'These are girls from our own back yards,' FBI says disbelief enables sex trafficking
(KUTV) – Young girls are bought and sold as sexual merchandise every day in Utah.
Most people don’t think it’s something that would happen in their communities, but it does, according to the FBI field office in Salt Lake City.
An FBI agent who spoke with 2News agreed to share details of the sex-trafficking unit’s work in Utah on the condition of anonymity.
"These cases aren't rare, we're seeing more and more of them within Utah," the agent said. “The problem is in Utah, people don't want to think it's happening, or don't think this is going on in their own states and it is."
Despite the agency’s 24 sex-trafficking of juvenile arrests in the last five years, the agent says sex traffickers still come to Utah because they think they can operate without much suspicion from the people here.
"A lot of pimps, from intelligence that we gather choose to come to Salt Lake City because they think it's a sleepy town, they think that people don't think it's happening here, that they won't get caught."
The victims come from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds and the FBI emphasizes that juveniles can be exploited into sex trafficking from any community in the state. Many victims, though, are lured from broken homes by a sex trafficker promising a better life.
“No girl chooses to wake up one day and choose to be involved in sex trafficking or prostitution, they’re something that’s occurred in a girl’s life that has made her get into [sex trafficking],” the agent said. “These girls see it as a way out from either their living conditions or their family situation or they have nowhere else to go, so it’s better than the situation that they’re in.”
The agent says the FBI has worked cases of pimps luring girls in parks or near schools, but more and more they are finding the pimps are contacting victims online.
“They stroll through social media looking for these girls, a girl that looks attractive or looks pretty that they think they can make money off of. They are recruiting her and brain washing her,” the agent said.
Once a pimp has lured the child into their network, he or she can live a hellish routine of daily abuse that often includes being drugged, and providing sexual services multiple times, the agent said.
“The girl is under the complete control of the pimp, she depends on the pimp for food, for money, for shelter, for everything,” the agent said.
Some girls remain under the pimp’s control for years.
“Not until sometimes they are beat bad enough, or they realize they are being taken advantage or it goes on long enough, or they’ve been arrested enough they want out,” the agent said.
The FBI closely monitors a website that they say is used almost exclusively to advertise prostitutes. Backpage.com, has been called “the world’s top online brothel’. In Utah, the site fills with ads on a daily basis of girls advertising themselves for sex. Many of the girls advertising on the website are posting several times per day to get their search results towards the top as they compete with other prostitutes for Johns, the agent said.
California authorities arrested the CEO of Backpage.com Carl Ferrer in October, saying he forced adult and child sex trafficking victims into prostitution through escort ads on the website.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement to CBS News that the website generates millions of dollars from the illegal sex trade.
“Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal,” Harris said. “Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.”
An arrest warrant for Ferrer alleged internal business records from Backpage.com show that 99 percent of its revenue was generated by the adult services section between Jan 2013 and March 2015.
As Ferrer’s case is adjudicated, the website remains in operation, and Utah authorities continue to monitor the ads on the site.
The FBI agent insists the best way to stop sex trafficking in Utah is to educate and protect kids. Much of that responsibility falls on parents, the agent says. That includes monitoring social media accounts and text messages. Often times, predators will create false social media accounts and add children they find nearby. The agent says parents need to teach their kids to not accept friend request or followers that the child does not know in person.
But often times, the victim’s parents are not involved in the child’s life or are distant, and that can create vulnerability.
There are several resources to prevent and report suspected sex trafficking:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
FBI Salt Lake City Office: 801-579-1400