HT-NEXT 2021 Excerpt: How Can Technology Stop Traffickers?

Panelists discussed how technology could be used to help stop human trafficking from happening within hotels.
Michal Christine Escobar
Senior Editor (Hotels)
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Larry Birnbaum, Lori Cohen, Rosemarie Vesci, and Robyn Conlon

During HT-NEXT 2021, hotel technology leaders gathered together to listen to an amazing group of panelists brought together to discuss how technology could be used to help stop human trafficking from happening within hotels. Chip Rogers, CEO, AHLA kicked off the session discussing how important this initiative was to AHLA.

“When we started this campaign a few years ago, we knew we would never be able to declare victory over human trafficking – it will always happen,” Rogers explained. “But we are doing our best to ensure that every hotel employee is not only aware of the signs and but also knows how to properly act on those signs.”

As of July 30th, more than 500,000 hotel employees have been trained via the AHLA and ECPAT-USA partnership. Rogers then turned the session over to Larry Birnbaum, Principal Consultant, Xenios Group, who moderated the discussion with panelists Robyn Conlon, Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopersLori Cohen, Chief Executive Officer, ECPAT-USA and Rosemarie Vesci, FBI Supervisory Special Agent, U.S. Government.

Birnbaum began by asking Conlon how her organization is involved with this initiative. According to Conlon, PwC helps companies face and navigate the social responsibilities necessary when something happens that threatens the safety of employees or customers.

“When it comes to trafficking, hotels used to say: ‘I’m not law enforcement or a non-profit. I don’t need to get involved in this issue.’ But we need to change that attitude among hoteliers and create a new standard for how the industry as a whole responds to trafficking,” she noted.

Cohen agreed noting that ECPAT-USA was initially begun to help create laws around sex tourism that would penalize Americans for traveling overseas to have sex with children. In 2000, ECPAT-USA was instrumental in getting these laws on the books, but the organization knew its work wasn’t over especially since children in the United States were facing this exact same issue. So, the organization is now focused on protecting children in the United States.

Vesci then educated attendees on how traffickers use technology to advertise to and recruit clients.

“We used to see blatant ads posted to Craigslist or Backpage, a website used only for purchasing sex. When the FBI took Backpage down, several others popped up to replace it. We even find ads popping up on social media or traffickers using fake profiles on social media to market these trafficked individuals,” Vesci explained.

Birnbaum then asked the panelists what they thought hotel technologists could do to prevent trafficking from happening on their properties.

Conlon began by discussing the need for hoteliers to develop a risk assessment for each of their properties. Hoteliers can use external data sources such as social media layered with internal data sets such as the CRS, training, observations, guest Medallia systems, etc. to paint a profile of each hotel property and discover which properties are likely to be at higher risk for human trafficking.

“For example, do you have hotel properties that are close to an airport, have easy access to a highway, have high turnover in property managers, have a large amount of staff that haven’t been trained on the signs of trafficking, etc.,” she explained.

Vesci added that the need for records is critical for the FBI to bring these cases to trial and get traffickers incarcerated.

“Often hotel records are instrumental to piecing together a story or corroborating a trafficked person’s account, but unfortunately the records hoteliers keep aren’t always detailed enough or aren’t accurate. Traffickers might make the reservation under one name but check-in under another. Or they use one of trafficked persons to reserve the hotel room. The FBI needs phone numbers, copies of driver’s licenses, and more to ensure we can prosecute the right person,” Vesci explained.

She also begged attendees to improve video camera footage in hotel lobbies, hallways, elevators and more.

“I can’t tell you how often hoteliers are using low quality cameras which prevents us from being able to identify perpetrators or their victims,” she noted.

Cohen also asked technologists to look into transactional details as a way to signal red flags to hotel staff. For instance, is someone reserving multiple rooms next to each other and also requesting that they be on the ground floor or next to a stairwell? Are they paying cash for the rooms? Do they refuse housekeeping but are constantly requesting new linens and towels? Are they asking for a lot of additional key cards? All of these details, especially when combined together, could indicate something nefarious is happening in those rooms. If technologists are able to create a system that could keep tabs on these types of details and then report it to hotel staff or management, this could be extremely helpful.

As this discussion came to an end, Vesci left attendees with a final thought.

“The FBI isn’t the answer to this problem,” Vesci noted. “It’s time for us all to partner together and ask how can we do better?”