In just three years, the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force has identified more than 350 victims in Northeast Ohio.
Law enforcement officers say traffickers are seeking out victims on apps like Instagram, Twitter and Tinder.
Experts say traffickers persistently send friendly private messages with not-so-friendly intentions.
“Whatever the limit is on that social media platform, they’ll send out the limit for that day and they’ll try to friend people,” Sgt. James Mackey said.
Mackey is the director of the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force and a Sergeant with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department.
He works alongside government agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to investigate trafficking in the region.
“Human trafficking is kind of a modern day slavery,” Assistant Special Agent Hector Feliciano said. “Where either you have somebody that you’re going to have them work, or you’re going to have them engage in sexual activity.”
Experts say traffickers target vulnerable people—often teenagers.
“They send messages like, ‘Why don’t you come with me? We’ll go and I’ll buy you something nice. Earrings, a necklace, go shopping,’” Mackey said.
He added the tables often turn quickly.
“Well they’re not doing that for free,” Mackey said. “They’re going to want something in return.”
While one of the most notorious websites used for human trafficking and sexual slavery was shut down by the federal government in 2018, investigators still have their hands full.
“Obviously with Backpage gone, there have been other sites that have taken the place of Backpage,” Feliciano said. “And it’s a huge part now because it’s a lot easier to advertise.”
Experts listed a few red flags to be aware of when identifying a potential victim, such as:
- Strange work hours
- Timid behavior
- Refusal to look others in the eye
- Mood swings.
If you suspect human trafficking in your area, you’re asked to call your local police department or the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force at 216-443-6085.