It's two o'clock in the morning and I'm still awake hoping that the missing teen girl I'm searching for tonight will finally be able to send me a Facebook chat message to let me know where she is or if she is okay. Sara* looks like a typical teenager, but her life is a horror story. A few months earlier, while hanging out with friends in D.C., she met a man almost 20 years her senior who quickly became her boyfriend. Within a few weeks, this professional exploiter had isolated Sara from friends and family and taken her to Maryland where he began to sell her; Sara became one of the thousands of American teenage girls sold online every day in the United States.
Websites like Backpage.com, Craigslist.com and Eros.com have made millions from classified sex ads in the past five years, and girls as young as 11 have been identified in ads. But social media isn't just a tool for traffickers. The web can also be used to find a trafficked girl. FAIR Fund regularly uses Facebook and other sites to conduct outreach to locate and assist exploited girls. This was how we found Sara.
Sara's parents reached out to FAIR Fund to ask if we could help find her, and like so many times before, I began our search online. The phone numbers listed on Sara's phone bill lead me to sex ads, where she was being sold for hundreds of dollars a night. A local police detective who specializes in finding trafficking victims and arresting traffickers recognized Sara's "boyfriend," a violent offender known for abusing teen girls -- some of whom were never seen again. Instead of putting Sara out on "the track" or making her stand on a street corner, this 21st century trafficker sold Sara online.
His decision was not surprising: during the past five years I've met more than 125 sex trafficked American girls; nearly every one of them was sold online, where the market for human beings is dominated by two sites: Craigslist.com and Backpage.com. Girls like Sara are pictured in classified ads with captions like "young, fresh, new to town, and submissive." They are forced to have sex with multiple men a night, bringing in an average of $500 to $1000, all of which is kept by their trafficker. Online classified ad companies also profit from every ad sold.
For Johns, the benefits of online transactions for sex are obvious. But traffickers like the online world as well, because rather than having to move girls around, risking arrest, they hide in hotels where their victims are out of sight and much less likely to try to run away.
Sara couldn't run away. She was watched at all times by her trafficker and other pimps. A girl who had tried to escape was beaten unconscious in front of Sara. I could see she was still being sold online and that the Facebook messages I was sending her were being monitored and controlled by her trafficker. I was worried that anything FAIR Fund said to Sara could cause her more harm but we wanted her to know that we cared and that we would not give up. In a hurried phone call, Sara told me she wanted to leave but was too afraid to try.
But there is hope. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) introduced two bills (H.R. 2730 and H.R. 2801) in August to empower leaders from the public sector, advocacy, and technology communities to address cyber trafficking as well as strengthen the response of child welfare agencies to protect at risk and trafficked youth in America.
At FAIR Fund we've used the Internet to successfully contact more than 20 teen girls we consider to be high risk or who have been sold online, but there are plenty of risks involved. The victim might get scared and go further underground, or the trafficker might be monitoring her communications. Yet we continue to find ways to use social media to help girls find a way out of exploitation, and Bass's bill would help build upon these efforts.
In Sara's case, after more than a month of online and phone outreach, she told us via Facebook chat message that she had found a place to hide and wanted help.
Sara: R u here? I'm coming now
FAIR Fund: Go. Run. Take a cab to [deleted] hotel!
Sara: I can't do this. He has my purse. He hid my shoes.He took all the money, I don't have anything.
FAIR Fund: We'll pay for the cab. Everything will be okay. Just come before he finds you.
Sara: I'm on my way!! Where are you?
FAIR Fund: We are _______ waiting for you. We will run out and get you!
My colleague and I raced to find her, sure in the knowledge that her trafficker was trying to find her, too. One hour later, I was with Sara at the police station. She had nothing with her but the clothes on her back but she was finally free.
We must do more to protect girls from being exploited online, and more to help those who need it. As traffickers increasingly use social media and online sites to harm vulnerable girls, we too must become more adept at using the Internet to help them.
Andrea Powell is Executive Director and co-founder of FAIR Fund, a D.C. based nonprofit empowering girls against trafficking with education and empowerment.