Boosting Efforts to Catch Criminals
Fifty million people. That’s the estimated number of vulnerable people being preyed upon by modern-day enslavers or other types of trafficking groups, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). It’s equivalent to the population of California and the numbers are growing: the ILO’s 2022 report calculated that over the five previous years, the number of those trapped in some form of modern slavery has grown by 20%, an additional 10 million more people .
Meanwhile, the exploiters themselves collectively earn an estimated $34 million every hour of every day from their crimes, according to ILO estimates; rewards that are huge and intoxicating. For example, Bonifacio Flores-Mendez, a Mexican-born man sentenced to life in prison in the US in 2014 for trafficking women and then forcing them into sexual slavery in a network of New York City brothels, admitted at the time of his sentencing that he was motivated simply by “greed,” according to news reports.
But that greed and the modern digital movements of money, coupled with the traffickers’ growing reliance on technology to recruit and groom their targets, create openings for law enforcement. At some point, many individuals and organizations involved in trafficking rely on the global financial system to minimize the costs of their illicit activities and reduce the risks involved in moving money.
“Perhaps no single person or organization can observe all the human behavior that adds up to this kind of criminality,” says Tracy Manning, director of financial crime at LexisNexis® Risk Solutions in Atlanta. “But they leave digital footprints. And there’s one common tie between all kinds of trafficking — money laundering.”
Cracking down on traffickers remains the responsibility of law enforcement, of course. But the fight is hugely enabled these days by access to reliable data and the analytical models that allow risk managers working for financial institutions, technology firms, and other corporations to identify suspicious patterns in behavior and transactions. These can then be handed off to the authorities for investigation.
The referrals from those best positioned to spot warning signs allow more than the tip of the iceberg to be observed. And the business world is creating what amounts to a global ecosystem of actors able and willing to monitor money flows and other activities for red flags. Those actors include companies such as LexisNexis Risk Solutions, which builds models to analyze the vast amounts of public data that can be scrutinized; and partners ranging from global financial institutions and regional banks to non-profits and non-governmental organizations dedicated to eradicating trafficking.
At LexisNexis Risk Solutions, teams and individuals are drawing on publicly available data and proprietary analytics to develop and perfect sophisticated tools that can be shared. They are harnessing machine learning to develop models that flag warning signs faster and more accurately. “This is the most effective way I can think of to curtail exploitation of vulnerable human beings,” says Stacia Hylton, whose career in the criminal justice arena culminated in a five-year stint as director of the US Marshals Service and who now serves on the board of LexisNexis Special Solutions Inc. “These criminals try to stay a step ahead; we’re committed to making sure that’s no longer going to be possible.”
Tackling Scale and
Monitoring Financial Flows
Tracy was still a child when a young relative told her about being a victim of sexual abuse and exploitation within the family. “I ended up having to testify in court,” she recalls grimly.
Later, Tracy was in college when she realized that the internet — becoming ubiquitous — could become a feeding ground for pedophiles such as the individual who had victimized her young relative. That prospect “lit a fire in me,” she says. Tracy decided to create a chat room and social media profiles that made her look like a pre-teen or young teenager and wait for predators to reach out to her. When that happened — over and over again — she’d arrange to meet the predator. When they arrived at the restaurant or movie theater, they’d find instead members of law enforcement waiting to greet them.
But removing predators from the scene one at a time felt like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. “As satisfying as it felt, I couldn’t be everywhere at once; I couldn’t outsmart all these organized criminals,” Tracy recalls today. As she went on to build a career in marketing and branding, she sensed the overwhelming power of technology to scale and conceal bad behavior. “For criminal networks, all it took to succeed was for us not to collaborate and share information with each other in the way that they did.”
In 2018, Tracy joined LexisNexis Risk Solutions, knowing she had landed somewhere she could work with colleagues to “root out the evil that affects the lives of real people.” A lightbulb moment came when she connected financial flows with sexual exploitation and trafficking: the greater the number of warning signs that new analytics tools could identify in a financial institution’s data and records, the easier it would be to spot suspicious activity that could be passed to law enforcement. “It’s all about filtering data, spotting patterns, and using machine learning to get a scalable solution,” she says. “Banks don’t witness the moments when trafficking victims are saved or the impact of failing to stop this activity but I have. It reminds us all that fighting financial crime is about more than checking a compliance box. It’s about real lives.”
From Individual Criminals
to Whole Organizations
Stacia believes that today’s enhanced ability to screen and analyze data allows law enforcement to be far more effective at preventing and not just punishing trafficking. The kind of data mapping and machine learning tools now available are key to swift and proactive action and crucial to targeting organizations and not just individuals.
Back in the mid-1980s, in her early years in the US Marshals Service, Stacia was transporting a convicted criminal on a Bureau of Prisons charter flight. “This particular dude, convicted of conspiring to traffic drugs, kept asking me how much I made, and comparing it to his six planes, his 10 boats, his acres,” she recalls. “I tell him, ‘Hey, I’ve got my freedom’. He shrugs. He doesn’t care about that or about all the people he’s hurt. He tells me it’s all worth it because of the money he’s made. As long as his criminal enterprises kept earning him money, he felt jail would be something that he could cope with.”
That was the moment that Stacia realized the importance of bringing down criminal organizations as well as nabbing individual criminals. “If we just keep picking them off one by one, we’ll never get rid of them.” (She also took great pleasure in telling the convicted man that should he ever get out of prison, he’d find that the government had confiscated all of his planes, cars, boats, and land.)
Like Tracy, Stacia realized that the weakness of some of the worst criminals lay in their financial dealings. “Money laundering is at the root of all these evils: human trafficking, the narco world, terrorists,” she says. “So if you follow the money, you’ll get to the criminal organization.”
Targeting perpetrators means exploiting any and all vulnerabilities and being able to do so speedily. “I’ve seen tearful parents of a kidnap victim grieve when we haven’t been quick enough,” she says, soberly. “You have 48 to 72 hours … or he’s gone.” That means law enforcement needs the best intelligence — all the digital tools available — to act. In one Oklahoma case that Stacia led, data collection tools allowed her to track an escaped serial child killer and arrest him only seconds before he would have assaulted his next victim.
Using Contacts and Linkages
Formed Over a Lifetime
After a career in public accounting and banking — part of which he spent combatting financial fraud — Terry Schappert was ready for a change. The Knoble Network is a nonprofit organization bringing together businesses and other entities to combat human trafficking and other abuse of society’s most vulnerable. Terry became its head of financial institution relationships, a way to combine his lifelong commitment to giving back to society with his professional skills and the network of contacts he had built up during his career.
Most compliance officers “see things that don’t look right, and don’t feel good,” he explains. “But you don’t know for sure. You can’t make the linkages and can’t prove that scams are running through individual accounts.” Now, one of his tasks is to introduce financial industry peers to the analytical models that can delve more deeply into transaction patterns, as well as to other organizations that can help banks understand and combat what’s happening.
“I’m responsible for getting all of them engaged and making sure they all realize the difference they can make,” he adds.
The first major venture undertaken by The Knoble was launched in 2021. The financial institutions that collaborated on Project Umbra drew on the increasingly sophisticated data tools powered by LexisNexis Risk Solutions to develop new ways to identify accounts that seemed likely to be part of online child sexual exploitation. As the pandemic pushed more kids to spend more time online, nonprofit organizations spotted signs that this was growing rapidly. “Predators hang out at gaming sites, start buying things for kids, then move on to purchasing software making them anonymous, and transferring money,” Terry says, grimly. “And then…”
Spotting that activity among millions of accounts seemed like looking for needles in an immense haystack. But Project Umbra and the sophisticated data analysis that powered it made converts of participants who doubted its efficacy. Reviewing millions of accounts, the model quickly flagged 17 as worrying — 10 of which were referred to law enforcement after further scrutiny. “That kind of precision is remarkable,” Terry says.
Setting Sights on Every
Sort of Illegal Trafficking
Matthew Friedman, a board member of The Knoble and head of the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit combatting modern-day slavery and trafficking, hopes this is just the start of something new. The result, he argues, won’t just be saving vulnerable human beings, but combatting all kinds of illegal trafficking.
“It’s all linked,” he explains. More than two decades ago, based in Bangladesh and working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), he accompanied local law enforcement as they raided a brothel where they had been told young girls had been forced into prostitution.
Matthew was relieved when the team was able to rescue the children. But during the raid, he had spotted signs of many other kinds of illicit activity: caches of weapons (arms trafficking), drugs (narcotics trafficking), and even a stash of ground rhino horn that the brothel’s customers could use as an aphrodisiac (wildlife trafficking.) The magnitude of the problem — its complexity and scope — felt overwhelming. That, he argues, is why alliances such as those formed via Knoble, and sophisticated data analytics such as those developed by LexisNexis Risk Solutions, are so crucial. “Targeting one of these successfully likely means you’ve hampered the others. And the world will be a better place.”
Ending the scourge of trafficking requires partnerships between passionate and committed individuals. As Terry says, “Together, we can come up with new and creative ways to analyze financial data, to forge links with law enforcement and to remain vigilant…it gives me — it gives us all — a sense of purpose.”