CHISNAU, Moldova — Data shows the fight to protect the vulnerable is moving online. In Part III of our series “Protection Crisis” we travel to the capital of Moldova where police are adapting to an influx of Ukrainian refugees.
To help train law enforcement in the latest human trafficking techniques Interpol brings in a handful of detectives from the U.S., including Det. Joseph Scaramucci from the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office.
Human Trafficking Online
Now, anti-trafficking organizations are warning of another shift – traffickers moving online.
According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), many Ukrainians are using social media for help, and they’re exposing important information about themselves in the process.
According to the Associated Press, Polish Police arrested a man and charged him with assaulting a 19 year-old Ukrainian woman he lured over the internet.
In Norway, police charged another man with raping a 17-year-old refugee who was lured through social media.
Google Trends reveals another disturbing pattern. Online searches for terms like “Ukrainian porn” spiked, across multiple languages and multiple countries, shortly after the conflict began.
According to OSCE, “This data confirms a spiking demand for sexual access to Ukrainian women, and this demand will serve as a strong incentive for traffickers to recruit and exploit Ukrainian women at scale.”
Dr. Kerry Burkley with the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition, explains the role demand plays in human trafficking and the difference we can make from half a world away:
“One thing many people don’t understand is that when we see the demand happening that there are clients that are being traumatized in the background,” explains Dr. Burkley. “It has an impact globally.”
Law Enforcement Responds
To learn how local law enforcement is responding, we traveled to Chisnau, the capital of Moldova.
Despite being one of the smallest, poorest countries in Europe, Moldova has accepted more than 86,000 refugees – the highest number per capita.
Det. Joseph Scaramucci with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office and Kevin Metcalf with the National Child Protection Task Force are part of a team brought in by Interpol to help train local law enforcement.
“It’s very humbling. I think it's evidence that the methodology that we came up with and the ways that we view and treat victims can really be scaled out,” said Det. Scaramucci.
Surveying the Landscape
To get a better understanding of human trafficking in Moldova the detectives teamed up to survey the landscape.
First they traveled to the city’s main train station. For many refugees this would be their first stop out of Ukraine. Det. Scaramucci says when it comes to identifying traffickers the important thing is teaching law enforcement the signs to look for.
“We have to start looking at what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. If somebody is just hanging out, are they smoking a cigarette and going back to work – or are they looking for people coming off the trains?”
Back at the hotel, the detectives continued their research online. In a matter of minutes they identified illegal drugs, guns, and a local brothel.
“It has to be easy because that’s what the market is, right? If you’re a tourist and you’re looking for paid sex you’d have to know where to go,” explained Det. Scaramucci.
In searching online, Det. Scaramucci believes he also may have identified a victim of human trafficking.
“The interesting thing with this particular female is that she's posting sex ads here (in Moldova). She says that she's Ukrainian and she has a Turkish phone number. So we have at least a link to three different countries just on her alone.
It really just starts lending credibility to the fact that this is potentially and likely trafficking versus, you know, somebody doing this on their own.”
Det. Scaramucci says that’s another key aspect of his training – helping law enforcement discern the difference between criminals and victims.
“I want to see that light bulb click that, hey, this is possible. It is possible that this person isn't a criminal.
And to be able to use thorough investigations that are supported by data and intelligence to say, `I know you're a trafficking victim,’ even if you tell me you're not.”
Investigating Traffickers Online
To show the effectiveness of their online techniques, Kevin Metcalf offered to do a quick investigation of 25 News Anchor, Breanna Molloy.
Within five minutes Metcalf was able to find her social media account, emails, and leaked passwords – and link them with her friends network.
Metcalf says he’s unsure whether any local police departments are currently using these investigation techniques to track human traffickers preying on Ukrainian refugees, but they’re working towards that.
“Pretty soon they're going to know people are out here looking, they're digging, they're identifying them, and it's not going to be as easy anymore. You know, once we get this up, we're coming for them.”