Can Retailers Teach Us How to Prevent Human Trafficking?

5 06 2009

I got a glimpse of the underbelly of fraudsters and organized crime a couple of years ago when I worked at a company that created software for online retailers to help them process good payments and weed out fraudulent ones. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world I hadn’t been exposed to and only knew about peripherally.

Hands and feet in Chains from iStockPhotoOnline fraud started out as pranksters or one-off transactions…individuals trying to get something for nothing. There’s still that happening, but online fraud progressed to being perpetrated by large organized crime rings, with a lot of it coming from eastern Europe and western Africa. Why the change? Organized crime can hide anonymously behind a computer, and with their organizations being so spread out geographically and across many jurisdictions, most law enforcement groups are not able to catch them. It’s an easy crime for many of them.

Analysts from my previous company monitored chat rooms where criminals sold stolen credit cards…or the information on your credit card or social security card… for $10 each. They got inside the criminals’ territories and learned the tricks of what they were doing…hiring waiters to take skimming machines and run credit cards through them to capture the information in the strip when you give them your card to pay for dinner, installing fake fronts to ATMs to capture the keystrokes of your PIN and your debit card number, etc. They had to find ways to put techniques in the software that allows retailers to stay two steps ahead of the criminals, who are very tech-savvy themselves.

As part of my work, I had several calls with the IC3…the Internet Crime Complaint Center…and the FBI and participated in the announcement of the www.LooksTooGoodToBeTrue.com initiative, to help people avoid becoming a victim of online fraud. I was the press manager (one of the many hats I wore) for a large organization of retailers that came together to develop best practices to combat and prevent online fraud.

Okay…perhaps some of that is interesting…but my point of saying all that is this…organized crime got really savvy about how to commit fraud online. There have been a lot of businesses (including the one I worked with) that built software to prevent and stop this fraud and find these savvy fraudsters, which has led to many prosecutions.

Retailers banded together to pool their knowledge of how to outsmart the criminals. It’s a constant cat and mouse game; the fraudsters learn how to go around the software and the software companies come up with new techniques they hope the fraudsters can’t go around.

If all that is possible, why aren’t there businesses out there developing software…and maybe there are but I don’t know about them…that look for certain patterns and other things to detect that someone online might be engaging in child trafficking or sexual exploitation? There is software for keeping databases of sex offenders, but I’m talking about software that would stop this stuff from happening in the first place…that would disallow child pornography from being sold or a child being sold online.

Unfortunately, a lot of child trafficking is done the low-tech way…not online…so admittedly this makes it more difficult to track when it happens. But…just as fraud in stores orginally was mostly stealing stuff in stores (and of course this still happens) but progressed to online massive stealing…I suspect that child trafficking may also “progress” (if it isn’t already happening) to being done online.

Isn’t it worth it for someone to be developing high-tech solutions to stop and find traffickers? It seems at least an international tracking system is needed. I see so many stories about trafficking in so many countries. Is anyone looking at the big picture and tracking these occurrences across countries? In the retail world, that’s the only way they are beginning to find some of these organized crime rings and prosecute them.

Does anyone know if anything like this is being done? Isn’t it about time it was?

UPDATE 10/19/09: After writing this article, I received an email from the National Association to Protect Children. Read what they and the Oak Ridge National Laboratories are doing to stop child predators in the post I wrote on 10/19/09 entitled Oak Ridge, TN: Developed the Atomic Bomb and Now Stopping Child Predators.

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