CEPOL, INTERPOL, the OSCE and the International Justice Mission. The 2023 Hackathon focused on filling intelligence gaps in the recruitment of victims of the most frequently reported forms of human trafficking, namely sexual and labour exploitation. The operational activity was organised in the framework of EMPACT.

Human trafficking organisations have become increasingly digital, with the internet becoming an important enabler of criminal activities in this area. The 2023 Hackathon focused on identifying online platforms and social media hubs used to recruit victims for sexual and labour exploitation.

Human traffickers use different methods to lure vulnerable individuals and exploit them for profit. For example, they are increasingly using social media and online platforms to recruit victims for sexual and labour exploitation, as well as other forms of servitude. They use several approaches to recruit their victims. One of them is deception: traffickers deceive victims with false promises of a better life, education, employment or marriage. Another is the fake offer of well-paid jobs abroad, which turns out to be highly exploitative employment with very low pay or none at all. Traffickers may also offer immigration services to people who want to migrate and then take advantage of their vulnerability and exploit them once they are in a foreign country.

The 2023 Hackathon led to: 

85 people/usernames checked 

371 platforms checked (including social media and dating platforms, web forums, marketplaces and online applications) 

325 communication devices (including phone numbers, mobile apps, email addresses and fax numbers)

26 online platforms suspected of human trafficking checked

5 online platforms identified as engaged in human trafficking checked

10 online platforms linked to child sexual abuse online checked

Focus on recruitment of Ukrainian and Chinese victims

The high vulnerability of Ukrainian refugees and the increasingly frequent signs of sexual, labour and other forms of exploitation of Chinese nationals have led the investigators to focus on these at-risk groups in particular. During the 2023 Hackathon, participants examined how to gather operational intelligence at the EU level on websites and social media platforms where the recruitment of Ukrainian refugees and Chinese immigrants in the EU is suspected to be taking place. The open source intelligence investigative activities revealed that traffickers are indeed using the most popular social media platforms, but also dating apps and review forums. Recruitment attempts often take place in community groups on social media as well, which are created based on the geographical provenance of those seeking services, the destination country and the service required.

Europol supported the coordination of the operational activities, facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support. On the action day, Europol deployed two experts to the coordination centre to facilitate the information exchange in real time and cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases. This provided the participating officers from the national law enforcement authorities with further investigative leads.