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Virtual human trafficking on the rise, experts say

Resources on the Central Coast to combat local trafficking
Traffickers can contact people on social media apps, video games, as well as dating apps
Posted at 8:11 AM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 13:57:48-05

The United States government defines human trafficking as modern-day slavery.

There are several categories of trafficking, including labor and sex trafficking, and survivors can people of all ages and backgrounds.

According to experts, trafficking happens when someone uses fraud, force, or coercion to compel someone else to perform an act or service.

In situations involving minors, sex trafficking does not require force, fraud, or coercion because they cannot legally consent.

Ellen Torres, the Executive Director for Casa of Hope, told KSBY, “I had traffickers start following me when I was 16, and I can’t even begin to describe the fear that we went through.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, experts saw an increase in human trafficking happening online, especially during virtual learning.

“Kids are inside, not at school. They're on Snapchat. They're on TikTok, Instagram. And traffickers have figured out how to prey on them in those medias and groom them within those medias and then eventually meet in person and turn them out,” said Rita McGaw, Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator and the Program Supervisor for Victim Witness at the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.

“Video games—a lot of times kids will get on there, and they think again, they're communicating or playing with a friend,” Torres added.

This can happen on dating apps well.

The rise of virtual trafficking is a global trend, according to the United Nations Women and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

“Online recruitment, grooming and exploitation have been widely used by traffickers during the pandemic. There are also indications that trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation online, including the demand for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) has increased," reads a statement published in Guidance: Addressing Emerging Human Trafficking Trends and Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

During the COVID lockdown, experts say there were fewer opportunities for people to observe and report trafficking. However, if someone is concerned about potential trafficking and they can notify the authorities and support groups.

“Some red flags would be, you know, a new relationship where suddenly they're isolating [or] they're not wanting to hang out with their friends anymore. Maybe they're starting to miss classes. They're not coming home on time, they're breaking curfew and maybe they're coming home with new clothes [or] new jewelry,” Torres said.

“Call 911 and mention to them that you think [...] there's some human trafficking going on, and [law enforcement] will take it from there,” McGaw continued.

People can also email for non-emergencies.

The Santa Barbara County Human Trafficking Task Force is comprised of approximately 130 members. Services include case management, referrals to community resources, financial assistance, personal items, and victim advocacy.

“Do not go up to that potential victim because you can get them in a lot of trouble or put them in a dangerous situation,” Torres warned.

Between 2017 and 2020, the Santa Barbara County Human Trafficking Task Force identified seventy-five potential traffickers, and forty five were criminally charged.

“We are sort of a hub of the [Hwy] 101 corridor on the Central Coast. So we get a lot of traffic [of] traffickers bringing victims here to work as a stopover,” said McGaw.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office says every survivor who is identified will have their basic needs met including food, clothing, and shelter. She also said there are safe houses throughout the state.

The District Attorney's Office told KSBY that they are not seeking to charge survivors with charges of prostitution, however, each case is unique and can involve multiple factors.

Casa of Hope provides a safe house for female victims over the age of 18, as well as resources for people of all genders and ages, community education, and advocacy. People can call the organization at 805-862-5045.

People can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.