Detecting and Preventing Human Traffickers at Major Events

March 2024

Major venues around the world are seeing record attendance for all kinds of events, including sports and concerts. This may be due in large part to a combination of factors, including the decline of COVID cases, the increase in popularity of events due to social media and other communications technologies, and the increased grandeur of the stadium experiences. Fans all across the globe seem to be excited to venture out in droves to see their favorite teams and musicians perform, but their enthusiasm is matched by that of the criminals who seek to take advantage of these large gatherings for drug dealing, terrorism, and kidnapping. Massive crowds, noise, and distractions provide an excellent atmosphere for criminals to create fear and havoc, or to carry on undetected.

The abduction of a 15-year-old girl at Mavericks game in Dallas in 2022 is a disturbing reminder of the dangers that can exist at these massive events, which are often seen as an opportunity for human trafficking, the second most profitable criminal activity in the world. Approximately 27,000,000 people are victims of human trafficking each year, usually used as forced sex workers or laborers. Events that host thousands of people appeal to traffickers in two general ways. These events can be used as opportunities to abduct people to be trafficked, and / or they can be places where traffickers can find customers to pay for services while they are in town attending the event.

Fortunately, many law enforcement professionals have taken on the challenge of preventing human trafficking and other crimes by using the latest in AI analytics. Pat Cheatwood is a example of one of these dedicated professionals. Cheatwood recently retired as a Police Chief after 28 years in law enforcement, and now he serves as an Investigation Specialist with Voyager Labs, helping law enforcement organizations to apply the most effective analytic technologies to prevent crimes like human trafficking. He believes that the application of these tools prior to, and during, a major event is one of the most important processes for law enforcement. Cheatwood explained, “One of the best tools for event safety to me is the capability to run “always on” keyword monitoring across social media platforms and the dark web. You can set these up for a week, day, or hour and they can notify you every time they get a match. This technology is a huge time saver and a force multiplier. It’s like having someone searching social media around the clock. This can give us all peace of mind to know we are doing all we can do to combat these and similar crimes. We are all in this together and we must be vigilant.”
It may surprise some readers to know that social media communications are just as popular among criminals as they are among law-abiding citizens. While criminals attempt to communicate secretly via coded words, phrases, and emojis, these communications are usually visible to anyone who uses social media platforms. The keyword search options that Cheatwood discusses are sometimes referred to as “topic queries,” which are entered by law enforcement professionals who have studied the current keywords, slang, emoji combinations, and references used by criminals. The analytic systems like those provided by Voyager Labs then search the worldwide web, deep web, and dark web for matches, which can be further focused by geographical location, date, and other factors.
When preparing for a major event, local law enforcement personnel can use this technology to flag any combinations of words, phrases, or emojis that could indicate plans for looting, rioting, terrorist activity, drug dealing, or other activity. The systems can also alert them to plans to abduct victims for trafficking, or to try to find customers to pay for sex with a trafficked victim. No search warrant is needed because these communications are carried out on public platforms; they are just using coded words and symbols to hide the true nature of their intentions. These sophisticated systems can alert police to plans for criminal activity at large events before they take place, allowing the authorities to take steps to ensure that the intended victims are safe, or even that those who are already being trafficked might be found and rescued.
In the case of the girl in Dallas, it is beyond tragic that her abduction was not prevented. However, the time that she was held might have been much longer than 11 days if the experts at the Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative had not used the latest AI analytical tools to match her photograph to images posted by the traffickers. All of the individuals who were involved in her abduction and trafficking are either in prison or awaiting trial. While the use of social media communications can facilitate criminal planning and advertising, it also makes their activities accessible to police officers and analysts who can identify and halt their activities and bring them to justice.

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