Use of Emojis to Market Victims of Online Sex Trafficking

Sex traffickers’ use of Emojis and code words to disguise their efforts to advertise and facilitate their activities, particularly the trafficking of children, are impeding law enforcement efforts to detect them. Even as law enforcement begins to uncover this hidden language, traffickers likely will develop new ways and vehicles to contact future sex buyers to avoid detection. Emojis are small digital images or icons used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication, such as texting or instant messaging. Sex traffickers in the National Capital Region (NCR) and throughout the United States particularly target vulnerable youth—both boys and girls—on social media applications, online dating forums, or through advertisements online, and then coerce them into the commercial sex industry.

Emojis (Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune)

  • In 2017, researchers from San Diego State University’s Information Systems program analyzed 8,000 online ads, discovering emojis were the primarily used to convey the type of sex services for sale, the age of the person being trafficked and the ability of the victim to travel.

  • Popular emojis included: the symbol of a growing heart reportedly indicating a minor child; a cherry or cherry blossom to reference virginity or breasts; and a crown highlighting that a minor was under house arrest or “owned” by a pimp or gang.

  • According to the Roy Maas Youth Alternatives—a youth advocacy program—sometimes emojis are combined to reveal full sentences. For example, a rose, camcorder, growing heart, jet plane, and crown translates to ‘to pay money to record having sex with an underage person who is being trafficked by a pimp.’

  • Sex traffickers also use code words, slang and abbreviations to communicate with the victims they exploit and potential sex buyers. For example, a ‘lot lizard,’ describes a victim being trafficked at truck stops and ‘GFE’ is short for a girlfriend experience and means advertising multiple sex acts without a condom.

Report Suspicious Activity

  • For immediate threats or emergencies call 911.

  • To report in progress non-emergency suspicious activity or behavior, call (202)727-9099 or report online at iWATCH.

  • To report a human trafficking incident, call the MPD/FBI Child Exploitation Task Force at (202) 576-6768, OR

  • Report an incident to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children CyberTipline.

Download PDF

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.