By GWEN ADAMS
At this time of year, the subject of sex trafficking does not seem to fit. Admittedly, it could be the reason I do not get invited to many Christmas parties. But this is the exact time of year that sex trafficking must be a part of the conversation.
The majority of trafficking has moved to the internet. When looking for vulnerabilities that can lead someone to be a target for traffickers, we have traditionally looked for those experiencing homelessness, who have a history of childhood sexual abuse, or those who have spent time in the foster care system. Eighty percent of all victims of trafficking have spent time or are currently in the foster care system.
But a new vulnerability has emerged over the last few year and now has exploded due to Covid-19 restrictions. That vulnerability is the unsupervised access to the internet by our children. If you add boredom and even some fear or financial hardship with the loss of jobs, it is easy to understand how trafficking can explode to unprecedented levels.
Yes, this may be an unintended consequence of school shutdowns.
The FBI estimates that over 500,000 online sexual predators peruse the internet on a daily basis.
I admit, I was shocked the first time we had a client enter our Priceless program who had never actually met the man who was trafficking her. It was all done online. The threats of violence and demands were just as terrifying as if she were standing in a room with him. She went where she was told to go and did what she was told to do with all the funds going directly to her trafficker.
It is becoming more and more difficult to catch and prosecute traffickers because of these trends. We continue to see a rise in internet trafficking where victims do not have contact with the trafficker in person.
The State of Alaska has listed that there were only four cases of trafficking in 2021. Priceless can tell a very different story, as we interacted with dozens of victims. Beyond our internal stats are the stories of lives forever altered by an education system that moved kids to online classrooms and kept them home, in many cases alone where would-be traffickers by the hundreds of thousands, had unprecedented access to our kids through gaming chat rooms, dating sites, social media accounts and the limitless scrolling for something to fill the time.
The state can say there were only four victims of trafficking this year, but that number only reveals a deeper issue of underreporting and minimal efforts to understand and know the trafficking trends.
We know the vast majority of trafficking cases are first reported as domestic violence. Sometimes all it would have taken is a few more questions by law enforcement to reveal something more nefarious.
We also know that the overwhelming majority of women who enter the Priceless program got out of their trafficking situation because someone spoke up and offered help in getting out. I agree that lawmakers and law enforcement are important factors in ending this crime, and we are grateful for our law enforcement personal who care deeply about this. But the most important component is people who know the truth about trafficking and care enough to fight back in some way.
What can parents do?
- Limit access to the internet to the family computer and on phones.
- Know the apps your kids are using and visit those apps frequently.
- Talk to your kid about online predators. Anyone can pretend to be someone they are not on social media sites.
- Never meet alone with a new friend you met online. If you want to meet someone new that you met online, go with a group of three or more to a public location with full disclosure to family and friends.
- Check and double check privacy and location settings on all of your kids devices. Turn off locations.
- Don’t allow kids to “check in” on social media sites.
- Understand that nothing is private if shared online. Your nude photos will likely be sold no matter what promises were made.
- As always, if something seems off or out of the ordinary call the police. You may be able to provide that one piece of information to expose an online predator and bring him or her to justice.
Priceless is the state’s only anti trafficking non-profit that works exclusively with victims of sex trafficking. We are grateful for the generous donations from our Alaska community, which funds this work.
Gwen Adams is the executive director of Priceless.