1-800-BE-FREE: Using Technology to Fight the Online Sex Trade

Child sex trafficking is a pervasive issue both in the United States and worldwide. One million children are exploited by the global sex trade each year. Thorn, formerly known as the DNA Foundation, is an organization founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore with the aim of ending child sex trafficking. The organization’s supporters are known as the ‘digital defenders of children’, as their mission is to combat the booming online sex trade. Girls are being sold and bought through ads on websites such as Craigslist and In a recent survey conducted by Thorn, it was found that 70% of child sex trafficking victims were sold online.

Thorn partners with academic institutions and nonprofits to conduct research and find innovative ways to combat the sexual exploitation of children online. They recently partnered with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), the largest trafficking resource center in the nation, to develop a text messaging short code for victims.

NHTRC is a hotline that not only provides aid for victims but also collects data from calls to track trends such as call volume and the prevalence of trafficking in a certain geographic region. This hotline receives crisis calls from victims, calls from people who are at risk for trafficking, as well as tips from bystanders. The NHTRC was launched in 2007, and has received more than 70,000 calls to date. It has also connected thousands of victims to support services and reported cases to law enforcement. Last year alone, the NHTRC received a total of 31,945 calls.

The text messaging short code that was developed by Thorn and NHTRC is called ‘BeFree’. Utilizing text messaging as a new form of reaching this hotline was inspired by statements from victims regarding how phone calls can be too risky, particularly because there is a high likelihood of being overheard by their exploiters. While the utility of a text short code may seem impractical – Captives have access to cell phones? Really? –  it turns out that many survivors of trafficking communicate through text regularly. Although exploiters exert a high level of control over their victims, those seeking help may be able to send out a quick text message. Text messaging for this purpose is a great addition to the available NHTRC services since it is much more discreet than a phone call, and is easier to remember than a phone number.

This method of communication is promising for victims who have access to a cell phone in that it is less risky than placing a phone call. While a source stated that survivors of trafficking had communicated with others through text, it is unclear what percentage of victims under the control of their captors have access to a phone, even for a short period of time. For this reason, I would be particularly interested to see statistics regarding the utilization and efficacy of these text messaging services in the years to come, as well as whether and how this information has been disseminated to victims and the general public. That being said, while there is no simple solution to trafficking, utilizing technology to get victims to safety is a crucial step forward. Coupled with the online monitoring and control of sex trafficking from such organizations as Thorn, the development of a text messaging short code is a promising method of getting victims to safety.

See the original webpage and video about the development of the text messaging shortcode here:


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