Sex traffickers using emojis to sell children

DENVER -- There are more than 1.5 million victims of human trafficking in the United States, according to law enforcement.

Child sex traffickers are using emoji symbols such as smiley faces to lure young victims.

The FOX31 Problem Solvers learned the symbols are found all over websites such as Backpage.com, where pimps are reportedly known to sell girls and boys as young as 12 and 13 years old for sex.

Masters student Jessica Whitney found a way to crack the emoji code that is used.

“They're a lot harder to detect in a system because you can't just search the keyword,” she said.

Investigators say if pimps used obvious words such as "young” or gave an actual age online, the website would flag them.

Some pimps have used words such as "fresh” or “sweet,” but police were able to track the clues.

Whitney and her professor Murray Jenney figured out the emoji code.

They said the cherry symbol means virgin. The number of roses implies the price and an airplane means new in town.

A crown symbol indicates a girl or boy is under house arrest and the growing heart emoji let’s the buyer know the girl or boy is childlike and still has some growing to do.

Homeless teens are an easy target for sex traffickers. The key to helping the teens is getting them to a safe place.

“It is very difficult to especially get younger (kids) who are being trafficked under 18 because they are very well protected and have a very hard time getting away," said Kendall Rames of Denver’s Urban Peak organization.