University of Southern California USC

The Rise of Mobile Phones in Human Trafficking

Based on the evidence gathered in the previous section, a key finding of this report is that mobile phones play a central role in facilitating potential cases of DMST. Online advertisements for potential DMST victims commonly contain a mobile phone contact number. Logistical information such as time, place, pricing, and types of services are communicated through phone calls or text messages on mobile phones. As an increasing number of websites develop mobile applications, posting of advertisements can be done primarily via mobile phone, as can viewing and responding to these advertisements.

Because the social actors involved in trafficking can use mobile phones to communicate, coordinate, organize, advertise, etc., the information transmitted across mobile networks could serve multiple evidentiary and investigatory purposes. The widespread use of mobile phones can also be utilized for social outreach and interventions.

Scant research or policy attention to date has focused on the issue of mobile phone use in DMST. The intersection of mobility, digital technologies, and minor sex trafficking brings new challenges and opportunities that require careful research and analysis.

For example, technology-facilitated sex trafficking networks often rely upon the anonymity or contrived identities of victims and traffickers in order to operate.[1] According to Samantha Doerr, public affairs manager at Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit:

“Child sex trafficking is simply a very different problem than other technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation … We need to look at the methods and language used for advertising—how johns go about searching, the use of mobile phones in child sex trafficking, and how a transaction is coordinated.”[2]

Although the field of technology forensics is exploring ways to disrupt human trafficking online by using trace data to identify perpetrators, mobile technology is already shifting the spaces from which we can collect those traces.

Pre-paid Mobile Phones

In the course of this research, the role of pre-paid, no-contact, and disposable mobile phones has surfaced as a growing phenomenon. In the analysis above of phone numbers over three months for a popular adult online classified site in Los Angeles, 19.1% of all numbers were from MetroPCS – a major pre-paid mobile phone carrier. This percentage is dramatically greater 3.4% national market share of MetroPCS. According to a local law enforcement officer interviewed, “the existence of multiple phones is not uncommon” in sex trafficking operations.[3] The officer goes on to explain that both contract phones and disposable phones are used by traffickers; a recent arrest of a trafficker involved in DMST turned up four “burners”[4] and one personal phone.[5]

Pre-paid, pay-as-you-go, and disposable phones are cellular phones purchased without a long-term contract and with service and features paid for up-front. This differs from the traditional billing arrangement, whereby subscribers enter into contracts with mobile network operators and are billed monthly for their usage.[6] These post-paid mobile contracts are normally tied to individual cellular phone serial numbers.[7] The contract involved with the post-paid billing method might make this arrangement undesirable or unavailable to some potential users. Those without established credit, for example, may be unable to purchase a mobile phone or phone service.[8] In addition, consumers may only wish to use a cellular phone for a limited period of time, without “incur[ring] the monthly costs for the usage and service.”[9]

Because pre-paid mobile phones and services do not require a contract, personal identification, or credit check for purchase, they have been described as “one of the last remaining anonymous communication tools.”[10] As with all technologies, the implications are both positive and negative. Potential anonymity makes disposable phones a potential tool for criminal activity.[11] At the same time, prepaid mobile phones allow access to marginalized groups, such as migrant workers and political dissidents. For others, it simply makes more economic sense to employ a means of communication that is not dependent upon the contractual obligations of a post-paid mobile phone. Thus pre-paid mobile phone technologies are certainly not a cause for concern in and of themselves.

Nevertheless, several states have introduced bills that would require registration of pre-paid phones and identification at time of purchase, though none have been passed into law.[12] In 2010, Senate Bill 342—the “Pre-Paid Mobile Device Identification Act”—was introduced to implement an identification requirement for the purchase of pre-paid mobile phones, but no further action has been taken on the bill.[13] Critics have suggested that such a law would violate consumers’ rights to privacy and other civil liberties, would place unreasonable burdens on retailers, and would not be effective in reducing crime.[14] Registration of pre-paid phones is already required in some countries, including Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, and Thailand.[15]

In a recent case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the court held that the defendant had no “reasonable expectation of privacy in the data emanating from his [pay-as-you-go] cell phone that showed its location.”[16] The defendant, a “courier in a large-scale drug-trafficking operation,” challenged law enforcement agents’ tracking of his cell phone to locate the defendant, arguing that it constituted a “warrantless search that violated the Fourth Amendment.”[17] In finding that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights had not been violated, the court explained, “if a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track that signal. The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools.”[18] This decision calls into question the privacy protection associated with pre-paid devices.

Given the potential of disposable mobile phones to facilitate human trafficking and need to balance regulatory and privacy concerns, further research in this area is advised.

The Role of Mobile Carriers

Mobile carriers could take the initiative in counter-trafficking efforts.

In the United States, the four major mobile carriers are Verizon (94.2 million subscribers[19]), AT&T (98 million subscribers[20]), Sprint (55 million subscribers[21]), and T-Mobile (34 million subscribers[22]). As of the writing of this report, researchers could not find any publicized program through any of these major providers that specifically targets human trafficking.

As an example from a potentially analogous issue, in October 2002, Verizon implemented a nationwide domestic violence support service called #HOPE. Users can dial #HOPE from any Verizon phone and receive confidential crisis intervention and support via a toll-free, airtime-free call.[23] In August 2012, Verizon also launched a HopeLine application for Android smartphones and tablets aimed at providing quick resources to victims as well as raising awareness about domestic violence in the United States.[24]

While we would like to see mobile carrier-based interventions expanded for counter-trafficking innovations, the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy advocates for a careful, research-based approach to any technological interventions in human trafficking. Some lessons might be learned from recent anti-trafficking initiatives in Ukraine and Haiti that were spearheaded by mobile carriers in coordination with NGOs. These international examples were selected to demonstrate the potential for innovative cross-sector initiatives.

Cross-Sector Collaboration in Mobile Anti-trafficking: Ukraine

Ukraine is a major source country for internationally trafficked persons; in the last decade, an estimated 420,000 persons have been trafficked across its borders.[25] Furthermore, Ukraine has an estimated 200,000 domestically trafficked persons.[26] In 2007, Ukrainian wireless providers implemented an anti-trafficking program.[27] The three major phone service providers (KyivStar GSM, UMC, and Astelit) partnered with the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) mission to address the issue of trafficking in the country.

As a first step, the partners created a toll-free anti-trafficking phone number—527—through which callers can receive information about dangers that migrants could face outside of Ukraine.

Mobile providers route all calls to this number to the IOM migration and counter-trafficking toll-free helpline. (At this point, the program covers voice calls but not text messages.) According to Kateryna Ardanyan, an IOM counter-trafficking specialist in Ukraine, since the inception of the partnership in April 2007, more than 73,000 consultations have been provided to callers.[28] Furthermore, the helpline is advertised in information campaigns targeting potential migrants. IOM regional partners, including NGOs, also advertise the helpline in their awareness-raising campaigns. When users call in, helpline personnel record detailed statistics, including which region they are calling from, type of locality they reside in, age, employment status, citizenship, and other demographic information. Ardanyan says that 53% of users are female. A majority of callers, 41%, are 26 to 35 years old; 28% are 18 to 25 years old; 28% are 36 to 50 years old; less than 1% are under 18 years old; and the rest are older than 50 years old.[29]

Helpline personnel also track the content of the requests. Most of the callers were identified as victims of trafficking and were referred to relevant agencies for assistance. Other inquires came from those seeking to work abroad. Many callers asked about intermediaries who could assist them in finding a job abroad or possible fraud involved in using an intermediary.

According to Ardanyan, the major issue facing the program is securing funding to allow the national NGO to maintain the helpline: “As the funding from international aid agencies expires, this matter becomes crucial and a priority for continuing the hotline’s operation.”[30]

Cross-Sector Collaboration in Mobile Anti-trafficking: Haiti

The 2010 Haitian earthquake displaced thousands of individuals into overcrowded and poorly regulated camps, where violence against women and children proliferated.[31] Mobile phone service was one of the first infrastructures back up and running, thus mobile phones played an important role in technological innovations for post-disaster efforts.[32] Survivors Connect, a U.S.-based nonprofit, partnered with the NGO Fondation Espoir and Digicel, the largest cell provider in the Caribbean[33] to establish a phone number for individuals to report violence against women and children.[34]

The partnership that emerged between these three entities was intended to compensate for the absence of a centralized system for recording cases of violence. Victims, camp managers, and others can send a text to the Digicel phone number (#3803-0303) to report incidents of violence. Users can also submit reports via Twitter and send email to an application called Frontline SMS. This information is then routed to Survivors Connect, which maps the cases of violence across Haiti using a program created by Ushahidi,[35] a nonprofit technology company that specializes in developing free and open-source software for information collection, visualization, and interactive mapping.[36] The texting service and reports generated by Survivors Connect measure the magnitude of violence, track the epicenters of violent activities, and encourage reporting. Responses to reported cases are divided across Survivor Connect’s referral network of professionals.[37]

The collaboration between Digicel and Survivors Connect stemmed from the rates of bulk SMS messaging offered by Digicel and its widespread use in Haiti. Both organizations cover text messaging and voice calls, while the mobile provider covers the hotline. Survivors Connect prepays the messaging service so that incoming messages are free for the sender. According to Aashika Damodar, founder and CEO of Survivors Connect, the number of users of both the hotline and messaging service varies from month to month but is generally in the hundreds, with reported cases encompassing both urgent and non-urgent issues.

Challenges for implementing this service can provide lessons for cross-sector collaboration in the U.S. and elsewhere. According to Damodar, issues in implementation included improving the technology behind the project, such as having adequate cell towers to produce strong signals in certain areas. Literacy also posed a challenge, so the SMS messaging service has had limited use.[38] Survivors Connect initially developed a data map to geographically visualize problem areas; however, the map is no longer being updated. Manpower is essential, especially in the infancy stages of such projects. Currently the call data is being used for awareness and training purposes for other organizations and government institutions, as well as for legislative advocacy on women’s rights.[39]



[1]               Kunze, E. I. (2010). “Sex Trafficking Via the Internet: How international agreements address the problem and fail to go far enough,” Journal of High Technology, X(2), 241–89. p. 242.

[2]               Microsoft News Center (July 18, 2012) Shedding Light on the Role of Technology in Child Sex Trafficking. Retrieved August 16, 2012, from www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/features/2012/jul12/07-18childsextraffickingresearch.aspx.

[3]               Musto. Personal communication, June 27, 2012.

[4]               The term “burners” is slang for disposable phone; you can use it for illicit business and then “burn” it—or otherwise destroy it—to get rid of incriminating evidence. The absence of contracts and the low prices of disposable phones make “burning” them feasible.

[5]               Musto. Personal communication, June 27, 2012.

[6]               United States patent: 4826185 (October 20, 1998). Retrieved from patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect2=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=/netahtml/PTO/search-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&d=PALL&RefSrch=yes&Query=PN/5826185.

[7]               Ibid.

[8]               Ibid.

[9]               Ibid.

[10]             Wilkinson, K. (June 4, 2012) Congress wants legislation to obtain prepaid cell phone users’ identities, Government Technology. Retrieved from www.govtech.com/public-safety/Congress-Wants-Legislation-to.html.

[11]             Ibid.

[12]             Stankey, B., Frappier, D., & Guyton, B.W. (October 13, 2010) “Prepaid registration: Will U.S. consumers be required to show ID when buying a cell phone?” Davis Wright Tremaine: Advisories. Retrieved from www.dwt.com/advisories/Prepaid_Registration_Will_US_Consumers_Be_Required_to_Show_Photo_ID_When_Buying_a_Cell_Phone_10_13_2010/.

[13]             Bill summary & status – 111th Congress (2009–2010) – S. 3247 – all information. The Library of the Congress. Retrieved from thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:SN03427:@@@L&summ2=m&.

[14]             Glynn, J., Joynes, E., & Sinha, A. (June 5, 2011) “Proposed cell phone registry won’t stop crime, will hurt civil liberties [Petition],” Long Island Wins. Retrieved from longislandwins.com/index.php/features/detail/proposed_cell_phone_registry_wont_stop_crime_will_hurt_civil_liberties.

[15]             US lawmakers target pre-paid cellphone anonymity (May 26, 2010), Phys.org. Retrieved from phys.org/news194098558.html.

[16]             United States of America v. Skinner, 09-6497 (6th Cir., 2012).

[17]             Ibid., 6.

[18]             Ibid., 6–7.

[19]             About Us Facts-at-a-Glance (n.d.) Verizon Wireless. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from aboutus.verizonwireless.com/ata.

[20]             AT&T’s 4Q11 Earnings Highlighted by Strong Mobile Broadband Sales and Cash Flows (n.d.) AT&T. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from www.att.com/gen/press-room?pid=22304&cdvn=news&newsarticleid=.

[21]             Sprint Nextel Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2011 Results (February 8, 2012) Sprint Newsroom. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from newsroom.sprint.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=2179.

[22]             T-Mobile USA Reports First Quarter 2012 Financial Results (May 9, 2012) TmoNews. Retrieved from newsroom.t-mobile.com/articles/t-mobile-reports-first-quarter-2012.

[23]             HopeLine From Verizon (n.d.)Verizon Wireless. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from aboutus.verizonwireless.com/communityservice/Hopeline_PressKit.pdf.

[24]             HopeLine From Verizon Introduces Mobile App For Android Smartphones And Tablets (August 3, 2012) Verizon Wireless. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from news.verizonwireless.com/news/2012/08/pr2012-08-02c.html.

[25]             Ukraine (n.d.) Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from www.catwinternational.org/factb.

[26]             Ibid.

[27]             Mobile telephone operators together with the IOM introduce a free information line against human trafficking (April 21, 2007) khpg.org. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1177105973. See also, “USAID/Ukraine – Special Initiatives Sector – Counter-Trafficking in Persons Project” (February 3, 2012) USAID/Ukraine. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from ukraine.usaid.gov/programs/special-initiatives-en/counter-trafficking-persons-en/usaid-helps-rebuild-lives-en.

[28]             Bissell, A. Personal communication with Ardanyan, K., August 10, 2012.

[29]             Ibid.

[30]             Ibid.

[31]             UN condemned over “appalling” Haiti earthquake camps (October 7, 2010) BBC News. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11491537. See also, Gerntholtz, L. & Rhoad, M. (December 27, 2010) Sexual Violence in Haiti’s Camps, Human Rights Watch. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from www.hrw.org/news/2010/12/17/sexual-violence-haiti-s-camps. See also, Haiti: Sexual violence against women increasing (January 6, 2011) Amnesty International. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/haiti-sexual-violence-against-women-increasing-2011-01-06. See also, Varner, B. (October 7, 2010) Group: Haiti Earthquake Camps Expose Women to Sex Violence, Bloomberg. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-07/haiti-earthquake-camps-expose-women-to-sexual-violence-refugee-group-says.html.

[32]              Bissell. Personal communication with Damodar, A, August 19, 2012.

[33]             O’Brien, D. (n.d.) Opinion Editorial: Private sector crucial in responding to Haitians’ needs, Clinton Global Initiative. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from www.clintonglobalinitiative.org/newsmedia/newsmedia_publications_opinioneditorials_dennisobrien.asp? Section=NewsMedia&PageTitle=Opinion%2.

[34]             Ayiti SMS SOS (n.d.) Survivors Connect. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from survivorsconnect.org/haitismshelpline/page/index/3?l=fr_FR.

[35]             Ibid.

[36]             About Us (n.d.) Ushahidi. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from ushahidi.com/about-us.

[37]             Ayiti SMS SOS (n.d.).

[38]             Ibid.

[39]             Survivors Connect has recently stepped back from the project as the Commission of Women Victims, are reportedly continuing the project and hope to bring together the major mobile networks in Haiti to continue this service.[39]Bissell. Personal communication with Damodar, A., August 19, 2012.