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Tracking Escort Services Across Platforms

This investigation uses ActiveFence’s cross-platform visibility to reveal the organizational structures and the true services provided by online escort services. Download the whitepaper for a more thorough analysis.

Background

While prostitution is illegal in most countries, most states that do permit this activity forbid third-party involvement to protect sex workers from abuse. The United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimated that in 2016 there were 3.8M adult and 1M child victims of forced sexual exploitation worldwide, 99% of those exploited were female. It is estimated that in 2014 forced sexual labor generated $99B worldwide. 

Escorting & Prostitution

Escort services are the provision of company and entertainment to a client in exchange for money or goods with value. In most countries escorting, as opposed to prostitution is legal, as long as the client is not supplied with, nor is offered sexual acts. When sexual acts are included in the sale, the legal division between escorting and prostitution is made. The challenge with this legal distinction is that advertisements for illegal prostitution can easily be disguised within the presentation of legal escort work.

Shelia Jeffreys, of the University of Melbourne explains that, “Escort prostitution, operating through mobile phones and the Internet, is supplanting the brothel as the major form in which prostituted women are delivered to male buyers”. As much escort work is advertised using social media accounts and websites, it is difficult for moderators to understand what is offered (escorting or prostitution) and by whom. The difficulty in understanding the nature of the transaction makes it hard to ascertain whether third party exploitation is occurring. A 2007 research paper prepared for the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security about escorting in the Netherlands, found that escorting has changed in nature and responsible authorities must catch up. While “escorting used to have a somewhat chic aura”, it has, “been extended with a broad bottom layer”. The report found that many escorts were illegal foreign nationals engaged in prostitution. Additionally over 50% of escort workers were younger than twenty when they began to work, and over 10% had been under the age of eighteen.

In the fight against sex-exploitation, social media and website-hosting companies must ensure that their platforms are not used for the eliciting of illegal behavior. In turn governmental organizations and NGOs must investigate what services escort companies are providing, and understand how these are operating to protect the vulnerable.


Mapping the Networks

We wanted to look at a set of case studies, to understand the full picture, and see what services were being offered, and by whom. Here we will discuss operations in Moscow and Dubai, whose online footprint we have mapped in order to understand the true nature of their online operations, and to build information on how to investigate further networks.

Moscow-Based Network

Carrying out a detailed analysis of a Moscow-based escort service, ActiveFence identified that the organization operated across four different web-hosting network domains. As our intelligence connected various components of the online network of four websites together, it became apparent that sexual services were being offered for sale. Adverts recorded that escorts were tested “for skin and venereal and other diseases”, and daily prices were offered between $1,500 to $3000 per day. Customer reviews were posted, and automated booking systems were in operation.

It was concerning that in addition to local escort services, the company also offered “first time escorts” and “models” for international jobs. ActiveFence uncovered recruitment advertisements posted by this escort provider. Although the sites clearly offered sexual service to potential clients, the job advertisements promoted modeling contracts to future employees. The two sets of adverts (recruitment and sale) were posted on different domains and social media platforms so that escort and client would not cross paths, however, all were linked back to a single email address.

The deceptive behavior of this company, not only flagged it for the provision of prostitution but raised questions about human trafficking for sex work. Applicants saw adverts for, and applied to modeling contracts from online job boards and social media sites; clients were offered cross-border prostitution. Anita Teekah, senior director of the anti-trafficking program Safe Horizon in New York City, explained in an interview with the World that this was not uncommon. Teekah described how Safe Horizon works with many women who were tricked into being “sex trafficked after thinking they were going to enter into the modeling industry”.

ActiveFence connected posts across social media platforms and various domain registrations, to build intelligence to understand and map the Moscow-based organization. In doing so, it was able to locate the individual responsible for running the organization.

Dubai Escort Services

Similar investigations were carried out on a Dubai-based escort service, specializing in south-Asian women. This escort service also operated in public view across multiple mainstream social media platforms. Our investigations found that in contrast to the more subtle Moscow example, this organization was less discrete offering “body massage”, “full services” and sometimes “sex services”. Posting to social media accounts, the Dubai-based service would post advertisements notifying clients about “new arrivals” to Dubai to be requested. Our careful investigation was able to build a full picture of this network to understand its operations, as well as the business in which it engaged. ActiveFence was able to identify that the network of accounts all linked to a single email address, as well as two mobile numbers.

Acting under the guise of legitimate business activity, modeling recruiters or escort providers, criminals recruit for, and advertise illegal activity across many platforms, including human trafficking.

ActiveFence uncovered another escort service group, which operated from one of the largest social media platforms, to promote escorts in Dubai to its 11.3K members. The group contained many seemingly user-generated advertisements, suggesting that these were individual users selling escort services. However, the identical word and language choice of these posts, and the fact that many adverts shared telephone numbers indicated third-party involvement. Although it was not established how the women came to Dubai, many women working in sex work in Dubai came on the promise of work as a secretary or hotel receptionist, before being trafficked. The high prevalence of south-Asian, alongside other foreign women advertised in the Dubai escort service correlates with this assessment.

Consequences

Mainstream social media companies, and website hosting platforms, do not permit the solicitation of sexual services or other criminal activity from their sites.

However, ActiveFence has shown that criminal organizations are taking advantage of these platforms, with severe consequences. Acting under the guise of legitimate business activity, modeling recruiters or escort providers, criminals recruit for, and advertise illegal activity across many platforms, including human trafficking. The human cost of such criminal activity is very great. Vulnerable users are open to exploitation and must be protected.

There is also a pressing legal risk for internet companies, whose services are abused by such organizations. They cannot allow this activity, even in its disguised form, to remain on their platforms. The European Union is soon bringing into effect the Digital Services Act which will make the EU Commission’s 2018 recommendations on “measures to effectively tackle illegal content online” legally binding. The Act will enhance internet service provider’s liability for the user-generated content that they host. The Digital Services Act is expected to be followed by revisions to Section 230 in the US, after which other countries will follow.

Social media and web hosting platforms must be proactive to counter the targeting of users for prostitution and human trafficking, and maintain their platforms as safe spaces for children and vulnerable adults. ActiveFence takes a comprehensive view of internet activity. ActiveFence takes a holistic view of the internet, connecting disparate parts of harmful enterprises, to identify those involved so that they can be reported, removed, and stopped.

For more details and examples, download the complete whitepaper.

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