By Petr Svab ~ The Epoch Times ~ May 23, 2019
The reports of missing persons, and missing children in particular, decreased in 2018, reaching levels unseen since the beginning of available FBI data.
Nearly 613,000 Americans were reported missing in 2018, more than 424,000 of them under the age of 18. That’s a drop of almost 6 and 9 percent respectively from the year prior and the lowest shown in available records going as far back as 1990.
The numbers had dropped precipitously from the high of more than 980,000 reported missing in 1997 to less than 628,000 in 2013, but then started to pick up again—until the drop in 2018.
It’s not clear what exactly is behind the latest decrease.
Part of the long-term downward trend may have to do with technology, said Robert Lowery, vice president for the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Most of the missing children are runaways between 13 and 17, he said in a phone interview. “A lot of these children now have, frankly, cellphones or smartphones. They’re also using social media. … The point being that parents are able to find their children themselves much quicker than they had been, before they have to engage law enforcement.”
Law enforcement techniques to locate missing children have also improved, he said.
But that doesn’t quite explain the sudden drop in 2018. Smartphones and social media have been popular among youth for more than a decade and there seems to be no indication that law enforcement techniques made a sudden advance in 2018.
“It may have been an anomaly,” Lowery said. “We’re going to continue to watch the trend.”
Link to Trafficking
While most missing persons are found, runaway children are vulnerable to exploitation, particularly sex trafficking.
“Traffickers, as well as buyers, strategically prey upon runaway children because of their mental, physical, and financial vulnerability,” according to the 2009 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children (pdf).
“The stark reality is that the supply is never-ending … I mean, that little girl who started as a runaway on the streets in Washington state and ended up on the streets of Miami Beach as a prostitute is way too typical,” said Andrew Oosterbaan, then-chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, according to the report. “There is an endless supply—and it is almost surreal to have these words leave my mouth—endless supply of victims. But that’s the stark reality.”
“The victims view running away as a way to escape an environment that they cannot control,” the report said. “It is not a coincidence that the average age of a runaway falls squarely within the age range a child is recruited into prostitution, as the victimized child who flees from home often lands straight in the welcoming arms of a trafficker posing as protector and caretaker.”
The most at-risk group are runaways from the social services system, such as foster care, group homes, or government facilities, Lowery said.
Trump Cracks Down
President Donald Trump has put a major emphasis on fighting human trafficking during the past two years. In February 2018, he signed an executive order to dismantle transnational criminal organizations that traffic and exploit people.
In April 2018, Trump signed into law the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA-FOSTA, that stopped the shielding of website operators from state criminal charges or civil liability if they facilitate sex ads or prostitution. Just days later, sex-trafficking website Backpage.com was taken down by the FBI.
Subsequently, the demand for online sex trafficking has dropped as the operators of smaller sites struggle to stay afloat, according to a report by a counter-human trafficking technology company.
Demand for online sex-trafficking has dropped as the operators of smaller sites struggle to stay afloat, following the shutdown of the largest human-trafficking portal in the United States, according to a new report shared with The Epoch Times by a counter-human trafficking technology company.
In April 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA-FOSTA, that stopped the shielding of website operators from state criminal charges or civil liability if they facilitate sex ads or prostitution. Just days later, sex-trafficking website Backpage.com was taken down by the FBI.
The report by Childsafe.AI—the world’s first artificial intelligence platform for monitoring, graphing, and modeling child-exploitation risk on the web—details how the twin acts “dramatically changed” the sex-trafficking online marketplace, specifically the distribution layer that served the underground commercial sex economy.
Now, a year later, the report explains how the industry has since been fragmented across dozens of websites, all competing fiercely for market share. No single dominant site emerged in the past year as the popularity of the online economy “remains volatile and shifts quickly.”
One key finding from the report—that’s prepared for use by law enforcement agencies across the United States—was that web traffic to advertising websites selling sex drew only 5 to 8 percent of the total unique visitors of Backpage drew at its height in 2016.
Childsafe.AI’s CEO, Rob Spectre, told The Epoch Times in a phone interview that the underground marketplace is now more like the “the Wild West” rather than a “high-quality, well-groomed advertising channel.”
“What we are seeing overall is an evident drop in demand… a number of these operators are struggling to continue operating their services,” he said. “There is also a significant influx of scam advertising.”
These sites are also fiercely competing with each other in surprising ways, Spectre said. He described how they are actively engaging with each other in disinformation campaigns.
“One website will claim that another website is working with the police, obviously not true. The other website will react, saying that the other website is completely hacked they are going to steal all your personal information,” he said. “It’s pretty wild.”
After Backpage.com was shut down, a number of other popular sites at the time also closed down or discontinued their activities. As a consequence, the search volume for sex in the underground commercial sex economy dropped 90 percent in the months following April 2018, the report found.
Nearly three-quarters of the cases submitted to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children relate to ads posted on Backpage.com.
“Backpage had a monopoly. A lot of people called them the Google of commercial sex ads, I think it’s more like the Google and Facebook of commercial sex,” Spectre said. “They had a stranglehold on the entire market.”
Spectre said that the current sites are mostly run by small-time operators.
Since October, eight out of nine of the most popular advertising websites aside from Backpage.com “demonstrated either flat or declining growth,” the report said.
“They all seem to have a popularity that is only regional at best,” he said. “There will be three or four websites that are popular in each metropolitan area, and that’s basically it. So you’ve got a cluster of websites trying to fight for New York, you have a cluster of websites trying to fight for Los Angeles.”
Despite the overall dip, Spectre noted that other demand-oriented online communities known as “hobby boards” and “sugar daddy” sites are showing growth in popularity.
Hobby boards are online forums where buyers can rate and review sexual providers. Users pay a monthly subscription between $20-30 per month for full access to these reviews. Sugar daddy sites, meanwhile, are more of a social-network platform, where the user experience is similar to a dating website that connects men with women under an ongoing financial arrangement.
Spectre also described how payment methods contributed to the decline in demand. He said the new sites are struggling to implement credit card transactions.
“The most critical fact is that they can’t make money like Backpage. They can’t keep the credit cards working the same way,” he said. “All these sites start using PayPal, then they get shut down, then they use Venmo and it gets shut down.”