9 Investigates

How the pandemic is fueling an increase in human trafficking

ORLANDO, Fla. — Human trafficking organizations in the U.S. say it’s one business that has not been slowed by the global pandemic.

Officials said predators have quickly adjusted to 2020 with social media being a hot spot for recruiting.

With boredom taking over, people out of work, and online schooling for thousands, so many people are vulnerable.

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Official say traffickers know that, and are already working on recruiting by promising friendship, places to stay, and even employment.

Statistics show Florida is the third highest state for human trafficking. And now we are learning from human trafficking organizations that COVID-19 isn’t slowing the traffickers down.

Dee Coleman, executive director of Samaritan Village, which helps victims get out, said she thinks human trafficking could actually be up during the pandemic.

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“We are watching women become vulnerable because of the economic climate,” Coleman said. “If you can’t pay your rent then you come into a state of vulnerability.”

The Council on Foreign Relations said people who were trafficked are now considering, or are being forced to, return to their exploiters because of lost jobs, shelter, and/or medical insurance.

The group says victims have reported being contacted by their traffickers again and again during the pandemic.

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“Honestly we are very alarmed by the recruiting we think is happening during this time just from the reports that are coming in to all of the hotlines,” said Tomas Lares, the chairman of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.

The fear is that with people at home and spending a lot of time online, it’s opening doors for predators.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes said criminals are adjusting their business models to the ‘new normal’ created by the pandemic, and it’s going on without anyone knowing.

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The Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation said that they are working about the same amount of trafficking investigations this year that they were last, about 35, but that tips are down.

Much of that is due to hotels being closed, events being canceled and most conventions are now on hold.

Many of the workers are trained to spot that activity and report it. Tourists, visitors and residents, too, often see things in those places and call it in.

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There is concern now that much of this stuff is happening out of the public’s eye at private homes, seedy hotels or on the streets.

Human trafficking organizations and law enforcement are encouraging women involved in these situations to reach out. You can text the national human trafficking hotline at 233733.

WATCH: How the pandemic is playing a role in a rise in human trafficking

The pandemic has left some people unemployed and out of options making them a target for predators. 9 Investigates a rise in human trafficking and why it’s less likely that these victims will be rescued, today on Channel 9 Eyewitness News at 5 p.m. READ ==> at.wftv.com/38I8J50

Posted by WFTV Channel 9 on Friday, November 13, 2020
Shannon Butler

Shannon Butler, WFTV.com

Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.