“COVID has definitely made a huge impact on human trafficking,” states Laurie Wisotsky, director of the Tampa chapter of Rahab’s Daughters, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps human trafficking victims. Advocates say the pandemic is affecting how traffickers work, resulting in more victims asking for help.
Florida local law enforcement officials told the Tampa Bay Times they’ve seen no increase in human trafficking activity, but changes they’ve seen aren’t a good sign for victims. Some traffickers have abandoned victims because of less demand for prostitution. They are left in unfamiliar places with no way to support themselves. Those still being exploited face possibly contracting the virus along with all the other dangers they face.
Legitimate businesses aren’t the only ones doing more online. Human traffickers have joined them. They’re distributing pornography on the internet and using social media to recruit new, young victims.
Bill Losasso of the Florida Dream Center in Lealman, Florida, said it’s harder to fight online trafficking. “You used to have to kidnap a girl, but now it’s all mostly online,” he said. “You shut down one thing, and they can open another.” His organization provides trafficking victims with recovery programs.
Traffickers use Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and dating apps to groom future victims. They create fake profiles, pose as teens, modeling agencies, or music producers. They look for teens complaining about conflicts with parents or who appear emotionally vulnerable.
How long the process of becoming a trafficking victim depends on the individual. It can take a week to a year and a half, according to Wisotsky, from the first contact to losing control of their lives. She describes traffickers as “incredibly patient.”
Losasso stated the average girl he sees started being trafficked when they were 12. The Dream Center has 14 women and girls as young as 6 in its program. It has a waitlist of about 44. Florida is ranked third in the number of reported trafficking cases by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Jillian Penhale, director of the nonprofit Created in Tampa, stated they’ve seen an increase in callers seeking help through its 24-hour hotline. The organization houses 11 residents and works with about 79 women a week. Penhale states unemployed and financially struggling survivors may go back to trafficking.
There may be 30 to 40 million unemployed workers in the US, but being an unemployed human trafficking victim can be much more serious. They become more financially vulnerable, they may be undocumented immigrants, since many work illegally they can’t collect unemployment benefits and lack a support network where they live.
Social distancing is impacting both legal and illegal business as well as organizations helping victims. St. Petersburg Police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez told the newspaper the cancellation of Tampa’s WrestleMania 36 event prevented an anticipated increase in exploitation. In addition to all the challenges nonprofits helping victims face, the Dream Center has stopped some of its services due to social distancing concerns.
If you are a human trafficking victim seeking help, call the Human Trafficking Project at 844-SEEKJUSTICE (844-733-5587). If you’re an attorney who wants to help them, contact us at 855-477-8284 x101.
Edward Lott, Ph.D., M.B.A.
Human Trafficking Project, LLC