By Lina Kolesnikova, Security Expert
At the end of 2022, a controversial UK online influencer and a former kickboxer Andrew Tate was arrested in Romania alongside with his brother. Two men were detained as part of a human trafficking and rape investigation. The DIICOT (Directorate for Investigating Organised Crime and Terrorism) statement said that “…suspects appear to have created an organised crime group with a purpose of recruiting, housing and exploiting women by forcing them to create pornographic content”. The statement also claimed that six people were identified as victims of sexual exploitation. The organised crime group used the “loverboy method” to seduce victims with false promises of romantic relations or love. Then, victims are forced mainly to practice prostitution, while not exclusively. Victims of such method could be identified in other criminal sectors too.
There are several ways how this method works. With a help of social networks and dating applications, criminals pose as young people (frequently using fake names and photos), who are, as though, looking for love and relations (that is why they are named loverboys). First, they deceive young women and men (mostly teenage girls and boys) engaging into active messages’ exchanges. When the trust is built, victims are proposed to send photos or videos of personal or sexual nature. After getting incriminating materials on victims, criminals switch to blackmailing. They arrange a meeting, and, to victim’s surprise, she (he) meets an adult who threatens to upload photos and videos to the Internet. There could be another modus operandi, when victims do not send photos and video at the messages’ phase but are forced to pose naked or have sexual relations at the first meeting and are filmed by criminals for future blackmailing. Subsequently, victims are forced to become prostitutes, for criminals’ benefits.
Loverboys could also choose another way of recruitment as they meet girls first, impress them by giving presents, showing care (the grooming stage) and pretend being in love. They offer shelter to girls from marginalised families or those running away from educational institutions. After reaching full emotional and financial dependency of minors, perpetrators force them to prostitution or criminal activities for own benefits.
Most of the victims are very young and have neither strength nor sufficient comprehension of situation to oppose the blackmailing. However, not all victims prostitute only from fear. There are many, who are psychologically controlled by loverboys and/or sincerely in love with them. Pretty often the loverboys are young too, in their twenties in general. According to Belgian NGO Child Focus “the pimps are not only motivated by profit, but also by power through the feeling of taking total control over a person”. The organization indicated that criminals derive benefits varied depending on the methods used and the type of clients: “Prices vary from €150 to €300 per hour. Some pimps take teenage girls to cafes and nightclubs. They appeal to a younger audience and prices vary between €20 and €60 depending on the services offered.”
Girls are often drugged to become more dependent on their pimps. Relational dependence is often such that, if there is a trial, some victims come to attend the hearings to morally support their “friend”.
There are also lovergirls, who are victims on one side but, on the other side, they recruit or help in recruiting new girls/boys to stay in good terms with their loverboys and show own importance to pimps.
The method itself is not a new one. In 2020 law enforcement of the UK and Romania arrested 21 members of the organised criminal group, which specialized in trafficking young Romanian girls to the UK, Ireland and Germany for sexual exploitation. This criminal group was active from 2009 and it targeted Romanian girls from vulnerable backgrounds using loverboy’s method. Girls were forced to prostitute in Romania first, but after turning the age of 18, were transported to other countries.
Netherlands and Belgium a new paradise for loverboys
Dutch and Belgian authorities raise an alarm by a growing number of teenage girls, who forced to prostitute by loverboys in both countries.
The problem came into public attention in 2016 when Antwerp rapper devoted a song “Amigo” to his friend, a convicted loverboy. The latter used to force girls from vulnerable families, who were placed at special educational institutions, to prostitute for his benefits.
Antwerp is a recognized hub of the phenomenon in Flanders. The city is full of “rogue” hotels, where minors are sexually exploited by organized criminal groups or individuals. The “service” is advertised at the darknet or in closed groups at social networks.
As for girls’ profiles, it is difficult to make generalizations. Child Focus in its study points out that “it seems that this can happen to all adolescents who are not feeling well at some point or are in a vulnerable situation”. They could be foreign girls but also Belgians. The victims of loverboys are generally recruited in their country of origin, after which they are brought to Belgium. Pimp begins a relationship with a victim in the her/his country of origin, for example, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Nigeria. Another possibility is to see loverboys recruiting and exploiting victims in Belgium itself, in special youth institutions.
Girls of foreign origin arrive either directly from their own countries or via transit countries, where they forced to prostitute as well.
It starts very young, from 12 years old, but the target group is 14-16-year-old teenagers. The most important aspect is the vulnerability of these young people. These are people who, long before coming across the loverboy, encountered significant psychological, emotional or social difficulties. Some have also been in specialised institutions. This vulnerability often explains why many young girls or boys can fall prey to these pimps.
If the bond is primarily an emotional one, violence and threats arrive quickly. Perpetrators also deprive girls of their family or friend context where they could find support. At a certain point, their social circle consists only of boys and girls who are in the circuit themselves. If you then ask a 14-year-old girl or boy to distance herself/himself from it, it is really tough to fulfil.
As for the number of investigations carried out, it rose from 3 in 2015 to 28 in 2018. In four years, 35 people were convicted. Authorities of Antwerp wants to combat such problem with a closer cooperation with NGOs, which work with vulnerable minors in Belgium as well as in the Netherlands. However, there is no good estimate of how many people, and of which nationalities, find themselves trapped by such scheme.
Geography is played as well. Villages and small towns situated on Dutch-Belgian border served as a base of sexual exploitation of Dutch teenage girls. This new type of pimping uses open intra-European borders and differences of judicial systems, lack of police cooperation and terra incognita factor for victims. Criminals from Netherlands make deal with criminal groups from Belgium for girls’ exchange. This leads to girls finding themselves in another country without an easy possibility of contacting anyone from family or friends.
Problem with detection
Important problem is identifying the victims of loverboys. When they are caught prostituting it looks as girls are doing that themselves, without making any connection with a pimping lover. The degree of manipulation and dependency of these young girls remains, unfortunately, little known and sometimes ignored.
Another problem is the fact that Belgian or Dutch victims are not easily perceived as victims of human trafficking; a status generally attributed to victims of foreign origin. Besides this, the victims do not consider themselves as such. They are therefore reluctant to make statements to the police. The youth services of the local police are also still unfamiliar with indicators of human trafficking. Sometimes, minor victims even risk being stigmatized as problematic children, or could even be considered responsible for acts contrary to good morals.
Another issue lays with families, who often want to silence the problem out of fear losing custody on own children. The latter may arrive as a result of investigation when all blame could go onto parents’ shoulders.
All experts believe that raising awareness about the phenomenon is an urgent and important task. However, it is a long-term task, indeed. So far, the big picture of the problem lacks. It is necessary to understand its nature and its extent, to develop an appropriate response approach. The incomplete view is mainly explained by a detection problem. Law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, parents, and teenagers themselves should know about a risk. In some way it is not a new fact that social networks pose serious security risks for their users.
The biggest issue at hand is the victims themselves. We are talking about very young people, open and vulnerable in the sense that by pressing the topic, authorities unwillingly could be breaking their dreams about love. Pimps usually build string victims’ psychological bond with them. Victims, therefore, must work on realising they themselves are victims. This demand rebuilding trust with authorities and other people, and that task is very difficult, in most cases. Psychologists and related specialists could probably help the most in freeing victims from their dependencies on pimps.