Identifying sexual trafficking online

A new tool to help officers identify possible victims of trafficking on ASW sites.

Full report

Powerpoint presentation


Adult Services Websites (ASWs) are online platforms widely used by independent sex workers to advertise their services and connect with clients online. There is growing evidence however, that human traffickers are increasingly using ASWs to post profiles advertising trafficked women, camouflaging their victims amongst independent sex workers online. This study sought to create a tool with which policing actors could distinguish between ASW profiles posted by independent sex workers and profiles created by traffickers. Distinguishing between these will potentially allow law enforcement agencies to prioritise their investigatory efforts more efficiently.

Key findings

  • A diverse range of actors see value in using ASW profiles as an entry point for law enforcement investigation of potential trafficking. This suggests that governmental proposals to shut down ASWs may be misguided and could prove counterproductive.
  • Existing law enforcement approaches to tackling human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation via investigation of ASWs vary widely from one agency to the other. While some agencies make use of sophisticated data scraping and analytical tools, others are using basic, manual techniques of analysis.
  • The creation of the Sexual Trafficking Identification Matrix (STIM) arising from this study offers an analytical tool which can be used alongside other risk assessment measures to identify ASW profiles which are more likely to have been posted by traffickers, than those created by independent sex workers.
  • The STIM was found to be proficient in identifying high-risk ASW profiles which contain potential indicators of trafficking activity. This proved to be a useful starting point for prioritisation of investigatory resources by police practitioners.
  • Notwithstanding the above finding, the STIM was not flawless and its limitations included the identification of false positives which occurred during the research.
  • With the above in mind, the STIM is not designed to be used as a stand-alone tool and instead should be used as part of a broader suite of risk assessment measures. In particular, police officers’ professional expertise and experience are key in mitigating the limitations of the STIM and maximising its potential.

The research was conducted by Dr Xavier L’Hoiry, Dr Alessandro Moretti (both University of Sheffield) and Professor Georgios A. Antonopoulos (Teesside University).
For further information please contact Dr Xavier L’Hoiry by email: