Human traffickers still coming to the Central Coast amidst pandemic, officials say

Posted at 11:52 PM, May 05, 2020

UPDATE (05/06/20): The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office says there are several new cases of human trafficking in the county involving minors being solicited online.

One of the primary struggles the DA's office says they've been having during the pandemic is housing for victims.

Victim Witness Program Supervisor Rita McGaw says: "We are working with a survivor from another county and are unable (thus far) to get her into any safe house or shelter because their doors are all temporarily closed. That said, we have a wonderful working relationship with the safe house here in Santa Barbara County which houses adult survivors of trafficking and were able to house another survivor there, in spite of the pandemic."
ORIGINAL STORY: While a lot of things are on hold during the pandemic, human trafficking is not.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office says traffickers are taking advantage of the low prices of hotel rooms right now and are staying in the area.

Human traffickers like the Central Coast because it's a midway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, officials say.

With many people now out of work, law enforcement officers are worried it may lead to more human trafficking victims.

"Traffickers notoriously prey upon the vulnerability of other people. So if you have a group of people who are now even more vulnerable and are looking to make income, secure their future, and are looking to find some type of normalization; they might be more susceptible to offers or lies or tactics traffickers use to gain that person's trust only to exploit it later for a profit," explained Danielle Borrelli, Operations Coordinator for the California Cybersecurity Institute.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's office says while the demand for trafficked workers is currently on the decline, the number of human traffickers in the area is not.

"There are human traffickers coming specifically to San Luis Obispo County now as opposed to southern California or San Francisco because the hotel and motels prices are cheaper and it allows them to stay here for longer periods of time," said Lisa Muscari, Chief Deputy District Attorney.

One of the most common ways human traffickers find their victims is online, which can be troubling now that many adults and children alike are spending more time on electronic devices.

"A lot of times they will pretend to be a friend or somebody who's interested in them and gain their trust through a chat application on a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram. Then, for example, they may ask for a nude photo or embarrassing image of them that they can use against them to get more explicit content," Borrelli said.

One of the best things you can do is: if you see something, say something.

Sites like the Polaris Project offer resources and information on better understanding the signs of human trafficking.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's office says local law enforcement is working to "disrupt" the hotel room market to make it harder for traffickers to get rooms in the area.

There have been at least nine cases of human trafficking prosecuted by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's office since 2014.

Those cases involved 26 victims of commercial sex or labor trafficking, with at least 15 of the victims being minors.

We have reached out to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's office to learn about their efforts to combat human trafficking and are still waiting to hear back.