ST. LOUIS - Law enforcement is warning parents about predators searching for children on popular social media applications. Officials are seeing more predators using technology to target their prey.
Cindy Malott, Director of Advocacy Services for Crisis Aid International, works with survivors of sex trafficking. She said social media is now the "most common way" she sees traffickers are making initial contact with victims.
"Every app you can imagine," said Malott. "Even apps specifically focused for young children."
While the approach has evolved, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jillian Anderson said the method is the same. In many cases she has prosecuted, Anderson said the trafficker identifies a vulnerable minor and begins the grooming process.
Messages often involve flattery and attempt to make the child feel understood, important and popular. Over time, the messages may become more graphic or the trafficker may ask for nude photos.
"It's not going to appear to that child that this is a stranger," said Malott. "They're going to think it's someone they know."
Missouri law identifies human trafficking victims as any child or coerced adult subjected to commercial sex acts. A trafficker participates in or benefits from the victimization.
Anderson said age is the common denominator among victims. Traffickers feed on insecurities many young people face.
"All adolescents are going to encounter periods of insecurity, periods of feeling isolated, or feeling depressed," said Anderson. "Those are the types of vulnerabilities, particularly those we are seeing who are looking for children online are preying on."
Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh with the St. Louis County Police Department's Special Investigations Unit has been working with trafficking victims for 19 years. Over the last five years, he said he has seen a steady increase in a disturbing and "very common" trend.
"Unfortunately, we're seeing the recruitment of other teens by teens," said Kavanaugh.
Similar behavior has been suggested during the investigation into Jeffrey Epstein, a multimillionaire who died in jail in August. According to the indictment, between 2002 and 2005, Epstein paid hundreds of dollars in cash to girls as young as 14 to have sex with him, worked with employees and associates to lure the girls to his residences, and paid some of his victims to recruit other girls for him to abuse.
While youth is the most common characteristic among trafficking victims, the experts said other circumstances which may make someone susceptible to being trafficked include poverty, homelessness, learning disabilities, addiction, mental health, immigration status, domestic violence, and other high-risk behaviors.
According to Kavanaugh, there is no "one size fits all" for identifying who is at risk of being trafficked. He said it can happen in rural or urban areas or affluent or low-income communities.
"We've had girls that lived in small towns in Missouri and just wanted to get out away from that one-horse town and have some fun for an evening, and they meet somebody online, they say, 'Yeah come up here, we'll party, we'll have a good time,' and then within 12-24 hours, unfortunately, they wind up getting trafficked," said Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh said it is also difficult to pinpoint who the traffickers are or where they come from. Recent cases have identified military personnel, chiropractors and drug dealers as traffickers.
Anderson said highly publicized cases like those involving Epstein and singer R. Kelly can give common people a false sense of security that cases like that are not happening in their communities. However, Kavanaugh said his unit of nine investigators works multiple cases each day.
Kavanaugh said investigators work with hotels, motels, and rideshare drivers to educate about how to identify trafficking and report it. He said police have been able to intervene and rescue victims of trafficking because of tips they have received from these businesses.
Anderson encourages parents to empower children to understand their vulnerability and recognize the warning signs of predatory behavior. Malott said parents can monitor their children's social media activity, but parents must acknowledge that they cannot protect their in every situation.
"Assume that they're going to be exposed to things. That someone's going to be interacting with your children. Just assume that, and talk to them," said Malott.
If you suspect an act of trafficking is underway, Kavanaugh advises people not to intervene - doing so may risk their own safety and the safety of the victim. Call police immediately.
Many children may not have parents who are engaged in their lives. In those cases, the experts encourage teachers, counselors, coaches and other adults who may have interaction with minors to keep an eye out for signs of suspicious activity.
Malott said a teen who does not have financial means but suddenly starts getting their hair and nails done regularly may be being trafficked. A teen with multiple cellphones, expensive electronics, and new clothes or accessories could also be an indicator of trafficking activity.
"Unfortunately, there's a high cost for that, and they're going to be used in a horrible way," said Malott.
Kavanaugh said some traffickers may force their victims to get tattoos like dollar signs, bar codes, or the trafficker's name. Trafficking victims may have bruises in less obvious places.
Human trafficking can be prosecuted on the state or federal level, and punishments range from five years to life in prison.
If you or someone you know needs help from trafficking, contact Crisis Aid International at 314-714-8229 or crisisaid.org, or call the National Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.