How Law Enforcement can use OSINT to fight human trafficking 

By Rebecca Lindley

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    Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), though undoubtedly useful, has sometimes been considered a secondary method of investigation by law enforcement teams. However, the proliferation of criminal activity on the internet has increased the significance of OSINT as a technique. 

    This is particularly true in the investigation of trafficking or border crimes: customs teams might previously have relied on human or privileged intelligence to identify perpetrators. Yet today, intelligence available on the internet may provide a path to faster identification of criminals, as well as the possibility of identifying broader networks. It also reduces expenditure on expensive human intelligence resources. 

    In this article we’ll explore how investigators can employ OSINT sources and techniques to improve their effectiveness when fighting human trafficking. 

    Identifying recruiters 

    In contrast to other trafficking crimes, perpetrators of human trafficking may leave evidence in the public domain at the very beginning of the process: the recruitment stage. Social media is frequently used to attract the vulnerable individuals who may be susceptible to traffickers – meaning that investigators have the opportunity to detect and even intercept this crime relatively early.  

    There are two methods through which traffickers recruit victims, [1] and OSINT can be applied effectively to each:  


    • Traffickers post advertisements for fake job opportunities that may be particularly appealing to vulnerable individuals (such as cleaning roles with above-average pay) or offers of work abroad with little further information. 
    • Here, investigators can use OSINT to monitor social media platforms for keywords or suspect profiles for posts that exhibit signs of trafficking recruitment. Where these are identified, investigators can look out for other indicators: a post may be shared several times in quick succession then deleted, or those asking questions may be encouraged to move to a more secure method of communication such as an encrypted messaging service.[2] 


    • Traffickers will ‘hunt’ for potential victims on social media, adding them as friends and preying on emotional or financial vulnerability. For example, they may befriend a teenager in foster care who has posted about an argument with their foster family, comforting them and ultimately offering to pick them up. 
    • In these cases, investigators are unlikely to be able to view the communications taking place because they are likely to exist in private messages. However, OSINT can give vital clues that may suggest involvement in trafficking. Where publicly viewable, investigators can review subjects’ activity and friends lists to understand if they have a large number of contacts that fit the profile of a trafficking victim.  

    Once potential trafficking recruiters have been identified using these methods, OSINT can be used to gain a fuller understanding of their profile, understand pattern of life, and ultimately verify the nature and shape of a trafficking operation. 

    Finding ads for illicit services 

    Where recruitment successfully takes place, OSINT must be used reactively by investigators to identify where an individual is selling the services of trafficking victims. To identify these ads, investigators should review the following sources found in OSINT: 

    • Forums and ecommerce sites: Although dark web forums are widely used by criminals, those soliciting services which may be offered by trafficking rings – such as illegal house help or sex – are far more likely to do so using forums or social media.[3]  Consequently, many ads for trafficked victims are found on the deep web, rather than the hard-to-access dark web. 
    • Social media: Ads can be posted in social media groups or by individuals, then shared by whole networks.  

    In both cases, investigators should look out for the use of deliberately non-specific terminology which avoids using illicit keywords that may be flagged and removed by the platforms they appear on. Similarly, images or emojis can be used to indicate the nature of a service. 

    Understanding perpetrators and their networks 

    Having found advertisements for services, investigators need to understand the identity of the criminals running the operation behind them. OSINT is crucial here: while criminals will try to conceal their activity, some details must be provided in order to successfully complete a sale. Investigators may identify key pieces of data from which they can pivot and find additional information: 

    • Usernames are often reused in other, seemingly disconnected platforms. Identifying more profiles for a subject of interest can help investigators to build a fuller profile, giving clues as to their real identity. 
    • Contact details such as phone numbers and email addresses may also be used elsewhere online, helping investigators to understand a profile. These details can also offer valuable clues as to a subject’s real identity, such as location, domain ownership or corporate affliation.  

    Usually, these actors are part of a wider network of organisers, recruiters and facilitators. Again, OSINT may be used to establish the identities of other parts of this network, providing valuable intelligence that can help to stop an entire operation, rather than just a small part of it. Publicly viewable social media connections (such as open friends lists), repeated use of the same contact information across different ads, or the use of the same imagery, identified through reverse image search, may all point towards further members of a network who can then be investigated in greater detail. 

    Identifying laundered funds

    The goal of any trafficking activity is to make money, but illegally acquired funds will generally need to be laundered. Where involvement in trafficking is suspected, reviewing connected people and companies for signs of money laundering is another avenue of investigation where OSINT is crucial. If parts of a laundering network can be identified and removed, the flow of funds to a trafficking ring can be stopped, disrupting the crimes taking place. 

    Understanding corporate networks is essential when identifying money-laundering. Complex corporate structures registered by nominees are often used to obscure the passage of funds – which may be identified by analysing global corporate records data. Key signs of money laundering which investigators should look out for include: 

    • Unnecessarily complex corporate structures and use of shell companies 
    • Unexplained registration of companies in regions where registration data is particularly opaque 
    • Use of nominees as officers to obscure ownership 
    • Use of the same registered address or other contact details at multiple apparently unconnected companies – in particular, residential addresses  

    Much of this information is available in OSINT: corporate records data can be viewed through either national registries or aggregators, addresses assessed using online mapping tools, and publicly available social media used to support assessment of whether officers are likely to be nominees.  

    Effective OSINT is essential to stopping human trafficking

    OSINT is non-negotiable for law enforcement when fighting human trafficking because the recruitment, advertisement and sale of trafficked goods is now conducted predominantly online. Effective analysis of publicly available social media, usernames and contact details can allow investigators to unearth not only individual perpetrators, but entire networks involved in trafficking.   

    Human trafficking is not the only trafficking crime where OSINT is useful: drug and wildlife trafficking also involve networks which can be explored in similar ways. Read our case study to find out how OSINT technology can support a real wildlife trafficking investigation.  




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