Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Matty Nev Luby logs into a social media app on her smartphone. Jessica Hill/Associated Press

My daughter’s rush into the room with a safety warning came from a place of love and concern.

“Mom, there are people in Tulsa following girls and kidnapping them from sidewalks and parking lots,” she said.

“Hmm. I work in a newsroom and have never heard of that,” I said.

“Here, it’s on Instagram,” she showed me the testimonial meme.

The screen’s image looked real enough and could be convincing.

It had grainy photos of a dark SUV driving behind indescribable young women. And the drivers were black; because nothing says urban myth and fake news like perpetuating racism.

The fates of these girls were either death or human trafficking, my daughter assumed.

Not so, confirmed Tulsa Police Officer Tracy Zellner, who has nearly a decade of experience working human trafficking cases.

Human trafficking doesn’t work that way, but it’s still smart to be aware of surroundings.

“If someone is following you, it’s probably not human slavery but for robbery,” Zellner said. “Don’t discount that, and be aware.”

When the scourge of human trafficking began reaching Tulsa, it was initially dismissed by the public. That was something big cities like New York or Los Angeles dealt with, not the Midwest.

But the activism took hold. Law enforcement responded with specialized units and inter-agency collaborations, while nonprofits developed programs for victims.

The first federal sentences handed down for human trafficking in Tulsa’s U.S. Northern District Court happened just five years ago.

“What we are seeing here is not anyone being taken off the street and held against their will. It’s more subversive and with the use of social media,” Zellner said. “I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in some places like Asia. But that’s not what we are seeing in the continental United States.”

So don’t let those myths and stereotypes lull you into complacency.

While victims are of all genders, the majority are girls.

Predators look for girls on social media who post about being mad at their parents or angry about school. They look for dysfunctional families or kids left alone a lot. Then they swoop in to become a friend.

“Almost every single case starts out with traffickers meeting with the girl to get her nails done,” Zellner said. “It’s that simple. It’s a kindness and a gift. That is a lot for girls with extremely low self-esteem. And this guy sets himself up as a father figure.”

The relationship turns into one of domestic violence: Traffickers will use violence but also affection as rewards.

“It’s the little things. They will buy girls things and say they love them, who then get a sense of belonging,” he said.

Still, it’s a pretty big leap from getting a manicure to having sex for money.

Typically, the girls get talked into it the first time with excuses or pleadings for help. A guy might say he’s low on cash and this sex act would be a one-time thing.

It’s never just once.

“These predators are really good at what they do,” Zellner said. “Counselors say that once that line is crossed, it’s easier for them to do it again.”

Officers working prostitution cases approach the work differently than they used to. Among the first questions asked at a bust is whether the person is being forced to do this and if anyone else is in the room.

Once a human trafficking victim is identified, officers then work the case backward — looking into phone records, texts and social media posts.

It all goes back to that online connectivity.

As a dad to teenagers, Zellner gets how hard it is to stay on top of monitoring social media. He talks about apps that turn off phones, track texting and scan for keywords.

Strict rules include no strangers are accepted to follow accounts. And it’s a good idea for parents to regularly look over what is being written, shared and commented upon.

“It’s work to do it,” he said. “My kids probably hate that I do this job because their cellphones are so locked down.”

My kids probably aren’t too thrilled with my job, either. Working around writers of crime and courts tends to create some extra caution.

That evening, I didn’t lecture my daughter. We had a conversation.

We spoke about false information, racial stereotypes, internet traps and why I’m so concerned about her social media usage.

It’s not about me being nosy or caring who has a crush on the new kid. It’s just me being a protective parent.

And that was why she came to warn me in the first place — to keep our family safe.

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