Laurie Pieters-James, Safeguarding Against Human Trafficking Online

Embark on a compelling journey with Laurie Pieters-James, a distinguished Forensic Criminologist, Specialist Offender Profiler, cyber influencer, and public speaker, as we navigate the digital frontlines against human trafficking in “Safeguarding Against Human Trafficking Online.” Unveiling shocking realities, Laurie brings expertise in criminal profiling, criminology, and cyber law to empower listeners with in-depth discussions, real-world cases, and expert interviews. With an Honours Degree in Criminology, Laurie assesses, analyzes, and predicts criminal behavior, providing valuable insights into the complexities of criminal profiling, cyber law, and the critical intersection with human trafficking in the digital age. This podcast is your go-to resource for understanding, preventing, and combating online human trafficking.

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Interviewee:                           Laurie Pieters–James

Interviewer:                            Amanda Mdhluli

List of Acronyms:                 AM: Amanda Mdhluli

                                                       LP: Laurie Pieters–James


Welcome, everyone, to another enlightening episode of the Free to Fly podcast! If you’re just tuning in for the first time, let me give you a warm welcome to our incredible community. Free to Fly isn’t just a podcast; we are a counter child trafficking organization located in South Africa.

Today, we have a distinguished guest on our show. Laurie James Pieters, a Forensic Criminologist and Specialist Offender Profiler, a cyber influencer, and a public speaker, joins us. With an Honours Degree in Criminology, Laurie’s primary function is to assess, analyze, and predict criminal behavior. This demanding role requires a strong background in psychology, criminology, intelligence, and law.

She’s well-respected in the field and has dedicated her expertise to shedding light on cybertrafficking in regards to human trafficking. Laurie will provide invaluable insights into this pressing issue, and her expertise will help us navigate the complex world of cybertrafficking.

Our mission is to combat these injustices and make a difference in the lives of the victims, and Laurie is here to help us better understand this critical topic. So, stay with us as we embark on this important journey towards knowledge, awareness, and ultimately, freedom.

AM:  Good day and welcome once again to our listeners to the Free to Fly podcast. Today we’ll be talking about cyber trafficking.  As our guest today we have Laurie Pieters – James.  Please give a brief introduction to yourself and how you came to play a role in cyber trafficking.

LP:  I started my career very young in the military environment – I was in the air force. I was in air traffic control and then civilian air traffic control.  That was my first exposure to trafficking because aircraft are often used in trafficking a person.  I then went on to work in intelligence.  I then studied criminal profiling doing a specialist degree in criminal profiling, and then did criminology and then a specialisation in criminal law.  I then moved to Botswana and started a cyber-crime company, mainly because I saw that all planned criminality actually had an element of cyber.  In the day-to-day working with cybercrimes and criminal activities online, trafficking became highlighted.  When I returned to South Africa in 2020, I started assisting with various cyber trafficking matters – training the national freedom network, training the Hawks, training South Africa’s Law Enforcement, in cyber specifically, because we have quite a limited capacity there.  My mission became to uplift everybody that was involved in cyber, so that’s how I ended up in trafficking, because the incidence of cyber trafficking was growing so quickly: it’s really shocking what’s happening online at the moment.

AM:  Just to clarify – what is child trafficking.

LP:  Under South African law, child trafficking is dealt with under and act called the prevention of combating and trafficking of persons.  Its Act 7 0f 2013 and defines trafficking fairly well.  What happens in trafficking is that a person is either recruited for purposes of exploitation: either recruited, or delivered, transported, transferred, harboured in a house, sold, exchanged, including people who receives them.  So, why does it happen, or how does it happen.  It happens either under threat of harm, use of force or any other coercion, a threat of abuse of their vulnerabilities.  Either by fraud, deception, abduction, kidnapping, or the abuse of power.  Any of these means are how it happens.  Also direct, or indirect payments to obtain the person – to the parents, or another person in authority over them.  The purpose of the recruitment is for exploitation.  But it’s not limited to just sex trafficking, it’s for all forms of slavery, all practices that are similar to slavery which includes sexual slavery, servitude, forced labour, child labour – which is protected and defined under the Children’s Act, the removal of body parts – organ trafficking, the impregnation of female persons against her will for the purposes of selling her child when the child is born.  All those kinds of exploitation are covered under trafficking, so you can see it’s much broader than we think.

AM:  How does the web and the internet play a part, a role, in human trafficking.

LP:  It plays multiple roles.  The first one is that of recruitment.  We’ll often see that traffickers, or hackers, or hunters, or whoever the trafficker has employed for this purpose – which are usually internet or text-savvy people, as well as normal, everyday, not too text-savvy people: they troll the internet, and they look for vulnerability.  When they find, for example, a fourteen-year-old child that’s posting ‘I hate my mother, I want to get out of here’, – that person is immediately a target.  They troll looking for unstable homes, kids in trouble, children that are anti their parents.  Any form of depression, any form of vulnerability – that is what they look for.  They then approach that person and befriend them.  Eventually they ask for a meeting and so on – then they will abduct that person and traffic them.  That’s one form that it’s used for, – recruitment.  In South Africa specifically, a lot of times it’s through job advertisements that they recruit.  Then we also have the internet used for actual exploitation where you have the porn sites, live broadcasts of children being abused, – not only children, adults too – and then also there’s the dark web, or the dark net, where even more dangerous stuff happens, like snuff films and things like that, which are paid for.  Also rapes online where people are actually paid to participate in the rape online .  So they will get suggestions of what to do to that victim and the people in the room, that are filming and the perpetrator will actually carry out these instructions. So it’s used in multiple ways: for recruitment and its used for distribution.

AM:  I gather it’s also used for gratification for someone who’s on the other side of the computer.

LP:  Yes, of course.  People watch it to get some kind of gratification from it.  Unfortunately, we have a lot of very strange people in our world, and sadists and masochists.  Unfortunately, many people get pleasure out of other people’s pain.  That’s one point – but the other point is that there’s a lot of money in it, so there’s a lot of financial incentive for gratification – it doesn’t matter how they go about that gratification.  Then there’s also, aside from sex trafficking, desperation: people desperate for organs, companies desperate for cheap labour.  This is why areas like Haiti for example are targeted where cheap labour is available.  You always find that the movement of victims is from the poorer countries to wealthier countries – that’s generally the movement.  The poor, the vulnerable, are exploited, approached and trafficked – often in wealthier countries; or the viewership, – watching the exploitation – the highest viewership in the world comes from the USA. 

AM:  Speaking of how a person is moved – how does that look in a typical human trafficking ring.  Who is the organisation made up of.

LP:  That would depend completely on what that ring’s purpose is.  Is it an organ trafficking ring, is it a child trafficking ring, is it a sex trafficking ring, is it a baby-harvesting ring.  In a sex trafficking ring, you will often have a recruiter and then you will have someone who needs to control that victim.  Strangely enough, those are often previous victims – they move up the chain and then control the new fish (they call them fish).  Then the new fish are controlled by the older ones.  As they gain seniority in the ring, they understand better than anyone else the vulnerabilities, for example, of that victim and what they’re going through so they are in a prime position to control them. They understand, exactly, the psychology of that victim.  Then of course, you have the buyer, or purchaser, as well.  There may be a medical doctor – sometimes these victims may be injured.  There are cases where young children are raped and there’s a medical doctor on standby to immediately sew up any injuries that are life-threatening.  You also often have medical practitioners involved to dispense medication if necessary.  There’s often an element of drugs as well – illegal drugs.  A lot of the victims are on heroin, so you would have your drug sellers.  So these rings are fairly large and extensive.  If you’re transporting, you need airport personnel to be involved.  If it’s organ trafficking, for example, you need your recipients, all your medical professionals – your nurses, your surgeons.  Then you need your recruiters, your brokers, your lab technicians, your medical operation staff.  Your insurance companies are also often involved.  Travel agencies are involved because that organ needs to be moved.  A lot of airlines and their staff are involved: the guards and security personnel are involved.  Then sometimes you need to transport, so you need drivers and service providers.  Sadly, a lot of law enforcement officials are involved.  And then also – translators, because, if you move the victim from Ukraine to South Africa, that person is not going to understand you.  So you need translators to communicate with these people.  So again, it’s extensive.

AM:  There are a lot of people – a lot of professionals – involved in these crimes.

LP:  And  remember, when it comes to children, again you have a whole different crowd of people, because where do you find victims, a child victim.  Schools, churches, these types of places.  So they take positions as youth pastors, or teachers, or sporting coaches, anywhere they can get their hands on kids.

AM:  Please explain what child pornography is – does taking naked pictures of children count as child pornography.

LP:  Yes it does.  Child pornography is the creation of any pornographic material involving a child, or a minor.  So it’s the same as adult pornography.  The creation and distribution of child pornography would mean the creation and distribution of any explicit images of any child.

AM:  Is cyber sexual extortion also considered a form of human trafficking.  For example, in the case of Amanda Todd – Amanda Todd for our listeners who don’t know, was a Canadian teenager who got involved with a man from the Netherlands and he was extorting pictures and pornographic material from her.  Even though he wasn’t in close proximity to her, he would often blackmail her and tell her that if she didn’t send him the material he wanted, then he would send all her naked pictures to her family and friends.  Unfortunately, Amanda lost her life because of this, but before she took her life, she made a 12-minute video and posted it on you tube explaining what was happening to her.  That was sexual extortion.  Does cyber sexual extortion considered a form of human trafficking.

LP:  So let me turn the question around to your listeners and get them thinking:  Amanda Todd, was she recruited – did he approach her online.

AM:  Yes.

LP:   He did.  For what purpose. Exploitation.  He blackmailed her.  He abused her online.  He accessed her – even if it was online.  He did that for purposes of exploitation.  So, does that meet the definition of trafficking.  Yes it does.  Therefore, Amanda Todd’s perpetrator could, and should, have been prosecuted for trafficking.

AM:  I bring the story of Amanda Todd because she was not even in close proximity with this man.  She was in Canada and he lived in the Netherlands.  I want our listeners to really understand what cyber trafficking looks like.

LP:  You don’t have to be in close proximity.  This is the problem – a lot of people, because of the word trafficking, believe that there has to be some sort of movement of the person into the perpetrators sphere.  However, that is not the case at all.  You do not require the element of moving the person.  It’s recruitment for purposes of exploitation by any means.

AM:  Why is it important for parents – and children – to learn more about cyber security and cyber trafficking, particularly here in South Africa.

LP:  Well, parents are busy today, and we don’t monitor our children as well as we should.  If you don’t understand the crime, you don’t understand how you can become a victim of it.  By understanding I mean – if your child has a phone, they are a potential victim.  I often draw a comparison – it’s not a very pleasant thought – but, if you hand your child a gun and then completely ignore that child, and that child happens to pull the trigger and kills him- or herself, you’ve handed them a weapon. And that’s a one time event – the child is dead.  It’s quick, it’s over.  If you hand a child a cell phone and they become a victim of a trafficker, they are used and abused for years: raped, tortured, threatened, beaten and often eventually murdered.  That is what you are exposing your child to.  Now should you, as a parent, give them a weapon like that and then fail to monitor the use of that weapon?  That is why we – parents – have to monitor that child and learn about child trafficking.  When you hand that child the cell phone, which today is essentially a weapon that can be used against them, you better understand the consequences, and you better monitor what’s going on with that kid on that device because it can result in many, many types of exploitation unfortunately, and ultimately, end in death at the hands of the trafficker, or, as in the case of Amanda Todd, in suicide.

AM:  What are the chances of a child surviving cyber trafficking.

LP:  There are instances where we do have survivors, where law enforcement has tracked them down and managed to save them and get them back to their families.  That’s the physical saving.  The psychological saving is an entirely different story – of course they live with these memories for years.  Some handle them better than others.  But the average time that a child will survive trafficking – depending on the age of the child, – a teen will have a much longer life-span in the trafficking world than, for example, a 2, 3 or 4 year old child who is very quickly used up, especially in the markets overseas where they specifically target these kids.  For example, there are markets in places like China where children are sold at 15 minute intervals and they are raped 3 times an hour and those children don’t survive long.  They may survive 6 months to a year in which case they’re either sold or murdered for organs.  So that’s the life span of a toddler.  The life span of a teenager, I would imagine, probably 4 – 6 years, sometimes longer, depending on if the trafficker actually takes care of them.  But remember, people lose interest in these victims, – as they age, firstly, and also as they become used up.  Also the amount of drugs involved is also quite significant.  That’s an average – look, you get exceptions in every case, but, 4 to 6 years, sometimes 10 years if they’re taken care of  – which generally they’re not.  They’re simply a commodity, so their life span is not long, and then again, there is the secondary market now – the organ market is there.  So once they’re no longer useful as a sex slave, they’re simply shipped to the organ side and their organs are harvested, so their life span is not long.  Traffickers no longer have to deal with difficult sex slaves because they have the organ markets.

AM:  That is so sad.  Let’s just go back to 2020 where we had the Covid 19 virus which resulted in lockdown.  Many people were stuck in their homes where there was a significant rise in internet usage.  Did the lockdown have any impact on cyber trafficking.

LP:  It had monumental impact on cyber trafficking.  Just to give you an example:  people lost their jobs, people were locked down in their homes.  When you have any criminality, disaster forces change in modus operandi, that being the way the crime is carried out.  So they had to find a way of – firstly, ordinary people, that were living normal lives before, were jobless and had no finances.  There was no support from the South African government for these families, so they had to come up with alternatives.  What we saw, was – now you had a family, locked up in a home with 3 minor children, for example.  So, in a lot of cases they learned about sex trafficking, and they would convert a room in to a pornographic studio or area and then would traffic their children online – the child was trafficked from right inside the home.  And men did this with their partners, they did this with their children.  Especially in cases where there wasn’t a marriage and one or the other person was not the actual parent of the children.  That we saw increase.  This is not only girls – boys are trafficked, husbands are trafficked and so are wives.  Anybody can become a victim.  But to get back to Covid – a lot of people were trafficked from inside the home.  Why?  Because they could not escape.  Vulnerability increased, there were many more people on the internet and when you have more people you have more ‘fish’, so you have a higher chance of recruitment and you have a captive audience so to speak, because people were locked up in their homes.  We also saw increased abuse, because people couldn’t get away.  There was a shift toward ‘alternative’ exploitative types – they changed the modus operandi completely – there was a huge supply of new criminal recruits.  The rise in exploitation of children was absolutely astronomical.  The children could get away because they were locked up in their home.  Police resources were stretched trying to control the actual pandemic, which was another problem.  NGOs had a problem with funding – a lot of funding was pulled.  Global supply chains were interrupted and disrupted, so it became easy to find loop holes in the global supply chains for movement (of victims).  There was irregular, and illegal migration, because people were actually locked down in countries which were not their normal place of residence and they couldn’t get back home.  As I said, NGOs were disrupted, so they lost a lot of help because they were limited both in getting personnel out in the anti-trafficking response, and in their rescue missions because they couldn’t move across borders easily to do the rescue missions.  Police and law enforcement and the justice system – the courts – all went online, huge disruptions as well.  Finally, it interrupted financial support and the funding of all of these organisations – and it’s not stopping.  The impact of covid has not stopped – they learnt new modus operandi and the continue to use them.  So we are still seeing a massive impact of covid because the techniques they learnt in covid are very covert and simple to work from within the home.  So we’re not seeing this go away, and actually, the financial situation – the global financial situation/ the geo-political situation – is so unstable today that people are still suffering monumental financial harm and this is a way of making a fair amount of money fairly easily.  All you need is a cell phone and a couple of lights and a bed, which most people have in their house, and a child, or a victim.

AM:  So people picked up new ways and tricks to make child cyber trafficking and are still doing it even now because that’s what they learnt in covid – that’s how they survived.

LP:  What people don’t understand is that human trafficking is $150-billion a year enterprise.  If you compare that – just to give you a comparison – the airline industry is worth about $30 billion.  So what do you do?  Traffic someone from your own home, or take the huge financial risk of operating an airline.  Well, I’ll tell you something, most people are lazy – so, trafficking my own children from my own home is one heck of a lot easier than trying to build a successful company.

AM:  In your professional opinion – do you think that people who started cyber trafficking their own children online are people who were already abusing their children but they just didn’t put it online.

LP:  Domestic violence is everywhere.  Unfortunately, South Africa has a very violent society, so that may be, but I think there are many people who turned to this out of financial desperation.  One would imagine that a parent who could actually traffic their own child online would have a lack of conscience, but desperation pushes people to do things they wouldn’t normally do.  Also, a lot of trafficking – people don’t understand the amount of trafficking that is actually familial trafficking.  Families traffic their children all the time.  In fact, +/- 70% of trafficking victims are trafficked by people they know – 41% of them are family members, 14% of them is the intimate partner, 11% are friends, and the other 34% make up the rest.  Especially things like begging – making children beg on the side of the road for example, that’s trafficking.  Selling them into the domestic or hospitality areas, that’s another very common one.  This is what we deal with on a daily basis and unfortunately families are involved in this, because, even though Mommy and Daddy may not see the value, Uncle might, or Aunty.  One of the highest sentences in South Africa was actually handed down in the Selisa  matter.  That was a young girl trafficked by her aunt, sent from Lesotho to South Africa by her mother for a better education, ended up with the aunt who did send her to school in the day and sex-trafficked her all afternoon and all night.  That resulted eventually in a conviction – first time a case was convicted without the victim because she actually ran away, and it was decided to let her disappear – and the case was prosecuted on the digital evidence and resulted in numerous life sentences and additional time.  So it was the highest sentence for trafficking on the globe, and now we have another one: a great success story, in the Ackerman matter which will go on appeal – he was sentenced to 19 life sentences.  What was interesting in this matter – and where we have a precedent now that everybody needs to be aware of – is that he has received an additional 25 years simply for possession of child sex material on his phone then another 25 years for his laptop.  Now there is a precedent for a 25 year sentence for the possession of child pornography on your digital device.  This is fantastic news and makes law enforcement’s life a lot easier.  There were 720 charges against Ackerman which resulted in that sentence, so it was a really big success for the justice system and also a big win for us.

AM:  We often look at the perpetrator and the victim in cases of trafficking – what is the punishment for the people who are engaging in and buying such content.  How often does law enforcement find and prosecute these buyers.

LP:  Not often enough unfortunately, not enough to stop the crime.  The forensic techniques are there.  We have dedicated people globally who literally hunt traffickers for a living.  When we do seize devices, many times they expose networks, so we will seize the device (under a warrant) and that may lead to another 4, to 5, to 6-thousand new perpetrators because paedophiles share online images: they distribute them between themselves for pleasure.  Often we pick up networks and then we go and track those individuals down which leads to additional arrests.  The digital devices exposes the linkages between these perpetrators and how they share material.

AM:  Are we talking about normal internet usage, or are we talking about the dark web.

LP:  The dark web is a very special place: it’s not a different internet, it’s just a different section of the internet.  So they’re not separate, they’re all interlinked.  Most non-tech-savvy people and perpetrators and buyers are not specialists in accessing technologies such as the dark web – you can’t get onto the dark web with Google.  You need a browser such as Tor, because they are like onions inside – in other word, peeling back the layers.  Mostly, in order to reach the majority of ‘johns’ (buyers), these adverts are placed on Facebook, on Instagram, on WeChat, on normal, popular sites from where it’s driven.  For example, your Instagram will drive you to your ‘subscriptions only’ fan page where a lot of trafficking happens.  Twitter was a trafficking hub, Telegram is a trafficking hub – Telegram is the new dark web.  There are a lot of groups, from war crimes, to weapons trading, to internet trading and sex trafficking.  There’s a lot happening on Telegram.  There are other sites like Whisper that the kids love.  House Party is another one.  Another one, called calculator is on a lot of the kids in South Africa’s phones.  The parents think they’re using a calculator, but it’s an app which hides illicit images.  Mostly, it’s on the surface web – when you start dealing with the more prosecutable offences, the more dangerous offences – things like snuff material, or forums where people can participate (not that it doesn’t happen on the surface web), but when the level of depravity really starts to go south, that’s when it moves to the dark web.

AM:  Are there any consequences for a perpetrator who sells child pornography to someone who is in another country – online.  Are there any international consequences for that kind of perpetrator.

LP:  Of course.  If your recruitment is here, and your production is here, but you post the material onto any server internationally – let’s take the US as an example.  If you post that image to an American server, you can be liable to be prosecuted under American law.  We also work very closely with United States, secret service, homeland security – they assist with warrants.  That’s re a US server – we have similar co-operation with European servers but there are places that are notoriously difficult to get co-operation from.  One of the platforms that we struggle with is Tik-Tok – they are not very co-operative.  Also Telegram – a Russian server.  The first one (Tik-Tok) is a Chinese server.  Understand what apps you’re using and where those servers are located because in certain areas there is fantastic co-operation between law enforcements.  We do have Interpol, which can get involved, there’s UNODC -United Nations Organised Crime – they will get involved.  So do have co-operation with law enforcement.  We can either prosecute in South Africa with evidence from Google, or Face book, or Meta or whatever.  They can also be prosecuted under the US law and extradited to stand trial there because they used an American server to perpetrate a crime.

AM:  That is good to know.  It is a shame that not everyone is co-operative.  My last question is, can you please share a few tips with parents and guardians which they can use in order to keep their children safe online.

LP:  The first and most important tip is – monitor your children.  If you make the decision to hand them a cell phone, you must treat it the same as handing them a gun.  You have to monitor them; you have to understand the apps they are using; you have to learn about the security settings of those apps and make sure their devices are secured.  Start with Google and the apps the kids use today – Snap Chat, WhatsApp – secure those apps.  You can put monitoring software on the phone where you can have access to that device.  The most important thing is common spaces: keep your computers in common spaces.  Children can go on the internet and when you’re walking by, you can see what they’re doing.  Be aware of kid’s behaviour: if you are one of those parents who allow their kids to keep their phone in their room, if every time you walk in and they slam their laptop closed or switch pages, understand that that behaviour is an indicator.  If there’s any shift in the child’s personality – understand, ANY shift.  What we do, we look for changes.  That’s important. If there’s a change in that child’s personality, ask why.  Another tip – befriend you children’s friends, for the simple reason that the friends often know what’s going on before the parents do.  But the most important tip I can give you is right now – no phone in the bedroom after hours.  When that child goes to bed at night, you take that phone, because what goes on under the covers and under the cover of darkness with those children, as a parent you will not believe what these little guys are up to.  And yes, perpetrators are very skilled at hiding their identities, but so are the children: they actually masquerade as if they are older, wiser, looking for companionship.  So it’s not only the perpetrator, it’s also the child that is involved in massive deception online because they don’t have to be the person they are.  On the internet, you can be anybody you want to be, because you create that persona.

AM:  Thank you very much Laurie Pieters – James for sharing your extensive knowledge with us here on Free to Fly, and with our listeners, about the dangers of the web and the internet.  We hope people will take what you have said seriously and will implement the changes in their homes and really monitor and pay close attention to their children.

Ending: Dear friends and key stakeholders, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast. Our aim and heart for these podcasts are to bring awareness on human trafficking. To highlight the atrocity this crime is to humanity. A reminder that human trafficking is a multi- billion Dollar industry, which is sadly the fastest growing worldwide and second biggest crime after drugs. It is far more organized than many care to believe.

Our aim of the podcasts is to bring clarity and understanding of what exactly what human trafficking is and how it impacts victims, survivors. We hope to highlight the roles of various stakeholders and how we can all be part of the solution and bringing an end to what we know as modern-day slavery.

We invite you to join hands in fighting against human trafficking, follow us on our social media pages: on Instagram and on Face Book, Do check our website out and sign up to be a volunteer or donate towards the building and running of our safe house for children who have come out of human trafficking. All details will be put in the link below or our last slide.

For those of you who do not know, Free To Fly, are an organization that is currently starting up one of the first safe houses for children who have been rescued from human trafficking in South Africa. We will be offering a home that will provide a space to heal, recover and be set up to be free to fly. Please follow our journey on our website.

Till next time, take care and be sure to share and listen out for the next podcast. Thanks friends!

Free To Fly can`t be held liable about the content and views of our podcast guests.