Social media tool in human trafficking

The topic of human trafficking is so terrifying that many people do not want to discuss it. Locally, many choose to believe that human trafficking is not a serious issue.

However, those in the Upper Peninsula who are on the front lines in combatting human trafficking have seen it firsthand and all concur that it is increasing.

The Upper Peninsula Human Trafficking Task Force (UPHTTF) defines human trafficking as the business of stealing someone’s human freedom for profit.

“In some cases, traffickers trick, defraud, or physically force victims into selling sex,” states an informational brochure printed by the UPHTTF. “In others, victims are lied to, assaulted, threatened to work in illegal or inhuman conditions.” It also includes sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud or coercion to induce another individual to sell sex in exchange for cash, drugs, food or shelter.

Common types of sex trafficking include:

≤ escort services

≤ pornography

≤ pay-for-play

≤ illicit massage businesses

≤ outdoor solicitations

Human trafficking can take many forms, said Keweenaw County Sheriff Curt Pennala, “but any time anybody is exploiting a person for monetary (profit), that would be human trafficking.”

Rural areas, the Upper Peninsula included, are prime targets for human traffickers.

According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, far from being immune to trafficking, rural places have characteristics that can make trafficking both harder to recognize and address.

In rural areas, long distances between homes doesn’t guarantee safety but does mean that services and supports to victims may be less accessible.

“Sometimes, being away from big cities, people think we’re isolated from ‘(those) problems,” Pennala said, “which isn’t the case — it couldn’t be further from the truth. And in some cases, criminals will pick rural areas feeling that’s it’s easier to hide some type of crime.”

Pennala said that he believes the incidence of trafficking is increasing.

“I think it’s starting to become more prevalent,” he said, “And, with our knowledge changing, and the way we’re growing and finding different ways to find it, we’re seeing more of it.”

While human trafficking is increasing, It remains difficult to quantify the numbers statistically, because it is under-reported.

“But I think you’re going to start to see more of these cases pop up,” said Pennala, “as law enforcement starts to learn and increase their knowledge in ways to combat it.”

The four-county area of Keweenaw, Houghton, Baraga and Ontonagon has been working together on a lot of cases.

“It’s been really helpful to be able to team up with other investigators,” he said.

The internet has become a major tool predators use for human trafficking.

“The other thing I will add to that is today with social media, that is an opening to each and every one of our homes, which is creating a vulnerability that traffickers have found a way to reach our children.”

The UPHTTF brochure addresses online sex trafficking, stating:

“…our most vulnerable, including our children, are mostly targeted, groomed and recruited online by sex traffickers. The tech era has changed life as we know it and not matter where you live, online predation can reach you. Beyond that, here in the U.P., we are uniquely vulnerable due to the high poverty rate, drug addictions, lack of mental health services, five tribal nations, waterways, shipping channels, cargo ports and proximity to the U.S./Canadian border.”

Pennala said that during the COVID pandemic, there was a huge increase in online sexual exploitation, something the federal government addressed last year. The U.S. State Dept. in its June 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report stated:

“Pandemic mitigation efforts forced many people to shift online, including human traffickers. Online recruitment and grooming increased as children spent more time online for virtual learning due to school closures, often with little parental supervision.”

If you are in danger, need help or to report a suspicious tip, call the UPHTTF 24-hour hotline phone or text: 906-299-9243.

For more information on the UPHTTF, visit its website at https://upht123.org/


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