New Audio Available for Media Use: Human Trafficking and the Internet

BALTIMORE, MD, February 14, 2023 – New audio is available for media use featuring Nickolas Freeman. He is an Assistant Professor of Operations Management at the Culverhouse College of Business Department of Information Systems, Statistics, and Management Science at the University of Alabama. He kicks off our series this month on trafficking. Freeman focuses on human trafficking and the internet. This content is provided by INFORMS, the largest association for the decision and data sciences. What follows are four questions and responses. These responses were provided on February 13, 2023.



Question 1: How extensive a problem is human trafficking online?

Time Cue: 0:28, Soundbite Duration: :45

“Okay, so many press releases in court documents show that sex trafficking is facilitated via the internet.  I mean this includes social media dating sites and sites that host commercial sex advertisements. I work with the team at the University of Alabama, and we actively monitor commercial sex ads, and based on our data we see more than 150,000 advertisements posted targeting locations in the continental U.S. every day. Note that this only includes ads on one of the previously described channels - in particular the commercial sex ad sites. And one thing that's important to note is you know this is a very active ecosystem, and new sites are emerging regularly. So, The scale and the expanse of this problem is quite significant.”  



Question 2: Where is human trafficking most prevalent online? 

Time Cue: 1:19, Soundbite Duration: :42

“It's hard to say exactly where trafficking is most prevalent online as various types of sites may be used for different purposes. For example, although individuals have been advertised on social media this type of site has been widely recognized as a medium that facilitates the initial contact with individuals and the grooming of individuals by traffickers. On the other hand, commercial sex ad sites seem to be the most likely site where traffic individuals are advertised. It's also important to note that even though physical contact is not being made, sites that offer live streaming of sexual acts or pornography may be involved with trafficking because the individuals that are in those live streams or those videos might have been forced or coerced to perform those acts.”



Question 3: What are policymakers, law enforcement agencies and others doing to combat this problem? 

Time Cue: 02:10, Soundbite Duration: 1:04

“So, with respect to the prevalence of trafficking on the internet, obviously the digital artifacts that are produced by these sites are a valuable source of data that law enforcement and nonprofit organizations use when trying to identify potential sex trafficking victims, and intervene to get them out of the life. However, given the large volumes of data and the need to link them across sites very challenging. In the commercial sex space this is even made more difficult by the presence of scam ads that are posted with the hopes of getting potential buyers to make electronic deposits in order to secure an appointment. And once a potential buyer makes that deposit, communication is either ceased or the scammer continues to try and extract additional money. Since prostitution is illegal in almost all U.S. jurisdictions, the individuals that are scammed in those cases have very little recourse.  So, ultimately law enforcement are trying to utilize this data to gain insight into how they can interdict potential sex traffickers. But it's extremely challenging.”



Question 4: What is the best approach going forward to combat human trafficking online?

Time Cue: 03:21, Soundbite Duration: 1:22 

“So historically if we look at some efforts to kind of combat human trafficking online it mostly involved, state organizations or government organizations trying to shut down these sites. And we've seen time and time again that once these prominent commercial sex sites are shut down other sites quickly emerge to fill that void. So going forward, that that tells us that the strategy of shutting down sites –  again they're they're just going to kind of have new players emerge to kind of fill that void. What we've seen is that a lot of times that these entities, be it law enforcement organizations or nonprofits, that are working in the field using this data, they tend to do this with a local focus. And this can be because of funding issues or whatnot, but they tend to be focused on the activity in their jurisdiction. So going forward, what we need is a little bit more of a broad approach where we have tools that can access these this ad data and link them together, and then almost a unified platform where law enforcement and nonprofits working in somewhat geographically disparate regions can communicate their interactions with these potential individuals and that sharing of information, we feel will lead to a much higher level of success in battling this going forward.”


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INFORMS advances and promotes the science and technology of decision making to save lives, save money, and solve problems. As the largest association for the decision and data sciences, INFORMS members support organizations and governments at all levels as they work to transform data into information, and information into insights that lead to more efficient, effective, equitable and impactful results. INFORMS’ 10,000+ members are comprised of a diverse and robust international community of practitioners, researchers, educators, and students from a variety of fields. 



Ashley Smith


[email protected]



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New Audio Available for Media Use: Human Trafficking and the Internet

Media Contact

Ashley Smith
Public Affairs Coordinator
Catonsville, MD
[email protected]

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