It's a crime that is often hidden in plain sight, lurking in all corners of society -- in our neighborhoods, businesses and even parks. According to Homeland Security Investigations, every year thousands of human trafficking cases are reported, but many more go unnoticed.
Unfortunately, the crime is just continuing to grow.
"A lot of criminal organizations are switching their commodity over from drugs or whatever else that they move around because they do have the infrastructure in place to move things around. They are just changing their commodities over to human beings," said Rodney Riggs, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.
Federal agencies say the first step to combating human trafficking is empowering the community to understand and recognize the issue.
Last year, there were 246 reported cases of human trafficking in Michigan, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline, a nonprofit resource center for trafficking victims
Riggs said they could always use more investigators to tackle the problem of human trafficking.
"We're under resourced just like everybody is," Riggs said. "As it stands right now, my office has four special agents dedicated to human trafficking. We could probably use triple that."
This year’s raid at the Victory Inn in Detroit happened after concerned community members reached out to law enforcement to report the problem.
The January operation was the biggest human trafficking case for Homeland Security Investigations in the area's history. After months of surveillance, 200 homeland security agents and local police arrested six people and saved 14 women from sexual exploitation.
"That was an extremely comprehensive, successful investigation," Riggs said. "The public is becoming more aware of it and that's lending itself to more successful prosecutions because people are looking at situations differently."
The Pearls of Great Price Coalition is one group working to spread awareness about human trafficking. It recently hosted a symposium in Canton to educate the public. More than 400 community members, including parents, educators and medical professionals, turned out to learn about the problem and what they can do about it.
"We're about prevention through awareness education and action," said pastor Carrie Wood, of the Pearls of Great Price Coalition. "Human trafficking happens everywhere. It happens in our high schools and junior highs. It happens in our parks. It happens on the internet."
Pearls of Great Price is a grassroots Christian coalition in Wayne & Washtenaw counties working to help stop human trafficking. Its daylong event was just one way it educates the public on this crime.
"I think people want to know more about it, because it’s no longer just on the other side of the ocean," Wood said. "It's right here. We hear police reports about things that have happened and places that have been shut down."
Riggs, who spoke at the symposium, said events like it help educate the public on human trafficking, the different types and how his agency investigates them. He said the two ways people can help stop human trafficking is to educate themselves about it and report suspicious activity.
"Some people think, 'Well, what if I call and I wasn't right, or I misread a situation?'" Riggs said. "There's no backlash on the caller. There's no harm in calling in and just reporting it."
While sex trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude are also prevalent. The agriculture, restaurant and domestic service industries are common avenues for forced servitude.
Human trafficking can be right in front our eyes. Here are some warning signs you can look for:
- Someone inappropriately dressed
- Appears submissive or fearful
- Not able to speak for themselves, or answers sound rehearsed
- No personal possessions, especially identity documents
- Works excessively long or unusual hours
If you think someone is involved in human trafficking, dial 911 immediately, and remember not to intervene yourself. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Homeland Security has its Blue Campaign to help educate the public about human trafficking. For more information, click here.
Pearls of Great Price Coalition has launched an Adopt-a-Cop program to help pay for additional human trafficking training for area officers. The coalition hopes to raise enough money to train 100 officers in southeast Michigan this fall. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.