“I was just, ‘oh, he’s cute, I’ll accept him,'” a 22-year-old called “Nina” (a pseudonym) recalls. She was 18 at the time, and didn’t imagine that clicking “accept” would start her on a path to four years of prostitution across the country.
Upper middle-class and college-bound, Nina had her plans derailed in her senior year of high school after her mother was sentenced to two years in prison for financial crimes. Lonely and looking online for male attention, she started messaging back and forth with a man who said he was falling for her. “I thought he really did like me and we were going to live this fairy-tale life together.” About a month later, Nina met him in person and the fairy tale ended fast. Almost immediately after she arrived in Seattle, he dropped her off on a street where prostitutes troll for customers and told her she was going to “catch dates.” Many would have run, but Nina says her deteriorating family life left her with a sense of desperation. She was smitten, and willing to do anything for the man she thought loved her. So she stayed and was required selling herself for sex.
She was one of a growing number of women recruited on social networks for sex trafficking. “Pimps are professional exploiters,” says Andrea Powell, executive director of Fair Girls, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking. “Often they’re just spamming a whole bunch of girls with messages like, ‘Hey, you look cute. I could be your boyfriend'” and offering ways to make some money.
In an Alexandria, VA case, investigators found more than 800 messages sent out to potential targets from a collection of fake Facebook accounts. If a girl expressed interest, a gang member would arrange to meet up. At that point, participation stopped being voluntary and she was physically and emotionally forced and manipulated. The investigation resulted in the shut down of Justin Strom’s gang and his being sentenced to 40 years in prison. FBI agent Jack Bennett, cybercrimes chief in San Francisco, says Strom’s tactics are becoming more common. Part of the problem, he says, is that minors will accept friend requests from strangers just to appear to be popular. Photos, personal information, and friend lists are then out in the open. Pimps “start looking for the cracks where they can fill the holes, whether it be a father figure or a boyfriend,” Bennett says. Many don’t even hide their intentions and often include the letter “P’ for pimp with their name. Sites that girls are recruited from include Facebook, Tagged, Twitter, Instagram, DateHookup and MySpace.
“There’s no high school that’s immune to this,” Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia attorney general, said. “It demands increased vigilance by both parents and law enforcement into the activities that are occurring across those social media lines.” The FBI, which is often on the front lines of investigating these cases, has a tip sheet on its website to help parents protect their children on social networks. The agency recommends that parents monitor their kids’ online profiles and postings and to educate their kids about how broadly the messages and photos they post online can spread. Teenagers don’t always realize that they can’t “take back” texts and images.
“I didn’t want to tell my parents, ‘Ya know, this is what I’m doing,'” Nina says. “How am I going to explain that to my father? That wasn’t an option for me at all.” Nina bounced through a series of different pimps, eventually ending up “working” for a trafficker who took away her ID and forced her to dance — and more — at strip clubs and in hotel rooms. A massive raid by local police and the FBI shut down his operation about a year ago. Without that, Nina says she could still be working for him today. Advocates at Fair Girls are helping her rebuild her life. She’s planning to begin college in the fall.
Nina still maintains an account on the social network on which she was recruited, mainly to keep in touch with friends and family. She no longer responds to the daily messages she receives from pimps.
Learn more at Erica Fink’s and Laurie Segall’s CNN Money article: Pimps hit social networks to recruit underage sex workers.
Source: Cable News Network: A Time Warner Company