We've seen text messaging used in a host of inventive
ways to make our lives a little easier, but the way
the Polaris Project has enlisted SMS for a bigger task:
helping victims of human trafficking find safety and
get back on their feet. The non-profit, which works
to prevent and fight human trafficking, has extended
their hotline that allows victims of human trafficking
to reach out for help to support text messages. The
benefits of this simple change have enormous implications
for the thousands of victims of modern day slavery.
Polaris launched the text messaging branch of their
hotline in March of 2013. The texting program functions
similarly to their call line; victims can text either
the word "HELP" or "INFO" to BeFree (233733), which
connects them to Polaris' hotline staff. The hotline
staff can then promptly reach out to victims via text
message, using a messaging service on their computers.
Making their hotline text-accessible has been a powerful
move for Polaris. For whatever reason, many people,
especially younger people, are more inclined to seek
help via text message than via phone call or online
means like emails or web forms. Text messaging also
has the benefit of being a relatively accessible form
of communication; one does not need access to a computer,
or to find the extended period of time one must dedicate
to a phone call. These qualities may make seeking help
via text message more feasible for victims in a variety
Additionally, texting is rapid, and silent, making
it potentially very important to victims trying to seek
help in sensitive or unsafe situations. For instance,
a victim looking to escape their situation but without
any means of outreach may be able to gain temporary
access to a cell phone, possibly even their trafficker's,
and can silently ask for help under the radar. Polaris'
hotline staff need only call authorities to intervene
and bring the victim to safety.
The benefit of this service extends beyond offering
immediate help to victims who reach out via text. Each
text message is a piece of data, able not only to point
to how to help a victim in a time of need, but to make
up part of a whole portrait of human trafficking. By
gathering data on trafficking and its victims, such
as patterns and locations, Polaris is better positioned
to understand the nature of the beast they deal with,
and therefore better able to attack it.
A particularly noteworthy application of this data
is not simply to help victims of trafficking, but to
strive to prevent people from being trafficked. From
texts to their hotline, Polaris has been able to gather
information on traffickers and popular recruitment spots
from which victims are taken, better preparing them
to intervene before someone even falls victim to trafficking.
Interestingly, opening the hotline to text messages
has presented a few new, specific training needs for
the hotline staff. Because text messaging is a less
continuous and generally more concise medium than voice,
and because victims may be in a time crunch to send
vital messages, staff must be prepared to respond appropriately
to texts that are often truncated and lack context.
Additionally, staff must be able to quickly interpret
shorthand used in text messages.
Staff must also be prepared to work with victims who
reply sporadically, often out of necessity; unlike in
a phone call, there can be pauses of several minutes
to even hours in between messages. Staff must adjust
to this pacing, and be able to respond promptly to messages
even after a delay with relevant and helpful outreach.
Clearly, text messaging isn't a replacement for phoning
for help; it in fact represents a different sort of
communication, one perhaps better suited to reach a
different demographic or to help in different situations.
And as such, it has been a powerful and invaluable tool
for Polaris, allowing them to expand their reach to
even more people who need support and intervention.
About the Author -
Sharon Housley is the VP of Marketing for NotePage,
Inc. a software company for communication software solutions.