While the COVID-19 pandemic captures headlines, human trafficking is a societal crisis that’s often hidden in the shadows, according to public safety experts.
Human trafficking occurs when one human exploits another human being, for a commercial purpose. Often described as “modern day slavery,” it involves traffickers using force, fraud or coercion to recruit, transport, transfer or harbor people.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are about 40 million human trafficking victims globally.
That figure may be conservative, though, as other groups have pegged the number closer to 60 million victims, said retired Pasco Sheriff’s Cpl. Alan Wilkett, an expert in the study of human trafficking.
The statistics are staggering and the personal costs enormous.
“When you talk about those numbers (of victims), every single one of those is a human being,” Wilkett said. “A human being with a heart, a mind, with dreams, hopes, ambitions. They dreamed of being something, whatever that something was for them.”
Wilkett was the featured speaker on a Dec. 7 webinar presented by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, Florida’s Forensic Institute for Research, Security & Tactics, and Saint Leo University’s department of public safety administration.
The webinar — “Human Trafficking: How does it affect your community?”— was facilitated by Dr. Karin May, an assistant professor for the department of criminal justice at Saint Leo.
She chairs the Mel Greene Institute for the Prevention of Human Trafficking.
Human trafficking, May said, is “a public health issue that impacts individuals, families and communities.”
The impacts are widespread, she said. “It’s not just international. It’s here, and it’s in our communities.”
Wilkett spent 25 years in law enforcement, including the past several focused on fighting human trafficking. He was commander of the Pasco County Human Trafficking Task Force.
In 2017, he received the Florida Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Official of the Year from then Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Commercial sex trafficking and labor trafficking are the predominant forms of human trafficking, but there are 20 different forms, Wilkett said. Others include forced marriage, involuntary servitude, and domestic servitude.
Wilkett’s talk centered on commercial sex trafficking, which involves exchanging a sex act for something of commercial value, such as money, drugs or shelter.
America is regarded as a “top-tier consuming country” — in terms of human trafficking for sex and labor, he said.
States reporting the greatest number of cases are California, Texas and Florida, he said.
Areas particularly at-risk are the eastern and western seaboard, and borders along the Gulf of Mexico. And, sex trafficking is predominant in larger cities, via strip clubs, brothels and illicit massage businesses, he added.
Hot spots in Florida include Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, Fort Myers/Naples and the Tampa Bay region, he said, based on the volume of calls made to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Beware of digital gateways
An alarming revelation shared during the webinar involves the pervasive presence of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) that is being discovered on social media outlets and other electronic service providers.
Girls are featured in the overwhelming majority of CSAM, while prepubescent children are at the greatest risk to be depicted — through explicit drawings, pictures or videos, Wilkett said.
In 2020, there were more than 21.7 million reports of CSAM across digital platforms to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline.
Of that, over 20 million reports came from Facebook alone.
Google reported 546,704; Snapchat, 144,095; Twitter, 65,062; and TikTok, 22,692.
While noting Facebook has reported immense numbers, Wilkett is skeptical about the accuracy of the reporting by the other applications.
“Twenty million from Facebook, and you only have 144,000 from Snapchat. Seriously?” Wilkett said.
He took Big Tech to task for contributing to the problem and said it’s time for them to be held accountable.
Traffickers altering tactics
The expert on human trafficking also detailed shifts in the ways that predators groom, recruit and traffick adults and children.
Some statistics estimate that 60% of all trafficking happens online, but Wilkett suspects that figure is low.
“Predators want to be where the kids are,” he said, noting that means they want to be on social media, apps, and gaming systems.
Previously, predators primarily targeted playgrounds, malls, and bus stops, he said.
Those remain threat environments, he said, but added: “If the kids are hanging out online, that’s exactly where the predators are going to be.”
Wilkett said parents and guardians need to know about encrypted messaging systems and vault apps that children may have on their smartphones or other devices, to hide certain material, conversations and contacts.
There are many of these apps, he said, while specifically mentioning WhatsApp, Wickr, Telegram, Signal, and Calculator+.
Traffickers also have become more creative in branding and marketing various services, he said.
Emojis, for instance, have become “very prominent” within sex trafficking.
Traffickers use dating websites, and provide a false description followed by emojis to let buyers know what they’ll be getting.
So, instead of it being, say, a 21-year-old female being advertised, traffickers include a lollipop or growing heart emoji — to signify a young boy or girl is available for commercial sex.
Traffickers and pimps who previously branded their victims with tattoos to indicate ownership are no longer doing that because they realize that law enforcement and communities had caught on to that trend.
Instead, they incorporate soft branding — particularly on minors — in the form of necklaces, charm bracelets, wristbands and ankle bracelets.
Those usually contain a symbol, charm, emblem, number, phrase or word with a unique meaning, perhaps a lion’s head or lightning bolt, Wilkett said.
“Whatever it is, it will have an attachment to their boyfriend, trafficker, pimp,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies also have discovered “an absolute increase” in reports of familial sex trafficking — such as a grandmother pimping out a granddaughter, or an uncle pimping out a niece, he said.
The best way communities can combat illegal trafficking is to target buyers more robustly, Wilkett said.
Harsher penalties would decrease demand, thus reducing the incentive for traffickers to recruit victims, Wilkett said.
For instance, increasing the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony for a first-time sex solicitation violation would help deter the crime, he said.
“They buyer needs to understand, ‘You are equally culpable,’” Wilkett said.
Published December 15, 2021