CHARLOTTE, N.C. As Charlotte prepares for the Democratic National Convention, advocates worry that the tens of thousands of people heading to the city will bring an increase in sex trafficking at the expense of mostly young women forced or coerced into prostitution.
Authorities describe sex trafficking as a “hidden” crime, one that is already a problem in North Carolina, partially because of its heavily traveled interstates and proximity to Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. North Carolina ranks in the top 10 states where trafficking has been reported, according to anti-trafficking groups.
But the DNC is expected to exacerbate the problem, experts said, because sex trafficking thrives on large-scale events.
Charity Magnuson, director of NC Stop Human Trafficking, said the expected uptick during the DNC has nothing to do with politics. The likely increase has more to do with the influx of people, she said. Similar problems reportedly happen at major sporting events like the Super Bowl.
Police in Tampa, Fla., where Republicans will host their national convention next week, arrested 16 women on prostitution charges during a recent crackdown targeting adult entertainment businesses. Police said they’d visited strip clubs looking for evidence of human trafficking, prostitution and underage activity.
Magnuson said the demand for commercial sex may increase because visitors to convention cities “feel more free” because they’re away from their families and have less fear of getting caught. People buying sex might not realize that the person they’re paying is a victim of sex trafficking, she said.
As the DNC approaches, NC Stop volunteers are reaching out to staff at hotels, where sex trafficking most commonly occurs. And during the week of the DNC, they plan to seek out women advertising themselves online as “escorts” to give them information about how to seek help.
Police meet on issue
On Tuesday, about 285 law enforcement officers, community advocates and others gathered at Good Shepherd Church in southwest Charlotte for a conference on human trafficking.
Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking, which is defined by the United Nations as the “recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.”
Authorities distinguish sex trafficking from prostitution, when an adult chooses to sell sex for money. Sex trafficking occurs when an adult victim is forced, defrauded or coerced into the commercial sex industry. When a minor is involved, force, fraud or coercion aren’t needed to qualify as sex trafficking.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. S.C. Voorhees said it’s difficult to determine how common the problem of sex trafficking is in Charlotte.
“It’s a hidden crime,” he said.
In June, Voorhees presented a report about human trafficking to the City Council’s Community Safety Committee. The report says that between September 2011 and January 2012, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police assisted the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations in five undercover operations to rescue missing minors involved in the commercial sex industry. The investigations also worked to identify potential traffickers or pimps in Charlotte.
According to the report, those operations rescued at least four minors and led to the ongoing investigation of others believed to be involved in sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking occurs in massage parlors, brothels and exotic dance clubs, as well as through online escort or massage services, the report says.
More than 150 Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers have received federal training on human-trafficking laws and investigative methods. As they investigate cases of prostitution, officers work to determine whether the suspect is actually a potential victim of sex trafficking.
But police said investigating such crimes often proves difficult because victims are often unwilling to seek help because they have no other means of support. They may fear retaliation, and some distrust police.
Despite advocates’ worries about increased trafficking during the DNC, Voorhees said it’s unclear whether more sex trafficking will actually hit the city during the DNC. He declined to reveal what steps police will take to combat the crimes.
Volunteers to be direct
NC Stop says volunteers will take a direct approach during the week of the convention. Magnuson said they plan to call women advertised as “escorts” on backpage.com, a national website where people place ads to sell various things, including sex. Critics say the website furthers exploitation and sex trafficking.
A search of escort listings in the Charlotte area on the website shows dozens of posts, purportedly from women offering explicit services. None specifically mention the DNC.
Magnuson said volunteers will call the women, check on them and give them resources to seek help if they need it.
Leading up to the convention, NC Stop volunteers have concentrated on contacting hundreds of hotels and offering training to staff to help them identify signs of sex trafficking.
A few of the hotels agreed to receive the training, Magnuson said, and volunteers heard that a group of several hotels planned to receive DNC training that would include information about sex trafficking.
On the lookout at hotels
Magnuson said hotel staff should be on the lookout for anyone who looks underage or anyone who appears to be controlled by someone else. A victim of sex trafficking might be unable to leave or may not have access to their belongings.
Voorhees said he applauds public awareness about trafficking. “It’s hard to uncover,” he said. “Without the public’s tips, a lot of cases would go undiscovered.”
Anyone who suspects a trafficking situation is asked to call police or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-3737-888. Staff writer Lindsay Ruebens contributed.
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