Sex traffickers use social media to lure victims

As the use and popularity of social media continue to grow — particularly among youths — they also are a go-to forum for human sex traffickers to lure potential victims.

At least that’s what panelists conveyed during a recent human trafficking awareness seminar at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, in Wesley Chapel.

About 300 people attended a recent human trafficking awareness seminar at
Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch. Much of the discussion focused on online recruitment tactics of sex traffickers. Panelists included Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, Pasco Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Alan Wilkett, Paving the Way CEO Jan Edwards, Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking chair Liana Dean, and Christine Ashurst, a human trafficking survivor. (Kevin Weiss)

Pasco Sheriff Cpl. Alan Wilkett, who was one of the panelists, said his agency has a running list of about 40 websites, games and apps that can be used and exploited by sex traffickers for recruiting and grooming purposes, especially to reach minors.

“It used to be parks and malls, and playgrounds and ballfields,” Wilkett said, but now human traffickers are increasing the use of online tools.

He cautioned about using online video mobile apps, such as Meerkat, Periscope and Omegle, as well as free chat apps including  Kik Messenger — because each allows its users to interact with strangers.

“That’s where the danger is,” Wilkett warned.

Predators and traffickers also use the chat feature in Xbox and PlayStation games to find vulnerable youths, Wilkett said.

In those games, traffickers will pose as a teenager, then try to build a ‘friendship’ and set up a face-to-face meet with the target, he explained.

“Anywhere that there’s kids, the predator’s going to be there.

“If your kids have (games and apps) that have that chat feature in it, you’ve got problems, because now there is a door for them to come in and begin that recruitment process,” Wilkett said.

Wilkett also drew attention to bogus model auditions that are being used as a sex trafficking trap.

It works like this, Wilkett said: Sex traffickers will pose as a model agent for a large corporation and begin the grooming process by taking headshots. They methodically progress to bathing suit shots, and then more risqué poses.

In some of these cases, the grooming process will last a couple of weeks; in others, as quickly as 72 hours.

“They go in for their first headshot, and 72 hours later, they’re being trafficked,” Wilkett said.

He also mentioned free online dating sites, such as PlentyOfFish, where sex traffickers place ads to lure adults.

Panelist Jan Edwards, CEO of the antitrafficking nonprofit Paving The Way, advised parents to monitor their children’s online activity.

That’s important, she said, because children often accept friend and follower requests on all forms of media — even when they don’t know the person making the request.

It’s important to have access to all of their devices, Edwards said, because youths have discovered ways to hide online content on their smartphones and tablets. They use special vault apps, such as Calculator+, an app which seemingly looks and acts like a calculator.

“Know what they’re doing,” Edwards said. “Kids need to understand they’re the commodity, they’re the target.”

Panelist Christine Ashurst, a child sex trafficking survivor, reiterated those sentiments.

“Social media and the Internet has absolutely, in my opinion, proliferated the (human trafficking) problem so exponentially. It’s so insane right now.”

Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar industry that enslaves approximately 25 million people around the world, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

The United States leads all other countries in the demand for trafficked victims.

Florida ranks No. 3 in the volume of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is “a hotspot” for human trafficking, said panelist Liana Dean, who chairs the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking.

“There’s different figures reported, but we definitely say that it is an issue in the Tampa Bay area and in Pasco,” Dean said.

It’s a crime that occurs in ‘plain sight’
Human trafficking is known as a “hidden crime,” she said, because there isn’t much awareness about it.

“It’s happening right in front of us, and because we don’t know what to look for, we don’t recognize that it’s happening in front of us,” Dean said.

“This is not a problem that one individual or one organization can solve. It takes an entire community,” she said.

Panelists agreed that having meaningful conversations about the problem is the first step toward combating it.

Edwards put it this way: “Human trafficking is so pervasive because we don’t want to deal with it, (and) we don’t want to talk about it.”

However, she continued: “The moment we actually open our mouths and have that dialogue with somebody, we can save a life. We can save a life just by sharing one benign fact, just by clicking ‘Share’ on something. That’s how we disrupt it — is we have the uncomfortable conversations with people and we start to get them comfortable in talking about it,” she said.

The seminar was part of PHSC’s ongoing community awareness series and co-hosted by the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking and the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.

The event also featured a screening of Edward’s award-winning film, “Trapped in the Trade,” which shines a light on how children and teenagers can be easily and intentionally recruited into the world of sex trafficking.

Published February 06, 2019

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