Americans will spend an estimated $27 billion on Valentine’s Day this year, underscoring an innate human desire to love and be loved.
And it’s upon this that human traffickers frequently prey.
Unlike the conventional image of a scary, easily identifiable kidnapper, many traffickers are unassuming, even charming as they woo potential victims with the deliberate intent of selling their services. Known as a “loverboy” or “Romeo pimp” or the “boyfriend model,” they lead victims—typically minors—to believe they love them with the express purpose of financial exploitation.
Social media and the internet play a crucial role in allowing predators to more effectively identify vulnerable victims, contact them, and even threaten them. Loverboys will first lavish victims with attention and gifts, even alcohol and drugs, and create an elaborate, romantic dream of their future life, which could include marriage or simply an escape from a rough life. Quickly lured into intimacy and love, victims will often reveal vulnerabilities that a trafficker uses to systematically foster dependency as he purposefully alienates his victim from her family and friends.
Once that relationship has formed, the trafficker convinces her he needs help making money for their future—and pushes her into prostitution for the first time. Sadly, the victims, unaware they were being groomed, are already trapped when the traffickers behavior changes and the exploitation escalates. Blackmail, threats, and abuse become the norm, often fostering a trauma-attachment to the trafficker.
One survivor recounts how she was bullied at school and, at 14, welcomed the attention of an older man who contacted her through instant messaging. “I thought I must be cool because a 22-year-old was talking to me.” But his behavior soon changed and he began pimping her multiple times a week. “I was so wrapped up in him that I just did it…I was going to school and church, but there was this other thing going on that no one else knew about.” Importantly, she says, “My Romeo pimp…he wasn’t the scary, creepy guy in the alleyway. He’s your next door neighbor.”
Anti-trafficking organization Act 212 outlines signs that might indicate a person is under the influence of a Loverboy.
Extensive chatting online and frequent clubbing.
Suddenly owning more money and expensive goods.
Many absences at school, incongruent justifications, lower grades.
A change in behavior, withdrawal from parents and friends.
Change of look and style/more provocative dress.
Low self-esteem, or an identity crisis.
Pain in the abdominal region, bleeding, psychosomatic pain.
Depression and self harm.
If you suspect someone of being trafficked, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 or SMS 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”). By raising awareness, protecting ourselves and looking out for one another, we can protect our communities against this insidious behavior.