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Unconventional Wisdom: Research Shakes Up Assumptions About Sex Trafficking Clues in Online Escort

NCJ Number
Date Published
May 2024

This article discusses recent research on the use of conventional versus unconventional wisdom for identifying sex trafficking in online escort ads, highlighting four key examples of long-held beliefs regarding sex trafficking indicators that have been shown to be invalid as well as four key indicators that are strongly predictive of sex trafficking; it also highlights sex trafficking enforcement challenges that have developed since 2018, with discussion of implications for investigators as well as recommendations.


Many investigators fall back on conventional wisdom when searching for indicators of sex trafficking in online escort ads. This article details how recent research supported by the National Institute of Justice reveals that many assumptions are likely unwarranted. The primary goal of the study was to help investigators and prosecutors better focus their limited resources on cases that involve trafficking rather than consensual sex work. This research adds to knowledge about how traffickers construct and use ads when they advertise a trafficking victim, as opposed to ads for non-trafficking sex work. The researchers also created a quick reference guide that law enforcement and other practitioners can use to build trafficking cases and train investigators, prosecutors, judges, and victim service providers.

Date Published: May 1, 2024