Human Trafficking in the Era of COVID-19

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the globe, criminals continue finding new and manipulative ways to exploit the crisis. Human trafficking has continued to evolve, creating a new wave of victims and revictimization of those already exploited.1 In addition, convergence of criminality has notably been on the rise as perpetrators look to diversify their illicit revenues by further coercing their trafficking victims. For the financial sector, this means a potential increase in attack vectors that require resources to detect and identify these crimes brought about by evolving criminal enterprises.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Global school closures during the pandemic forced children to stay home, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation. UNESCO reports that during the height of the lockdowns in spring 2020, children in 194 countries were impacted by school closures, equaling 90% of students at all education levels.2 In August 2020, UNICEF issued a report stating that at least 463 million children were not able to access even remote learning during these lockdowns.3 This type of disruption in education and the routine wellbeing of children puts them at greater risk for exploitation.

According to a recent Interpol assessment, there has been an increase in sharing of child exploitation material coupled with the underreporting of child abuse.4 Given lockdowns and more time online, pedophiles and pedophile groups are establishing more peer-to-peer forums as well as collecting and organizing child abuse material.5 Children are also increasingly vulnerable to online enticement, given that they are not in school; are spending increased hours online doing remote learning; often have less adult supervision and distractive challenges at home related to parental stress from unemployment (serious economic worries and focus on urgent job placement), parents who are busy working from home or outside the home, parental illness or hospitalization, and other issues related to COVID-19.6 Children are also away from traditional reporters of child abuse outside the home such as teachers, day care workers, and staff at after-school and community programs.

Cryptocurrency is also being used to fund child exploitation and pay for online content related to sex

Economic challenges facing families further exacerbate child online exploitation, encouraging facilitators and exploiters existing in the home.7 Online enticement can also lead to instances of self-generated sexual images being circulated. Self-generated material is becoming a bigger issue alongside advancements in technology and the prevalence of websites that focus on image sharing.8 In addition, self-generated images occur through coercion and then result in sextortion (i.e., where payment is extorted under the threat of the release of these sexual images and/or forced exchange of sexual images ultimately leading to human trafficking). Abusers are also accessing and luring children into conversations via platforms that are not secure and allow children to reach forums in the dark web.9

Reports of online exploitation (images and videos) to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children doubled in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.10 Online enticement also escalated in 202011 and Europol has reported the rise of online child sex abuse in the European Union.12 However, this surge in reported incidences―combined with the adverse effects of pandemic-related countermeasures like lockdowns and work from home orders―have strained the efforts of those tasked with mitigating associated risks. One United Kingdom nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Internet Watch Foundation, reported that their removal of child abuse material off the internet decreased by 89% during the first month of the spring lockdown.13 The NGO could not remove the material at their usual rate due to capacity issues that analysts are experiencing because of social distancing and other pandemic-related challenges.

The Continued Rise of Cryptocurrency

Compounding the challenge of human trafficking is the rise in popularity, as well as price, of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Bitcoin, along with many other cryptocurrencies, rose in price exponentially throughout 2020. Unfortunately, this virtual gold rush brought a lot more users and thus more risks.14 In April 2020, the FBI released a statement that they expect more cryptocurrency-related schemes that target all demographics as a result of COVID-19.15 In addition to fraud, cryptocurrency is also being used to fund child exploitation and pay for online content related to sex, whether it be advertising or material that is both legal and illegal.16 For example, Pornhub―under pressure for not taking a tough enough stand against child exploitation from multiple outlets―moved to only accept cryptocurrency after being cut off by major credit card companies.17 As stated above, this rise in usage parallels that of the internet itself; increased user growth comes with increased risks, particularly for human trafficking and modern slavery given the prevalence of the role the internet now plays in its facilitation.

Exploiting COVID-19 Relief Programs

As legitimate businesses have pivoted to offset the impact of COVID-19, illegitimate businesses have followed suit via an increase in convergence on criminality

Criminals, potentially including those involved in human trafficking, are also exploiting pandemic relief programs. As legitimate businesses have pivoted to offset the impact of COVID-19, illegitimate businesses have followed suit via an increase in convergence on criminality.18 According to CBS8, “Law enforcement officials and security consultants emphasize potential links between unemployment fraud and organized rings looking to bankroll serious crimes like human trafficking, drug dealing or gun smuggling.”19 In addition, FinCEN released a supplemental advisory on human trafficking citing that “the effects of the pandemic may also impact the typologies and red flag indicators” since victims are not traveling and are not around any potentially intervening outside support.20

How the Financial Sector Is Addressing the Rise in Pandemic-Induced Criminality

The pandemic has been identified by many to have caused an increase in online criminality, from ransomware attacks to defrauding government assistance programs. Crimes associated with modern slavery, such as human trafficking and online child exploitation, have not been spared from this uptick in activity. As a result, many FIs have rallied to collaborate both through historic working groups as well as new ones. In addition, there have been several forums held over the past year (virtually, of course) by international organizations, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science to address these issues. Not to mention the role civil society has played in raising awareness and intelligence as well, of which ACAMS is a noteworthy participant. Lastly, NGOs have acted as significant conveners in bringing together FIs to discuss mitigation and identification best practices specifically on financial flows tied to trafficking and exploitation.

An emerging focus in 2020 was financial flows connected to online child exploitation, with several organizations, such as Europol and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), publishing financial red flag indicators. In 2019, through the efforts of multiple U.S. government stakeholders and partners, the suspected operator of the biggest child sexual exploitation marketplace in the world was indicted and arrested. This effort resulted in the “rescue of over 20 child victims and the seizure of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin,” according to the October 2020 report of the U.S. Attorney General’s Cyber-Digital Task Force.21 Key interagency partnership efforts like this are even more critical now in the COVID-19 age.

It is now more important than ever for forums and interdisciplinary collaboration within the financial sector (combined with other outside expert stakeholders) to occur. As the pandemic continues to rage across the globe with new strains and emerging complications, human trafficking evolves with it. Financial industry professionals must work with other actors to understand the crime better and adjust typologies and indicators as needed. In order to stay ahead of illicit actors and the virus that has wreaked devastation on public health, economies, education and overall wellbeing, the anti-human trafficking field must remain vigilant, flexible and collective. 

Christina Bain, visiting researcher, Center for the Study of Europe, Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, cbain@bu.edu

Joseph Mari, director, Financial Intelligence Unit and External Partnerships, Scotiabank, joseph.mari@scotiabank.com joseph.mari@scotiabank.com

  1. Christina Bain and Louise Shelley, “The Evolution of Human Trafficking During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Council on Foreign Relations , August 13, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/blog/evolution-human-trafficking-during-covid-19-pandemic
  2. “Education: From disruption to recovery,” UNESCO , 2020, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse
  3. Georgina Thompson, “COVID-19: At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren unable to access remote learning during school closures, new report says,” UNICEF, August 26, 2020, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/covid-19-least-third-worlds-schoolchildren-unable-access-remote-learning-during
  4. “INTERPOL report highlights impact of COVID-19 on child sexual abuse,” INTERPOL, September 7, 2020, https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/INTERPOL-report-highlights-impact-of-COVID-19-on-child-sexual-abuse
  5. “The Effect of COVID-19: Five Impacts on Human Trafficking,” Tech Against Trafficking, 2020, https://techagainsttrafficking.org/the-effect-of-covid-19-five-impacts-on-human-trafficking/
  6. Livia Wagner and Thi Hoang, “AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES: How coronavirus impacts human trafficking,” Global Initiative , May 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Aggravating-circumstances-How-coronavirus-impacts-human-trafficking-GITOC-1.pdf
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Self-Generated Child Sexual Abuse Material: Attitudes and Experiences,” Thorn and Benson Strategy Group, February 2020, https://www.end-violence.org/knowledge/self-generated-child-sexual-abuse-material-attitudes-and-experiences
  9. “Online child sex abuse rises with COVID-19 lockdowns: Europol,” Reuters, May 18, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-eu-crime/online-child-sex-abuse-rises-with-covid-19-lockdowns-europol-idUSKBN22U1XK
  10. Dustin Racioppi, “’People don’t want to talk about it,’ but reports of kids being exploited online have spiked amid coronavirus pandemic,” USA Today, October 26, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/10/22/coronavirus-child-abuse-nj-online-child-exploitation-reports-increase/6004205002/
  11. Brenda O’Donnell, “COVID-19 and Missing & Exploited Children,” National Center for Missing and Exploited Children , July 16, 2020, https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2020/covid-19-and-missing-and-exploited-children
  12. “EXPLOITING ISOLATION: SEXUAL PREDATORS INCREASINGLY TARGETING CHILDREN DURING COVID PANDEMIC,” EUROPOL , June 19, 2020, https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/exploiting-isolation-sexual-predators-increasingly-targeting-children-during-covid-pandemic
  13. Louise Donovan and Corinne Redfern, “Online child abuse flourishes as investigators struggle with workload during pandemic,” Telegraph, April 27, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/online-child-exploitation-flourishes-investigators-struggle/
  14. “FBI Expects a Rise in Scams Involving Cryptocurrency Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” FBI, April 13, 2020, www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-expects-a-rise-in-scams-involving-cryptocurrency-related-to-the-covid-19-pandemic
  15. Ibid.
  16. “Supplemental Advisory on Identifying and Reporting Human Trafficking and Related Activity,” Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, October 15, 2020, https://www.fincen.gov/sites/default/files/advisory/2020-10-15/Advisory%20Human%20Trafficking%20508%20FINAL_0.pdf
  17. Jason Nelson, “Pornhub: Now Accepting Crypto Only,” Decrypt, December 14, 2020,
  18. Christopher Johnson, “How are human traffickers taking advantage of the pandemic?” Reuters, October 17, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-trafficking-expertview/how-are-human-traffickers-taking-advantage-of-the-pandemic-idUSKBN27300T
  19. Auren Helper and Stephen Council,“Who will pay for all of California’s unemployment fraud?” CBS8, https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/local/california/californias-unemployment-fraud/509-e65f1322-05eb-4968-b037-3df780deeed6
  20. “FinCEN Asks Financial Institutions to Stay Alert to COVID-19 Vaccine-Related Scams and Cyberattacks,” Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, December 28, 2020, https://www.fincen.gov/sites/default/files/shared/COVID-19%20Vaccine%20Notice%20508.pdf
  21. “Report of the Attorney General’s Cyber Digital Task Force,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 2020, https://www.justice.gov/ag/page/file/1326061/download

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