Sex traffickers prove harder to catch as they move online

The sex industry has evolved in the past two decades, moving from the streets to computer screens, and authorities in Austin and across the state say their efforts to enforce the law and find and protect victims are hampered by the shift.

Detectives said they have made strides to fight what they describe as a modern-day form of slavery by enhancing their collaboration across jurisdictions and their use of tools on the Web, where victims are easier to hide, predators harder to catch and evidence tougher and more time-consuming to gather. But authorities said offline efforts are just as important, such as training officers, emergency responders and residents on how to detect potential sex trafficking circles in their own communities.

At its core, social workers and detectives say that the universal model for one of the world’s oldest professions remains much the same: men capitalizing on young women.

But the sex trade is no longer mostly girls hanging around dark city corners looking for business, experts said. It is a multibillion-dollar enterprise that has expanded to hundreds of thousands of women advertising — or being forced to advertise — their services on countless online classified ads, teen dating and social networking sites.

Craigslist shuttered its “adult services” section almost two years ago after complaints that ads for prostitution — many including children sold into the trade — were widespread on the site. But others, such as Backpage and Facebook, have taken its place, investigators said.

“The Internet is an enabler, a marketing strategy for the pimps who exploit these girls and the johns who use them,” said Noel Busch-Armendariz, a sociology professor at the University of Texas.

Detectives said it’s often tough to distinguish early in an investigation between victims willingly involved in prostitution and those who have been forced into the business.

 

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