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Improving Sex Trafficking Victim Identification: Indicators of Trafficking in Online Escort Ads

NCJ Number
Journal of Human Trafficking Volume: Online Dated: 2024
Date Published

In this paper, researchers studied online escort ads to find language predictive of trafficking.


This study examined indicators of trafficking in online escort ads. Although law enforcement and researchers have shared certain escort ad characteristics to detect sex trafficking, such as looking “young” or specific language cues, these indicators do not necessarily predict trafficking when tested against the counterfactual. Researchers examined over 250 indicators in 1,263 ads from four states for which case outcomes were known (positive and negative for trafficking) and held focus groups and individual interviews with trafficking survivors, investigators, and non-trafficked sex workers on indicator meanings and ad posting practices. Language signaling a provider is trustworthy, use of an obscured phone number, language suggesting youth, and specification of the provider’s ethnicity were statistically significant predictors of trafficking. Additionally, and importantly for practice, photos in which the subject “appears young” or that displayed visible tattoos were associated more often with ads that did not belong to a trafficking case than ads related to trafficking. Results could be readily applied in practice to increase precision in victim identification, allowing shifts in resource allocation to cases most likely associated with trafficking. Policy recommendations to improve laws governing advertising websites are also made. (Published Abstract Provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2024