National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) 1.888.373.7888
Or text HELP or INFO to
BeFree (233733)

learn more

What is Teen Sex Trafficking?

The act of manipulating or forcing anyone under the age of 18 to engage in a sexual act in exchange for anything of value (money, drugs, shelter, food, clothes, etc.).

Is this happening where I live?

  • Yes, in the first half of 2013 over 375 calls were made to the Polaris hotline to report information regarding human trafficking in Virginia. Click on this link to see current statistics showing hotline activity from which area of Virginia.
  • According to the FBI, sex trafficking of teens is the second fastest growing crime in the United States and Northern Virginia has become one of the top teen trafficking venues in the nation. Click the link to hear about Virginia’s new anti-sex trafficking law focused on protecting minors.
  • Sex traffickers have established networks in NOVA and are preying on middle and high school teens targeting them through social media, malls, metro stations, bus stops and even selecting victims from middle schools and high schools across the region. Watch the video below to see Susan’s story.

Why is this the first I’m hearing about Teen Sex Trafficking?

  • Because people don’t recognize it when they see it. Many teens think they are just “hanging out with friends” until one day they realize they’ve been trapped into sex trafficking—without understanding how they were manipulated into it until it was too late. Watch the video below to see how this happened to Anna and those she recruited.


  • Since 2011, police and federal agents have taken down more than 25 juvenile sex traffickers in the Eastern District of Virginia, most just outside DC, and dozens of victims—all of them American citizens, many from middle- or upper-class families. Link to this Washingtonian article to learn how law enforcement began to expose this horrific problem in the NOVA region.
  • Unlike the trafficking of narcotics or firearms, this crime requires minimal cost to start-up and maintain. There is no need for a “middleman” to broker deals or manage products, so it offers low risk for detection and is highly lucrative. Watch the video below to hear how traffickers can move victims across the city in plain sight.

Who is this happening to?

  • Teens, both girls and boys, between the ages of 12-19 but victims have been as young as 9 years old.
  • Teens are from all different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Traffickers recruit based on psychological and emotional vulnerability.
  • Law enforcement investigators identified 800 teenagers who were targeted by traffickers online; none of them reported it. Most targets do not recognize that they are being scouted by traffickers.

Who are the traffickers?

Traffickers can be teens, too. They can be of any ethnicity or socioeconomic group or even female. They can also be:

  • Online contacts
  • Strangers who approach you in public
  • Casual acquaintances
  • Gang Members
  • Criminals
  • Employers
  • Classmates
  • Family Members
  • Your friends/your teen’s friends

To whom does this happen?

Traffickers use a deliberate process to identify and recruit their victims. It happens in three main phases: Scouting, manipulating and trapping.




SCOUTING (identifying potential targets)

  • Most teens are unaware that they are being drawn in…until it is too late.
  • The trafficker may not be a stranger. Traffickers are not only gang members and professional criminals, but also family members, students, employers…and even friends who have been drawn in already.
  • Teens are targeted and approached online and/or in person at shopping malls, metro stations, bus stops, and other public venues.
  • Traffickers determine if the teen is worth recruiting within a short time after initial contact based on having plenty of unsupervised time and apparent emotional vulnerability.


  • This is a deliberate process.
  • Traffickers begin developing a relationship with teens online or in person.
  • Traffickers build the teen’s self-esteem through compliments and listening to them.
  • Traffickers provide teen’s with money, gifts, alcohol, and drugs.
  • Traffickers often will act as if they are dating the teen, will tell them “I love you.”
  • Traffickers will invite teens to parties.
  • Traffickers draw the teen into a fantasy world driven by the teen’s desire for a sense of family or a special relationship that the trafficker provides.
  • Eventually the traffickers replace the teen’s true family.
  • Once the trafficker has gained the teen’s trust, he will “recruit” or trap them into the trafficking lifestyle.
  • Teen victims are manipulated into engaging in sexual acts in exchange for something of value. This could be money, drugs, shelter, food, clothes, or emotional love and comfort from the trafficker.

TRAPPING (controlling)

  • Traffickers use drugs, violence, threats to the victim’s family members, threats of exposure to keep victims trapped in the world the trafficker has created.
  • Victims have a feeling of powerlessness.
  • Victims find themselves unable to break free from the trafficker and free from this lifestyle.
  • The majority of victims find themselves trapped on this path for years. They become sidelined, non-productive, and isolated from society. A few escape, but they still endure an adverse psychological and health impact.

What techniques do traffickers use to manipulate and trap victims?

  • Traffickers set up fake accounts online to “friend” teens.
  • Traffickers scout teens in public places when the teen’s guard is down.
  • Traffickers may pretend to “date” teens to manipulate them and gain their trust.
  • Traffickers will take their victims to parties, give them alcohol and drugs, and then manipulate the teen into having sex.
  • Traffickers will use other teens who are already recruited to scout and recruit new teens.
  • Traffickers will take pictures or videotape their victims having sex—even without the victims knowing it—to blackmail them and trap them into further sexual activities.
  • Traffickers will lure their victims by asking them out on a date or even to go on vacation to a casino or to the beach.  Once they are there, they will create a fake story in which they have no money left and the only way to get home is if they have sex for money “just this one time.”
  •  Traffickers will take their victims to parties, give them alcohol and drugs, and once the victim’s guard is down the trafficker will manipulate the teen into having sex—often videotaping them to blackmail them and trap them into further sexual activities.

What are traffickers looking for?

Traffickers look for specific factors when scouting a target for recruitment:

  • At-risk teens will have a significant amount of time where they are unsupervised either after school and/or on the weekends.
  • At-risk teens’ emotional/psychological state is key to a trafficker’s ability to manipulate them.
  • At-risk teens frequently lack self-esteem.
  • At-risk teens perceive they are being ignored, ostracized, or shunned by other teens at school.
  • At-risk teens often have feelings of anger directed at parents.
  • At-risk teens may perceive they are unattractive or unstylish, and these feelings create a void in the teen’s life that traffickers exploit.
Back to Top