In the same Dallas offices once used by Backpage.com, the defunct classified ad site notorious for enabling human trafficking, former elite intelligence officers work to dismantle the sex trade. They work for DeliverFund, a nonprofit organization that keeps the largest database of information on sex traffickers and shares it with 35 police departments across the country.
Jeremy Mahugh, DeliverFund’s senior vice president, told me his organization has drastically reduced the time it takes to build a case against a trafficker. In Houston, for example, the best police investigators needed about 21 days, but a DeliverFund analyst could do it in closer to 45 minutes.
Local law enforcement agencies increasingly rely on technology like what is offered by DeliverFund to find the victims, buyers, and traffickers of the sex trade with increasing precision and decreasing costs.
The U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT), another nonprofit organization, uses web scraping software to contact women who are being sold for sex. The program scans websites with sex ads for phone numbers and texts them with information about local resources for leaving the business.
“At the core of this, we recognize that sex trafficking is a supply answer to a demand problem,” said Geoffrey Rogers, USIAHT’s CEO. “If we’re really going to end this, we as a society have got to chase after and focus on fighting the demand that’s causing sex trafficking in the first place.”
Since studies suggest that more than half of the men who buy sex want to stop but have a form of addiction, USIAHT developed Facebook ads for men about how to get help. Using a program developed by Seattle Against Slavery, the ads target the Facebook profiles of sex buyers. Since the project started seven months ago, about 7,500 people have clicked on the “Get Help” website.
USIAHT also uses intercept bots to interact with people who respond to fake sex ads. When potential buyers text the number, the bot mimics a woman asking for more information and negotiating about price and where to meet. Later, the man receives a text warning that buying sex is illegal and offering help.
The New York Police Department also has started using intercept bots to warn would-be buyers who respond to ads. After a few days, the person who interacted with the bot receives this message: “This is the New York Police Department. Your response to an online ad for prostitution has been logged. Offering to pay or paying someone for sexual conduct is a crime and punishable by incarceration up to 7 years. The NYPD posts hundreds of decoy advertisements that are indistinguishable from the real thing. People who show up in response to our ads are likely to get arrested.”
But technology on its own cannot follow through to arrest and punish traffickers or to provide real care for the victims.
“Really it’s just getting all the different sectors of society to fight demand at the same time within a community, whether it be the local government or law enforcement, businesses, the education system, healthcare, the church, and also using technology then to fight the demand,” Rogers said.