The Scoop: Misinformation on human trafficking is widespread and often leads people to miss key warning signs. Dr. Greg Bott and Dr. Nickolas Freeman work together on the STANDD Initiative a research project designed to use data analytics to help law enforcement track human trafficking online. Dr. Freeman has shared their research through a professional network for sharing information related to the study of data sciences. Dr. Bott and Dr. Freeman spoke with me about common misconceptions about human trafficking, what to look out for, and the difficulties law enforcement face in trying to combat human trafficking.

Every few months, a story goes viral about women being kidnapped from superstore parking lots or sex traffickers marking the cars of potential victims. These tales quickly sow the seeds of anxiety and fear online, but they do little to help those at risk for abuse and sex trafficking keep themselves safe. 

If anything, misinformation disguises actual warning signs of trafficking in favor of age-old myths about the vulnerability of wealthy, often white, women. In recent years, sex trafficking misinformation has been widely connected to pervasive conspiracy theories. It can make it difficult to spot the places where you’re most likely to find victims of sex abuse – not on suburban soccer fields or at Target, but on the internet.

Nickolas Freeman and Greg Bott are assistant professors at the Culverhouse College of Business at the University of Alabama. They work together on the STANDD (Sex Trafficking Analytics for Network Detection and Disruption) Initiative, where they research the use of classified advertisement sites – often commercial sex sites – as hotbeds of human trafficking. They collaborate with law enforcement to help shut down these sites and track victims and perpetrators online.

“We see a lot of victims who are either under financial distress, emotional abuse, or substance abuse,” Dr. Freeman told me. “We don’t see a lot of people who were stolen in one moment or something like that. Life situations have made them vulnerable, and then somebody comes in and says they’ll help ease that situation.” But in reality, the victim is under this person’s control.

Dr. Freeman contributed an interview on their research to, the largest professional network for data scientists and researchers. I spoke with Drs. Freeman and Bott about how singles can protect themselves from trafficking on dating sites and the warning signs of trafficking to watch out for on other parts of the internet.

Commercial Sex Sites are Rife With Trafficking

The STANDD Initiative is primarily targeted at commercial sex sites, which are one of the primary places people run into human trafficking victims online. Traffickers run ads locally for their victims, often selling to solicitors who don’t realize that the person they’re paying to be with is not voluntarily participating in sex work.

“I would imagine that most johns don’t want to participate in trafficking,” Dr. Freeman said. “So making it clear that someone is being trafficked would certainly not be good from a trafficker’s standpoint.”

Commercial sex is illegal in the United States, making the sex trade and commercial sex sites particularly underground. Because of the already seedy nature of these sites, it’s nearly impossible for solicitors to know if they’re paying for sex with someone who wants to be in sex work or a human trafficking victim.

“If you’re paying someone for sex, unfortunately, there are no indicators that you can look at and know that someone is probably not being trafficked or that someone is,” Dr. Bott said. “You’re making the decision to play with fire. Even though you may never know for sure, you could be contributing to the trafficking of an individual.”

Detail of woman without freedom, hope and future
It’s often difficult to tell if a sex worker online is working voluntarily.

While a small percentage of the population pays for sex, 58% of Americans have watched pornography at some point in their lives. Despite their prevalence, pornography sites also struggle to verify that the actors in their videos are, in fact, participating voluntarily. Certain sites dedicated to “ethical pornography” attempt to regulate their own videos, but it’s still difficult to guarantee that content has been created voluntarily on the majority of sites.

Sites with monetized live-streaming capabilities blur the boundaries between pornography and commercial sex, offering consumers the ability to potentially dictate the sexual behavior they see online. But they’re often unaware of what’s happening on the other side of the screen. They have no way of knowing if the sex worker they view is doing so voluntarily or under coercion from someone off-camera.

“Even though there’s not always physical contact for these meetings anymore, things like streaming platforms where people can go on pay for content creates a new marketplace for people to exploit other individuals,” Dr. Freeman said.

Stay Vigilant on Dating Sites

Drs. Freeman and Bott focus their research on commercial sex ads, but they still believe there is some trafficking taking place on dating sites online. Whether it’s people asking for payment before a meeting or showing pornographic images on their profiles, an allusion to commercial sex on a dating site is a warning for illegal and potentially abusive behavior. If you see profiles for sex work on a dating site, you should block them and report the profile to the site.

In addition to finding advertisements for commercial sex on dating sites, daters run the occasional risk of encountering traffickers on dating sites themselves. There’s no clear evidence that they’re more likely to run into this on dating sites than in person, but it’s important to be aware of the possibility.

Drunk aggressive husband and his scared wife
Trafficking victims often have a relationship with their abuser that grows more controlling over time.

Like trafficking that happens in person, trafficking on dating sites often involves traffickers preying on the vulnerability they see in people. Whether they suspect you’re dangerously lonely or in dire need of money, they may offer you resources or support that seem too good to be true. Trust your gut if it tells you that something is off about the arrangement.

Traffickers trying to gain victims through the internet may try to get leverage. “It often feels too good to be true, and it’s going very fast,” Dr. Bott said. “Then they’ll get naked photos of the victim and say they’ll send these to all of your friends or post them online unless you do what they say. And then it starts to be a progression.” If someone you’ve never met asks you for pictures of yourself, take that as a warning sign.

Law Enforcement Wages an Uphill Battle Against Trafficking

The STANDD Initiative helps law enforcement track, locate, and understand sex trafficking networks in their jurisdiction. While they uncover plenty of information about traffickers at large, shutting them down is difficult. After one site is shut down by law enforcement, traffickers often find somewhere new to go.

Johns who frequent these sites also make poor witnesses. Paying for sex is illegal, so they’re often hesitant to contact law enforcement with suspicions of abuse. Scams are prolific on commercial sex sites but often go unreported for the same reason.

Despite the illegality of commercial sex making it harder to track down witnesses, Drs. Freeman and Bott said they believe it fosters a greater spirit of collaboration between nonprofits, academics, and law enforcement agencies, who work well together to stop the sex trade.

“There’s a spirit of cooperation here that would probably go away if these sites were legal,” Dr. Bott said. “When prostitution is legalized, it makes it more difficult to find trafficking.” This makes conducting research in places like the Netherlands trickier for researchers than in the United States.

Shot of a sad young woman sitting at a police station with a young policeman
Law enforcement works with advocacy groups to help victims of trafficking who may face incarceration if they come forward.

Many people who are being trafficked don’t even realize it’s happening until after the fact. Their abuser may manipulate them into having sex with other people, potentially even convincing them that it’s their idea. Even if they feel uncomfortable about what happened, they may blame themselves and avoid seeking legal recourse.

“Oftentimes, an arrest will happen for a potential sex victim, but mostly so that they can get help from the charges to either reduce or vacate,” Dr. Freeman said. “It’s so they can get help. I’d like to see a push in law enforcement to be able to find victims and help them come forward.”

Even though commercial sex is illegal, most people in law enforcement want to protect victims. If you are a victim of sex trafficking or know someone who is, please contact the nearest police department and know that law enforcement wants to support you.