BENTON TOWNSHIP — Sex trafficking happens everywhere, FBI special agent Timothy Simon told more than 50 people Wednesday at Southwest Michigan ALPACT’s forum on Sex Trafficking, Human Trafficking, Child Exploitation and the Common Clues.
“I run into law enforcement contacts all the time who say, ‘It doesn’t happen here. We’re in west Michigan. This is somehow some better place where this doesn’t happen,’” he said.
But, he said that’s not the case.
“It happens in our back yard,” said Simon, who has been with the FBI for 12 years and has focused on Grand Rapids-based sex trafficking for four years. “It happens around us.”
He talked about several cases in the Grand Rapids area.
“I think we don’t truly, truly know how big it is,” he said. “We don’t know how many girls are right now being trafficked on the streets. … But, it’s happening here, and it’s happening too much.”
Part of the problem is most victims don’t see themselves as victims. And he said once law enforcement gets them out of the life, they often go back to it.
He said most victims he has dealt with were coerced into becoming prostitutes. He said most of them were underage females who have run away from a possibly abusive home and found a guy who promised them a better life.
“We’re talking about kids,” he said. “We’re talking about people who are vulnerable, people that don’t have a lot of things that help them see the world clearly.”
He said the guy will often offer the girl a place to stay and will gradually introduce her to prostitution.
Simon said it’s very rare for victims to be snatched off the street by a stranger.
He said the FBI works with federal laws, which often have harsher sentences than state laws but can be tougher to prove if the victim is over 18. Under federal law, he said a person can be found guilty of sex trafficking an adult only if it is shown force was used.
He said a person can be found guilty under federal law of sex trafficking a minor even if force is not used.
He said people can help stop sex trafficking by becoming aware of the signs. He said physical signs include the victim having no identification or the ID is held by another person, the victim looking young but dressed provocatively or there being multiple cell phones.
Behavioral indicators include the victim letting other people talk for her or displaying over-sexualized behavior.
“There’s no easy solution,” he said. “It’s not something that’s going to go away quickly.”
Simon said a lot of sex traffickers use BackPage.com to advertise their victims.
Cathy Knauf, founder of the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, said people can help stop trafficking by using the TraffickCam app to take photos of the hotel rooms they stay in. She said this helps the FBI to find victims when photos of them are placed on the internet to find customers.
She said most of the hotels in Berrien County have already uploaded photos from their rooms because of the support she has received from the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council.
“What we’re saying to the traffickers and the pimps, ‘Don’t come to our hotels and take pictures and put them on BackPage,’” she said. “Because all these pictures are downloaded to law enforcement and the FBI. It downloads right to their servers. It sends a big message to the traffickers to just bypass our county.”
To report human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
ALPACT stands for Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust.