Catfishing Freedom

Misrepresentation – or catfishing – is as easy as ever with the prevalence of online and virtual life. With the growing reliance on this type of digital connection and the increasing sophistication of Artificial Intelligence, scammers and catfishers are no longer as obvious as they once were. A fake dating profile, a misinformed headline, a misleading job opportunity… Anyone can write them, anyone can be behind them, and anyone can fall victim to them. 

The recent popularity of docuseries such as the Tinder Swindler, Catfish, and Inventing Anna are just a few examples of how life online can drastically differ from reality. In some cases, it results in heartbreak – finding out someone you loved isn’t who they claimed to be. In other cases, it’s the loss of finances or assets – when a scammer cons their way into the spotlight to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars. But still worse, it can result in freedom being ripped away – an unexpecting, vulnerable woman landing in a foreign country, desperate for well-paying work, only to have her belongings held hostage as she’s forced into sex work or domestic servitude. If the influx of reporting and Netflix attention says anything, it’s this – the issue is not uncommon. And it is not happening in some faraway place. We all have access to this world of online exchange. We live in it everyday. It is a great tool and a great resource, but it can quickly become harmful, causing more pain than imaginable. 

In September and October of 2021, The Wall Street Journal released a series of articles and podcasts called “The Facebook Files” – an investigative report into the tech giant following the reports of “whistle-blower”, Frances Haugen. Although the series is incredibly complex and interesting, covering a magnitude of issues at Facebook, Inc (which changed its name to Meta shortly after the release of these articles) and all of the platforms under its umbrella, what caught our attention was Part 3, titled, “This shouldn’t happen on Facebook”. The subject? Human trafficking. 

The episode tells the story of Patricia Wanja Kimani, a survivor of labor trafficking from Kenya. She fell victim to a fake job advertisement on Facebook. Desperate for money to support her two children, Wanja accepted a job in Saudi Arabia that promised good money, travel documents, and accommodations. When she arrived, her passport was taken and she was forced to work for an abusive employer for less than what was promised. The only way out would be to “buy out” her contract. 

The Wall Street Journal brought a lot of exposure to this sort of trafficking but, at AIM, we have been aware of and fighting this for years. Social media and online advertising are being utilized more and more to find, recruit, and advertise victims of trafficking. “It’s always about the money”, a staff member close to these situations explained. When individuals are vulnerable, the offer for good work and good pay is too attractive to pass up. Along with platforms like Facebook and Instagram, advertising sites like Craigslist and Backpage have been known to host illicit, misleading, and illegal employment offers. Recently, a Chinese classifieds platform, came under fire for such misuse after a man explained that he was trafficked through the site to Cambodia. 

It is clear that this sort of trafficking can happen anywhere, and it does. Christina is a survivor of trafficking who is now advocating for others. For 13 years, she has worked in the anti-trafficking field in the United States. When asked about why these job “opportunities” are so enticing, she said, “Desperation. Always. At least for all of my work, the girls targeted actually really need an opportunity like the one presented.” Her experience, prominently in the U.S. and Latin America, has been exclusively social media-driven. “Every case I have seen has been recruitment through social media, mostly Instagram. For example, a girl will get a message like, ‘Hey I saw your pic last week and you would be perfect for our modeling job…’” Similar to Wanja’s story, these opportunities are mostly advertising housework, nannying, hotel and restaurant work, or retail. The red flag, according to Christina – “It’s too good to be true.” 

Although social media and online presence makes this sort of trafficking more widespread, our SWAT Team in Cambodia has worked with the Cambodian police to help investigate cases of labor trafficking which were instigated by face to face contact. A broker, or middleman, may target someone financially disadvantaged and persuade them to leave their home. As we have seen, this broker is usually charismatic and charming. The initial stages of recruitment seem fun and exciting – new opportunities, potential travel, and – of course – money! However, as the person gets deeper into the work, it becomes clear that this was not what it was advertised to be. The employer may require more work for less pay, long hours, harsh conditions, or potentially totally different work – such as sex work or fraudulent activity. 

Once involved, it’s nearly impossible to leave, especially without outside intervention. The employer may withhold or confiscate essential documents like passports or visas. They may require a “buy-out” to release the victim from their contract. The person could be forced to pay back travel or accommodation expenses before leaving. For a person who was financially vulnerable in the first place, these options are not really options at all. 

Help is often difficult to find. For Wanja, she reached out to her network – ironically through Facebook – to tell her story and ask for help. “I put up a post. I’m looking for a human rights advocate because I’m in Saudi and I’m not doing well. So that’s when I put up the story that I’m being asked for 200,000 shillings so that I can return, I can be released to come back to Kenya.” It worked. The employment agency released her from the “contract” and she returned to Kenya. But, this isn’t always possible. Traffickers will often cut their victims off from the outside world. They take away cell phones, limit contact with others, and isolate people to maintain control.

It’s not surprising that these stories and situations become headline news and docuseries when they are brought to light. However, unfortunately, for many this is a reality. So what do we do? 

  1. Be aware of the problem of human trafficking and the forms it takes, such as online solicitation and misleading job opportunities. Report social media posts and accounts who promote these opportunities. Share this information with friends and family so they know to do the same! 
  2. When looking for job opportunities online, be sure to stay vigilant in researching and verifying the company. Check out this article from the FBI that lists some specific examples and rules-of-thumb.
  3. Support your favorite anti-trafficking organization as they work to fight against exploitation and rescue those trapped in these situations!

Freedom. At All Costs.

Human trafficking in any form is absolutely unacceptable. At AIM, we rescue, heal, and empower survivors of slavery to be free.

Agape International Missions Programs

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