A new human trafficking task force is underway targeting those engaging in forced labor or sex across Northeast Ohio.
The Cuyahoga County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, part of the Ohio Attorney General's Office, is being led by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department and includes investigators from U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
While the task force was officially unveiled Friday, it has already opened 22 cases leading to 24 arrests and identifying 9 human trafficking victims and 58 other suspected victims.
Investigators also stressed the upcoming NBA Finals, attracting tens of thousands of visitors from out of town, creates heightened concerns.
"Anytime we have an abnormal gathering of a large number of people--whether it be a national convention, a Super Bowl or the Arnold Palmer Classic in Columbus--human trafficking goes up, warned Oho Attorney General Mike DeWine. "The predators come in."
Last year, across Ohio, there were 135 human trafficking investigations, 79 arrests and 151 potential victims.
It's a warning that Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney is taking seriously.
"That is very, very accurate," said Pinkney, referring to the link between large, crowded special events and human trafficking. "We want to make sure that tipline is out there to call if the public spots signs of human trafficking."
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Those signs can include:
- Older "boyfriend" accompanying young girls near hotels
- Use of tattoos to brand victims
- Signs of drug addiction
Homeland Security Acting Special Agent in Charge Steve Francis said human trafficking is one the agency's highest priorities.
"In Fiscal Year 2016, Homeland Security offices across the country initiated 1,029 human trafficking cases, 1,952 criminal arrests, 631 convictions and identified 631 victims," said Francis.
In addition, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office says since 2013, there have been seven convictions for human trafficking involving 39 victims with three cases currently pending.
The cases include suburban areas such as Garfield Heights, Independence and Westlake.