Advertising for Sex Trafficking: Subtle, and All Around Us

Human traffickers use inconspicuous methods of advertising their business to gain customers. To combat their efforts, North Carolina activist groups and police forces have increased human trafficking awareness campaigns.

As of June, there were 473 calls and 118 human trafficking cases reported in North Carolina, according to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, founded in 2007. These statistics also show 87 of cases reported were incidents of sex trafficking.

According to Victoria Johnson, member of Project Fight and the Pitt County Coalition Against Human Trafficking, North Carolina’s rural setting and its numerous universities makes it easier to find victims.

“The wealthy alumni go to sporting events at universities like UNC to have a good time away from their families and work,” Johnson said. “Human traffickers prey on that.”

Sex traffickers utilize the Internet for advertising, but also use other methods to promote their business to those who may not have Internet access. By using methods such as ground signs, those traveling and without homes have access to their services.

In Carteret County, North Carolina, human traffickers reportedly advertise their business via signs at traffic intersections that advertise cheap mattresses. The only information on the sign is a phone number and the price for a twin or queen mattress, depending on the sign.

According to Johnson, another known case of advertising is the use of ground signs to promote a fake job offer. The sign does not provide any company information, just a cash offer and a phone number.

Sex traffickers also frequently use social media and websites such as to advertise.

Backpage is a website with a dedicated section for sex-related ads. According to research from Missouri Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner’s website, 82.3 percent of revenue from U.S. online prostitution advertising was generated from

Johnson noted a few differences between a local sex worker’s ad and an advertisement from a sex trafficking ring.

“Sex traffickers usually use phrases like ‘no police’ or ‘this is not trafficking,’ she said. “They also allow less out calls, if any, because sex traffickers like to have control.”

Backpage has seen some backlash against their sex-related ads. From Wagner’s research, over 230,000 people have petitioned against Backpage’s prostitution advertisements, including over 600 religious leaders and 19 U.S. senators. There was also a recent attempt by 47 State Attorneys General lobbying congress to change the law allowing the ads.

According to Johnson, the public should see prostitution in the same light as trafficking. Reportedly, prostitutes rarely participate in the business willingly and once the public gets past the negative stigma, it will be easier for them to get help as well.

There has been a recent boost in human trafficking awareness campaigns led by activist groups and local North Carolina police forces. Anti-human trafficking activist groups have also encouraged the public to spread the word to friends and family and do their own research.

Jamie Periquet, a sophomore at UNC and English major, was unaware of how prevalent human trafficking is in the U.S.

“When you think of sex trafficking, you think of foreign organized crime, something like the movie Taken,” Periquet said.

According to Johnson, Periquet is not alone. People seem surprised at learning how common human trafficking is in their backyards because movies and television separate the U.S. from the horrors of sex trafficking.

Johnson believed that if the public spread the word about the prevalence of sex trafficking and reported signs of trafficking, business would slow down for the traffickers. The hope, according to advocates, is that slow business would cause them to move or completely shut down.

Activist groups such as Project Fight work to generate education and awareness for the public. Founded in 2011 and sponsored by the Salvation Army, Project Fight has seen over 140 human trafficking cases.

Addition to education and awareness, they also target outreach, case management, and collaboration and have four locations in North Carolina.

The Pitt County Coalition Against Human Trafficking works with the Pitt County sheriff’s office to increase awareness through extensive education throughout the county. Johnson, a member of the group, emphasized the importance of talking to the youth.

“The average age trafficked is 15,” Johnson said. “We need to make sure younger kids know how to identify the possibility of trafficking.”

Other ways the public can raise awareness themselves, as stated by Johnson, is to share news stories on social media and host events as schools and universities.

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