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Operation Strive

Adult service websites (ASWs) remain the most significant enabler within the sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and human trafficking threat. Even where a trafficking element may not be present, those advertised on the sites may have other vulnerabilities, which require safeguarding interventions or may be subject to other offences related to sex work and prostitution, harassment, or assault.

In recent months, TOEX has undertaken extensive work with adult service websites, using key indicators on these platforms to identify whether users may be a victim of exploitation as well as ensuring the ASWs have the ability to refer this information to law enforcement, who can take appropriate action against those facilitating this criminality. The exploitation indicators, ranging from low to high risk, include, but are not limited to:

  • Account linked to other accounts by payer/phone number sharing
  • Multiple phone numbers across the adverts on one account
  • A male attempting to pay for adverts
  • Flagged by a customer suspected underage/ trafficking and/or exploitation.

The TOEX response

Between August and October 2022, the TOEX team carried out a pilot (Operation Strive) with an ASW, whereby the provider would send weekly referrals to TOEX using the agreed indicators and include reasons for the referral. Once the referral had been risk assessed, TOEX then worked exploring the adverts, researching key entities, and developing an intelligence package where exploitation was suspected.

One such referral involved two men, one Romanian and one Portuguese/Brazilian, who were paying for ten sex worker accounts, posting adverts in multiple regions. Intelligence suggested that eight email addresses were being used to advertise women in the London, Southeast and Northeast areas, 13 phone numbers were being used across the adverts and there were four names linked to paying for the adverts.

The TOEX team developed a package to fill significant intelligence gaps regarding whether any women were at risk, whether males were acting as “agents” for women, and/or if exploitation was occurring as well as whether law enforcement were already aware of this group and a live investigation was ongoing.

In analysing the adverts, the TOEX team deemed this case required further investigation with a number of exploitation indicators identified – customer reviews stated: “I turned up and it wasn’t the girl in the picture, but a woman in her late 30s that didn’t speak English.” “Sounds like a maid takes her calls/texts and says yes to stuff she’s not down with.”

As a result of TOEX support, a brothel has been identified for local safeguarding visits, all intelligence gathered from this work has been added to police intel systems and links have been made to an operation into an OCG believed to be trafficking Romanian females into and around the UK, forcing them into prostitution.

In total, the pilot identified 355 individual adverts of concern and 47 cases (like the one above) were referred for further action.

Intelligence and Analytics Lead, Lucy Rogers said: “I have been extremely impressed with the pro-activity and support given to us by the adult service website with Op Strive.

"It is clear that they are keen to protect their users from harm and work with charities and police to safeguard victims of exploitation.”

A spokesperson for the adult service website said: “As a former police officer myself, I am well aware of the value of the data that ASWs hold, and we have long advocated for a unified national referral facility for ASWs. We are committed to being the safest and most trusted platform for sex workers to advertise and as such we have in place extensive proactive measures to detect and deter criminals operating on our platform.

“As part of our ongoing commitment towards safety, we have introduced a dedicated Safeguarding Hub to focus on the identification of any suspicious content and ensure timely notifications are made to law enforcement internationally.

“That is why this national TOEX trial is so valuable and important, and we very much hope that it can become a permanent process, not only for us, but across the industry.”