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How is Texting Impacting Human Trafficking?

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 of situations.

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. http://www.notepage.net


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