Fact check: Mask-wearing not connected to child trafficking

The claim: Mask wearing makes children more at risk for child sex trafficking

Misinformation about the causes of sex trafficking and how to protect minors can be especially damaging in the fight against it, yet a web of conspiracy theories about the crime has grown over the past few years.

The latest false claim is that wearing masks to prevent COVID-19 makes children more susceptible to abduction, which leads to trafficking.

“Did you know that more than 2,000 missing-child reports are filed each day, and that many of them can be easily found when parents provide specific details about their physical appearance and a photo of THEIR FACE?” a post shared over 1,000 times reads. “Did you KNOW that a child in AMERICA is over 66,000 x more likely to be human trafficked than to get COVID-19?”

Similar posts contend that upwards of 800,000 children go missing every year, and that mask-wearing makes a child more likely to be trafficked. These posts also criticize government officials and businesses for promoting mask use, arguing they are endangering children.

“We have now COMPLETELY taken away identifying our children’s faces. We’ve made it much easier on these child abductors and human traffickers!” a post shared almost 8,000 times reads.

“A child is 66,667 times more likely to be sold to human traffickers than die of COVID-19,” another post shared 2,000 times reads. “In addition, your masks assist in them being transported undetected and unidentified to anyone.”

One of the posters cited an article from a Heritage Foundation blog on an increase in human trafficking during the pandemic when asked for comment from USA TODAY.

The article does not make a connection between mask-wearing and human trafficking or child sex trafficking.

But anti-trafficking experts agree there is no evidence that mask-wearing leads to increased rates of child sex trafficking. Furthermore, advocates and activists say the abductions described are extremely rare situations, and that the proliferation of false information inhibits real work battling trafficking.

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Child trafficking in the US, by the numbers

Human trafficking, and especially child sex trafficking, are difficult crimes to quantify, according to experts. That said, anti-trafficking experts have several best estimates for combating it.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which handles cases of sex trafficking and abuse, there were 421,394 entries for missing children filed with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2019. That is slightly down from 424,066 cases reported in 2018.

Those numbers reflect a significant decrease over the past decade. In 2012, about 800,000 children were reported missing.

Posts claiming more than 2,000 children go missing each day seem to break down that number into a daily count.

While those totals are daunting, it is important to note that the children in over 97% of those cases were recovered safely within the year. Recovery rates annually remain between 95%-99%, according to statistics from NCMEC.

"The largest category of missing children are so-called runaways – children missing because of family conflict – and 99% of them are located and re-united, although often there are subsequent departures," said David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

“Runaways make up 91% of the missing child cases. Nonfamily abductions make up less than 1%,” Staca Shehan, vice president of NCMEC’s analytical services division, told USA TODAY.

“The other thing that’s important here is that (the NCIC statistics are) about missing child incidents, not unique cases. So, the same child can go missing 20 times a year and still be filed each time," Shehan said.

This means the number of children reported missing each year is, at face value, inflated, as many children in unsafe or unstable situations are likely to repeatedly run away or go missing. And those children are vulnerable.

It also means that far fewer than 2,000 children go missing every day in the United States, as that number is based on a greatly inflated average.

The true average is unknown, which also makes the likelihood of any individual child getting trafficked for sex unknowable. The number is almost certainly lower than the cited "66,000" statistic, though.

"No one knows how many children are truly at risk, it's impossible to know for sure," Shehan said. "But I have no idea how someone could come to that number."

Missing children are, however, at great risk of trafficking and abuse while separated from their families.

“Of the nearly 26,300 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2019, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking,” a NCMEC key facts page states on its website.

Coronavirus and child trafficking

A child wears a protective mask while feeding a sheep at recently reopened Tisch Children's Zoo as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on July 27, 2020 in New York City.

The coronavirus pandemic has hampered efforts to combat child trafficking at the same time those most vulnerable to trafficking are at heightened risk for abduction and predation.

“When the pandemic started, we didn’t see an increase in the overall types of calls and requests, but we did see a change in the types of requests coming in,” Megan Cutter, acting director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, told USA TODAY.

The hotline, which handles human trafficking cases across the United States, saw a sharp increase in calls with urgent needs for food assistance and housing at the start of the pandemic, according to Cutter.

“There was this dual increased need and then also increased challenges in accessing help,” Cutter said.

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Cybertrafficking, where unmonitored children may be targeted by predators online, has risen sharply during the pandemic. The FBI, which investigates and prosecutes child sex trafficking cases, issued a warning about the threat at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We just had the expectation that children would be on devices more often, with more online access and often unmoderated online access. That’s a concern,” Leonard Carollo, acting assistant section chief of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Unit, said.

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“Predators know that, and know that it’s a space where children can be vulnerable,” Carollo said.

Children who are especially in danger of being trafficked, including low-income children or those in unstable and abusive homes, have also seen those risk factors greatly increase during the pandemic.

“We are seeing that the kids who were at risk prior continue to be at risk,” Shehan said. “That includes kids in households that are food insecure, kids in the child welfare or legal systems who are impacted directly or indirectly.”

Black, Indigenous and other minority communities may face forced labor and child sex trafficking, a reality that anti-trafficking experts say has likely worsened during the pandemic.

“In times of crisis vulnerable people are always at greater risk than others and this pandemic is no different,” said Bridgette Carr, an anti-trafficking expert and professor at the University of Michigan School of Law. “The reality of COVID-19 means trafficking victims are likely more isolated and dependent on their traffickers and less likely to be able to access help and support.”

No link between mask-wearing and abductions

Experts are confident that child sex trafficking is not made more likely by mask-wearing.

“Based on what we’ve seen in the trafficking hotline so far, there is no reason to believe that wearing a mask in public is a risk factor in human trafficking,” Cutter told USA TODAY.

Cases of child abduction from nonfamiliar adults is an already extremely rare form of trafficking.

“I actually can’t think of one case example (of abduction). What we are seeing is that kids are being recruited or groomed and enticed,” Shehan said. “The narrative of kids being abducted is the opposite of the typical cases we see. Abduction off the street is the outlier, not the norm.”

Cutter confirmed this.

“One of the biggest misconceptions with human and child sex trafficking is that a common luring tactic is kidnapping when in reality most victims are trafficked by someone who the victim already knows,” she said.

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And Carollo added that kidnappings by strangers are rare in any case.

“A very low percentage of cases are stranger abductions. What we see is the overwhelming majority of abductions are a familial abduction or a familiar abduction,” Carollo told USA TODAY.

Misinformation hurts anti-trafficking efforts

Protesters listen to William Kelly, host of the Citizen Kelly Show, as he speaks about suing Gov. JB Pritzker over COVID-19 restrictions during the "Million Unmasked March" at the Illinois State Capitol, Saturday, July 25, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. The protesters gathered in front of the Abraham Lincoln Statue to voice their opposition to guidelines that children be required to wear face masks when they return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP) ORG XMIT: ILSPR103

“On any given day, pre-COVID, numerous myths and misconceptions about human trafficking abound. However, the volume on this misinformation has increased significantly during the pandemic,” Carr said. “This misinformation harms victims and sends resources to the wrong places.”

She also said victims of trafficking are likely to transition into jobs now considered essential, like grocery stores, meatpacking, and other forms of food production and delivery. 

“When misinformation about human trafficking goes viral it can be harmful because it distracts from the reality about how trafficking really happens,” Cutter said.

Child sex trafficking conspiracy theories, like recent accusations against online retailer Wayfair, overwhelmed services like the National Human Trafficking Hotline with calls about the viral claims, crowding out calls from victims.

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While some claims during the pandemic are reportedly part of coordinated misinformation efforts, it is less clear if child trafficking theories originate from an insincere place.

“We haven’t seen any that are purposeful,” Shehan said. “It does seem to be well-intended people who are concerned about child sex abuse and child sex trafficking.

“However, in their attempts to be helpful they are misdirecting the attention to what they think these situations look like in ways that can be very problematic,” she emphasized.

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Major misconceptions around child sex trafficking often cloud public understanding and impede efforts to combat it.

“Human trafficking is not always a violent crime. The actual act of the trafficking, those commercial sex acts, that’s violent. But it usually doesn’t start with some violent abduction like the movie 'Taken,' with some Hollywood glamorization where the child has been forced into sex trafficking. Most of our victims have been lured or groomed into sex trafficking," Carollo told USA TODAY.

Other important but overlooked realities of trafficking are that most victims are American citizens, and that many are boys and members of the LGBTQ community, especially trans people.

More:Boys — the silent victims of sex trafficking

“Another misconception is that trafficking individuals are held against their will. That can happen, but quite often what’s holding those victims back is a psychological hold – what we refer to sometimes as trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome,” Carollo said.

“(Misinformation) hurts victims. When these myths are prevalent it means real victims are ignored and often donations head to organizations that aren't really on the ground serving victims,” Carr stressed.

Our ruling: False

There is no evidence that mask-wearing can lead to child sex trafficking. The children most at risk of being trafficked are those in low-income, unstable living conditions, which often includes racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ minors. Misinformation clouds efforts to combat the crime. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

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