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In-depth: Shining a light on human trafficking, part two

This 2015 photo shows a rescue operation in Peru that featured two Utah groups, Child Rescue and Crack the Crowd.

SALT LAKE CITY — Human trafficking, whether labor or sex trafficking, is a problem across Utah. But how do traffickers recruit their victims?

Experts say the most common way is online.

“[Potential traffickers] are targeting kids as young as six with violent pornography scenes,” said Cammy Bowker, the CEO of St. George-based Global Education Philanthropists. A sizable portion of online porn performers are human trafficking victims themselves, and seeing those images young can get kids acclimated to the idea of illicit sex.

But social media apps are still where the majority of victims are preyed upon. Tinder and Kik, the anonymous messaging service, are the top two. However, experts say traffickers are also on Instagram, Facebook, and gaming chat rooms.

Children and teenagers from urban, suburban, and rural areas in Utah have been targeted. Traffickers commonly look for people with family problems, foster children, runaways, immigrants, or those with drug issues.

Allison Smith with the Refugee Immigrant Center at the Asian Association of Utah says they will pose as a potential boyfriend to find out who or what is important to their victim, which is how they gain control.

“To get that emotional connection, gain the person’s trust. Find out as much as they can about someone and what their potential vulnerabilities are.”

Many are told that the person they’re communicating with is the only one who understands them. Then the trafficker’s personality completely changes.

Victims are threatened, blackmailed, drugged, and their access to other people cut off, commonly through taking a cell phone and/or identification.

Traffickers can also pose as someone who needs a model or can help an immigrant get to the United States.

People have been known to traffic other family members, sometimes to pay off a drug debt.

There have been 161 human trafficking victims identified in Utah over the past decade, though the real number may never be known.

Smith says monitoring your loved ones’ online activity and disabling chat features for children is one of the best ways to protect them.

Others say it’s also important to tell children that they won’t get in trouble if they make a mistake online, which makes them more comfortable coming forward if something happens.