JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) — If you saw a victim of human trafficking, would you be able to identify it right away?
Authorities say more than 3,287 people are sold everyday. What’s scarier, is that it could be happening right in front of our eyes, and we don’t even pay attention. Law enforcers need our help in paying attention to the signs to help save more trafficking victims.
It’s a nearly $30 billion business, and its happening across the globe. And if you think Mississippi is exempt, you’re wrong.
Rankin County DA Michael Guest tells us “This is not just a big city problem. This isn’t something that’s happening in New York, Miami or Atlanta. It’s happening right here in the metro area.”
Victims of human trafficking can come in all shapes, sizes and colors. In some cases, you can encounter them and not even realize it.
Dean Scott, a Hinds County Sheriff’s Office Investigator says “It’s big in Mississippi. It’s a big issue here in the Metro. The main reason is because we have the major interstates cross in our city, and major thorough fares for the trade, trafficking, and the swapping of humans.”
WJTV 12 met Janis Leffler, a human trafficking survivor back in January. Leffler explains how she was introduced to the human trafficking lifestyle:
“There was a pimp who was interviewed once and he was asked how he would target a girl. It was easy, he said he would go to a mall or anywhere where children were dropped off and left unattended. He would go to a girl and give her a compliment and say oh you have pretty eyes. By her response, he could tell whether or not she was a good candidate.”
Leffler, who is now 44, was trafficked as a teenager during the mid-1980’s in Memphis, Tenn. She ran away from home, and met a man who befriended her, eventually inducting her into the world of human trafficking.
She eventually escaped, and now spends her life sharing her story, and urging people to see the signs.
Leffler tells us why she has made it her life mission to save those who share her struggle:
“Because of my love for, my memory of the girls I left behind, my love for them, and it’s most of all because I know there’s a great God that got me out, and I go, and I share with them the real power that will help them get out.”
This year alone, the Hinds County Sheriff’s office has helped with dozens of human trafficking rescues.
In January, a 19-year-old from Washington was saved after a massage parlor was busted.
Just last month, another woman was rescued after a prostitution bust led investigators to another human trafficking case.
“When we first got in there, it was the standard ‘he’s my friend.’ Then towards the end when we started doing an investigation into it, we found out that they really hadn’t known each other that long and he was planning to take her to Texas.”
Investigators say once the victims are kidnapped, there is what’s known as a “grooming process.” During this process, victims are abused, threatened, and often drugged. They then become reliant on their trafficker and are sometimes unaware of where they even are.
Since human trafficking is often a crime that is hidden in plain sight, it is important to be aware of its warning signs. Some indications that a person may be a victim of human trafficking include (especially in the case of women and children):
- Appearing malnourished
- Showing signs of physical injuries and abuse
- Avoiding eye contact, social interaction, and authority figures/law enforcement
- Seeming to adhere to scripted or rehearsed responses in social interaction
- Lacking official identification documents
- Appearing destitute/lacking personal possessions
- Working excessively long hours
- Living at place of employment
- Checking into hotels/motels with older males, and referring to those males as boyfriend or “daddy,” which is often street slang for pimp
- Poor physical or dental health
- Tattoos/ branding on the neck and/or lower back
- Untreated sexually transmitted diseases
- Small children serving in a family restaurant
- Security measures that appear to keep people inside an establishment – barbed wire inside of a fence, bars covering the insides of windows
- Not allowing people to go into public alone, or speak for themselves
These warning signs are adapted from information provided by the Polaris Project and its National Human Trafficking Resource Center and Innocents at Risk.
“We encourage people to be diligent,” Guest said. “We encourage people to get information about human trafficking, and if they see anything that they suspect as suspicious, please report that to law enforcement.”
Human trafficking is the second largest criminal enterprise in the entire world. It comes second only to illegal arms trading. If you are a victim or know of a victim suffering from this crime, authorities encourage you to speak up right away.
Please contact the AG Human Trafficking Coordinator at 1-800-829-6766 or you can call National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.