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The Hidden Risks of Online Dating: Potential Gateway to Sex-Trafficking

Author: Pinki Moni Dutta

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Introduction (1,2)

In this digital age, finding love online is more convenient and accessible for many people. According to Statista, there are 57.44 million people in the United States who used online dating services to find love (1). However, while online dating sites are viable options to find and form relationships, they also pose serious risks. One of the dangers of online dating is ‘human sex-trafficking’ where traffickers use fake profiles to lure their victims and exploit them for sexual acts. The FBI raises public awareness by warning of potential threats from online dating apps that human traffickers frequently utilize(2). In this article you will learn what trafficking is, warning signs to be aware of, and ways one can protect themselves from falling prey to traffickers. 



What is human trafficking? (3,4,5,6)


The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, to exploit them for profit” (3). Exploitation includes labor, slavery, and other forms of exploitation by use of force, coercion against the victim’s will (4). There are various forms of human trafficking, learn more about them here.  The National Human Trafficking Hotline (Operated by Polaris),collected data, between 2015 to 2018, that results estimates that more than 969 people have been victims of sex trafficking through online recruitment(5). Most importantly, victims often do not recognize that they have been trafficked or are victims of human trafficking right away. The Polaris Project lists some examples of human trafficking on their website (6).



How trafficking occurs through online dating(7,8,5)


Traffickers misuse online dating platforms by creating false identities and posing themselves as the most perfect partner behind the privacy of online profiles, making it an effective way to find vulnerable individuals. The FBI, Polaris Project, and the UN news list the range of tactics employed by traffickers in online relationships to coerce their victims (see sources 7,8, and 5). Below are the tactics used by the traffickers to exploit and control their victims. 


  1. Recruitment: Criminals create attractive profiles and build trust with their victims. They often find out about their victims through their online profiles, by investigating their weak points. The vulnerable individuals are often those who look for emotional and financial support and post about their private lives online(9). Once they find out the victim’s emotional needs, they use psychological tactics often known as the ‘boyfriend’ technique to manipulate their potential victims (see sources 5 and 10). 

  2. Grooming: Over time, the traffickers build trust and affection with their victims and try manipulating the victims into giving their personal information which can be used to leverage them in the future.   

  3. Isolation: Through time, the traffickers try to isolate the victims from their close family and friends; establishing the victim's sole dependency on the traffickers. This is a crucial part of trafficker's tactics for the victims consider everyone else to be their enemy and think that their partner is the only person to rely upon for care and support. 

  4. Exploitation: This is the stage where the trafficker makes their last move by arranging in-person meetings which leads to abduction or trafficking. They would fill the victim’s mind with a fairy tale dream of living together somewhere abroad or very far away distancing them from their family. The victim then finds themselves living an abusive and demanding life where they are forced into labor or sexual acts. In this stage, the victim can find little to no way out of their situation as they find themselves trapped in a relentless cycle of psychological and physical threats by their abusers (10). Read this story recounted by a survivor who informs the public about what traffickers do and how we can recognize the warning signs (11).  

Signs to be aware of while dating online (12 )


  1. Rapid intimacy in love: The most obvious red flag is when a partner professes love too quickly or wants to move the relationship to the next level by expressing strong emotions faster than normal. 

  2. Inconsistent information: The partner in question is always reluctant to answer personal questions directly or there will be discrepancies with their information. They usually provide unclear details about their life or background which questions their authenticity. 

  3. Avoidance of video calls or face-to-face meetings: To hide their true identity, criminals would typically delay or avoid face-to-face meetings. If any of these are the case in an online relationship then it is best to take caution.



Preventative measures in online dating (13, 14, 15) 


  1. Limit sharing personal and private information online: The traffickers are adept at manipulation. They use the victim’s vulnerabilities that are share publicly in their search to find like-minded people. Traffickers will exploit these vulnerabilities to trick them into falling for the web of lies and emotional support. 

  2. Run a background check: Background checks can be a good idea to verify and learn more about a person you have just met online. Where possible, conduct an online search for additional information about the person you are dating online and have not yet met in person. The USA public sex offender database is a helpful resource to find out about the person you are dating, especially when you are moving abroad to meet your online partner (14).

  3. Meet safely: Always meet your partner in public places-especially when it is the first meeting. Inform your whereabouts to your friends or family when going to meet a person in real life. 

  4. Trust your instincts: Trust your gut and take a step back if something doesn’t feel right about the person that you met online. Cut off any communications and take necessary precautions when you have a lot of doubts about someone's intentions and legitimacy. 





It is always good practice to be cautious while dating online. Educating yourself and others, recognizing the warning signs, and taking timely action can save both your own or someone else's life. If you see someone in such a questionable situation or relationship, warn them of the dangers and prevent them from becoming victims. Call the national human trafficking hotline in the U.S. or report to the local authorities or law enforcement if you see suspicious activities. (See source 2 to find out more about where to report).





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