Updated: Feb 27
As we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be easy to get caught up in the panic. Mask or no mask? Virtual school or regular school? Remote or office work? There are so many decisions we're all faced with each day, all in the name of keeping ourselves and our families safe. Sadly, COVID is not the only pandemic. The other is modern-day slavery or human trafficking, and it's not getting the attention it needs.
What are the facts about human trafficking?
Human Trafficking is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world and is the second-largest criminal industry behind drug trafficking. Often these go hand in hand. Many people think it's "not in my area," but this is simply not true. Traffickers do not target one group of people, and no race, gender, age group, or social class is immune.
Traffickers target children more often than adults, and young people already considered at risk are targeted most. As a parent or caregiver, one of the most important steps you can take to stop trafficking is to be aware of the warning signs. Being prepared does not mean being scared. It means you are taking control of your child’s safety.
The statistics on human trafficking are alarming. Since 2007 more than 49,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported in the United States. Many experts agree that this number is inaccurate due to under-reporting, however. California, Texas, and Florida have the highest number of reported cases of trafficking, but every state in our country has reported cases. Children are more vulnerable than adults because they are usually easier to control, are less demanding, and they are cheaper. Children already at risk are even more vulnerable. Risk Factors include:
· Children in foster care
· Those with addiction issues
· Those whose parents have addiction issues
· Any home with neglect, abuse or any other instability
· The LGBTQ community
All these factors can lead to a child that is bullied or isolated, has no self-esteem, has no one in their life to care enough to monitor what they're doing, and a feeling that any life is better than the one they have now. When an "opportunity" presents itself, they take it.
How do traffickers find victims?
Many people only know trafficking from what they've seen in movies or on television. They envision a van speeding up to a young girl, people jumping out and snatching her into it in broad daylight as she kicks and screams, then speeding away just as quickly, never to be seen again.
This is very rarely the case. Traffickers do not often draw that sort of attention to themselves. They work behind the scenes in ways parents may have never even thought of to befriend and lure our children into their world.
Traffickers have many ways of gaining access to children. They hang out in places they know children will frequent including movie theaters, bowling alleys, and malls. They also find victims at large social events such as concerts, fairs, festivals, et cetera. These are often places that parents send their children to in large groups, thinking they will be safe as long as they stay together.
Children are also targeted online through chat rooms, online gaming sites, and apps on their cell phones. Traffickers simply make contact with a child and continue to communicate with them as a "friend" and gain their trust. With more and more of our lives online, this is becoming easier and easier.
A few of the apps commonly used by traffickers include Kik, Whisper, Partyline, and Periscope. These apps are free and easily downloaded through a cell phone’s app store. Within just a few minutes, your child can have an account set up and be talking to anyone else with an account, and you may never know.
There are also apps that are disguised to look like a different, innocent app to fool parents. One example is an app that looks like a calculator. Many of these apps are GPS-tagged and have the ability to broadcast video or share photos in real-time. This makes it very easy for traffickers to know exactly where your child is at any given time. A quick scan of your child's phone may not alarm you in this case, so digging deeper is warranted.
Social media is another threat. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram all allow for easy sharing of information and photos, as well as messaging. This allows traffickers to communicate with children and build a “friendship.” In this way, they are able to see all your child’s interests and form connections that lead to trust. Once a child trusts someone they have met on social media, they may agree to meet that person.
Consider this scenario: Your daughter is in a gymnastics class. She's really good, but she craves validation, so she often posts pictures of herself in class on her social media accounts. A trafficker finds her online and befriends her. He tells her how great she is, how beautiful she is, and that he knows someone who could make her famous. Sometimes that's all it takes to lure a young girl with big dreams away from her family.
Online gaming sites are a more recent way traffickers are targeting children. These include gaming platforms like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord. These sites are used by millions of people, and parents are not as likely to monitor gaming activity. These gaming sites include chat options that parents aren't always aware of. Often, kids may think they are communicating with other kids when in reality they are talking with adult traffickers. These sites also offer the ability to communicate and share photos in real-time. There is a good bit of anonymity when using these chat platforms which can make it harder to track down a predator.
Any of the ways listed above, along with others, are examples of how a trafficker could have access to your child and form a relationship. In a situation when that child is already living in a bad home, is abused or neglected, or feels alone due to life circumstances, they may see their trafficker as a way out of the darkness. That makes it very easy for them to leave.
How does a trafficker control a victim?
Once a trafficker has successfully targeted his or her victim, they have many methods of gaining their trust and luring them into a life of trafficking. They make false, empty promises to the victims. These include the promise of:
· Love and/or marriage
· A good-paying job
· A better and happier life or loving home- especially appealing to foster homeless children
They also buy gifts for their victims and shower them with love. These include things like gift cards, phones, or jewelry. In fact, your child having money or new possessions that are unexplained should be a red flag. In the beginning, the victim is doted on and treated so well that they may think they're "the luckiest person alive" to have found someone so nice to them.
This doesn't last long, however, before the trafficker goes from doting significant other to someone mean, hateful, and terrifying. Sadly, by the time a victim realizes they are being trafficked, it is often too late. Traffickers are master controllers and use many methods to keep total control over their victims. The ways victims are controlled include:
· Physical abuse: hitting, kicking, burning or torture
· Emotional abuse: degrading and humiliating the victim into believing they are not worth saving
· Sexual abuse: unwanted touching or forced sexual acts
· Drugs: Becoming addicted to drugs leaves a victim dependent on their trafficker. Drugs are also used to make victims easier to control.
· Control of the victim’s money: Victims may be forced to have sex up to twenty times a day, but they do not get much, if any, of the money made. The trafficker keeps the money, leaving the victim with no way to support themselves and nowhere to go.
· Control of the victim’s communication: Traffickers will limit access to cell phones or computers so victims have no way of contacting anyone who may be able to help them. If they can't call anyone, no one can find them or even sense that something is wrong.
· Threats: This usually includes threats of violence against the victim or the people they care about.
How does the trucking industry tie into human trafficking?
Many people may not realize how traffickers use truck stops for moving and exploiting their victims. Truck stops are located right off busy interstates all throughout our country. This strategic placement makes them essential for our hard-working truck drivers to grab a quick meal, fuel up, or get some much-needed rest.
But this same placement makes them a haven for traffickers. There are always people in and out and the movement of traffickers may not be noticed as easily. Fortunately, some states have adopted human trafficking training into their CDL classes. Truck drivers are taught how to spot some signs of human trafficking and how to report it if they suspect it.
The Lanier Law Firm has put together an excellent guide called Trucking and Human Trafficking. It's got some great information. You can check that out here. The information doesn't apply only to truck drivers either. If you are ever traveling and you stop at a truck stop, be vigilant and report anything that seems off to the authorities.
What can you do to keep your child safe?
Although human trafficking is a problem around the world, including in our country, there are things parents can do to keep their kids safe. No parent is perfect and can be at their child's side 100 percent of the time, but we can do a little more to keep tabs on them.
Parents should closely monitor their children’s internet activities, including all social media and gaming sites they may use. This includes checking the messaging portion of the sites and their internet search history. You may also benefit from the use of internet child safety filters.
Regularly check your children’s cell phones for apps that may put them at risk. This might require more than just skimming through the menu. If you find an app that you're not familiar with, open it. Make sure your child understands you're not trying to violate his or her privacy, but keep them safe. Make this accountability an agreed-upon part of the responsibilities of owning a phone.
Educate your children on internet safety, human trafficking, and about the importance of being open and honest with you. Communicate with your children and stay engaged in their lives, because they need to know you care. Most importantly, love them. A child who knows he or she is unconditionally loved will be happier and is less likely to fall prey to someone targeting vulnerabilities. Spend time together as a family, and be present in the moment so your child knows you are there for them.
The thought of your child being trafficked is terrifying. It's one of many "parent's worst nightmare" situations. We as parents must be proactive to protect our children. Watching over what our children do is not being "over-protective" or "nosy," it is being a good parent. Yes, we want to have a friendly relationship with our children. But we are not simply their friends, we are their parents. It's our job to keep them safe. We have the power to make a difference, to keep our children from becoming a statistic.
Do you have anything to add? I'd love to hear if you know of other apps, sites, or anything else that human traffickers use to their advantage. How are you keeping your kids safe?