Sex traffickers using social media to prey on victims

Social media has turned into a happy hunting ground for sex traffickers as they can fly under the radar of authorities and prey on unsuspecting minors as well as job-seeking women under the garb of virtual anonymity.

Dozens of young people from Jharkhand and pockets of West Bengal were thrilled when they received lucrative job offers for a south Delhi hotel through WhatsApp.

However, a police investigation revealed that the mass message was sent by traffickers to snare unsuspecting victims and push them into prostitution and forced labour.

A 17-year-old girl from Nagaland was rescued from a neighbouring state's airport as she was about to board a flight to the Capital on a ticket sent to her by a Delhi-based man who befriended her on Facebook. Cops say he planned to dump her in flesh trade.

Social media has turned into a happy hunting ground for sex traffickers as they can fly under the radar of authorities and prey on unsuspecting minors as well as job-seeking women under the garb of virtual anonymity.

20,000 WOMEN, CHILDREN VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING

According to government data, almost 20,000 women and children were victims of trafficking in India in 2016, a rise of nearly 25 per cent from the previous year, with the highest number of cases recorded in West Bengal.

Experts say the syndicates are exploiting the deepening internet and smartphone penetration in rural and remote India. Use of technology has turned traffickers into "ghost criminals" as previously the trade required physical interaction but now they are luring people on the pretext of jobs, money and marriage on mobiles.

Delhi, which is India's biggest transit point for human trafficking, gets thousands of minors and economically deprived people from north-eastern states, Jharkhand, Bengal and Orissa. Most of those trapped are pushed into prostitution, while others are forced to work in factories, shops or as domestic help. A large number of children are sent abroad, especially to Gulf countries.

Experts working in the field of rescuing minors say that a large number of north-eastern girls are tricked into illegal sexual activities at spas, dance bars, while many pulled from Jharkhand and West Bengal are made to work as domestic helps.

INDIA HAS LARGEST POPULATION OF MODERN SLAVES

According to a global survey report, India has the largest population of modern slaves in the world, with more than 18 million people trapped as bonded labourers, forced beggars, sex workers and child soldiers.

The Global Slavery Index by human rights organisation Walk Free Foundation said the number was 1.4 per cent of India's population.

"With the increase in mobile connectivity, cases of human trafficking have shot up drastically in the hills. Earlier, these traffickers used to visit the villages and meet parents to convince them to take their kids to metro cities. But now with Facebook and WhatsApp, we don't know who we are chasing," said Nirnay John Chettri, president of the NGO, Mankind in Action for Rural Growth (MARG).

Experts say rapid urbanisation, gender imbalance resulting from sex-selective abortion practices and migration of large numbers of men into urban centres creates a market for commercial sex.

Chettri says that a whopping 80-90 per cent of girls from the hills are pushed into prostitution as they are "fair" and "high in demand". Many north-eastern girls are also trafficked to foreign countries.

MARG along with some Darjeeling schoolchildren busted an international sex racket from Delhi which was being operated through Facebook.

The operation to nab the traffickers began after MARG received a lead from the NGO Maiti Nepal about a 15-year-old girl, who went missing from a remote village in Sidhupalchowk district of the Himalayan nation. "But later we found that the 'victim' became a trafficker as she was trafficking girls through Facebook," Chettri said.

The girls from Darjeeling also won National Bravery Awards earlier this year. As part of the plan, a fake account was created, and victims befriended the missing girl, who turned out to be a conduit in the trafficking ring. Girls pretended to be Nepalese girls, seeking employment, and asked to meet the ring members at a hotel, somewhere on the Indo-Nepal border. Traffickers offered them ACE Social media has turned into a happy hunting ground for sex traffickers as they can fly under the radar jobs with a salary of `15,000. They would have to work as bar dancers and entertain guests in Delhi. Investigations revealed that a vast number of girls were trafficked from the hills of Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal. Even Delhi Police in last three months have rescued 11 girls from north-eastern states, all of them aged below 18. The girls were lured by traffickers on Facebook.

'ECONOMICALLY BACKWARD AREAS TARGETED'

According to Crime Branch of Delhi police all the traffickers involved are using fake identities as pose themselves to be entrepreneur or global recruiter but in guise are indulge in illegal trade.

Cyber crime expert Kislay Choudhary explains that new technology is economical and more convenient for traffickers. "They buy mobile data and email id for specific region. They specially target areas which are economically backward and lure them on the pretext of job and money. Traffickers are randomly sending messages through WhatsApp using software which enables to send bulk message on encrypted chat service. If anyone replies, they trap them," Choudhary said.

Even the NGO claims that organised traffickers have become high-tech and their entire communication system has moved to WhatsApp.

"Right from home-based brothels to placement agencies, all are using WhatsApp to communicate with their agents and clients. They are avoiding phone-based calls, fearing they would get tracked," said Rakesh Sengar of Satyarthi's NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA).

Sengar highlighted that traffickers are also misusing digital initiative of Prime Minister by making all the payments and transaction through the digital mode.

"Role of placement agencies and spa services should be examined as many of them are indulging in wrong practices in the garb of professional work. We have found many cases where they were pushed for commercial sex," Sengar said.

WEST BENGAL HAS MAXIMUM HUMAN TRAFFICKING CASES

West Bengal topped the list of states with the maximum number of human trafficking cases in 2016 followed by Rajasthan as the two accounted for around 61 per cent of such cases in the country.

Of the 8,132 such cases registered across the country last year, 3,576 were from West Bengal and 1,422 from Rajasthan, government officials said. Rajasthan was followed by Gujarat where 548 such cases were reported last year. Maharashtra reported 517 cases.

Among the Union Territories, Delhi recorded the maximum number of human trafficking cases in 2016. Of the 75 cases registered among the UTs, 66 were registered in Delhi.

Among the northeastern states, the highest-91 cases-were reported in Assam. The state, however, recorded huge improvement since 2014. It had reported 380 cases of human trafficking in 2014 and 1,480 such cases in 2015.