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Sex trafficking in Michiana: getting the message

“It's not always just a stranger, it's not the dark alley someone comes up and steals you away and kidnaps you,” said Ian Hurst, Region Two Coalition Coordinator for the ITVAP Program.

Sometimes those who want to do harm have 24-hour access to  you in the palm of their hands.

“Anything involving some sort of technology component like a cell phone and computer. Here’s this one posted to the South Bend area.,” said Mitch Kajzer, Director of Saint Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit.

As director of the Saint Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit, Mitch Kajzer works behind five screens everyday, running specific cyber crime operations.

Ian Hurst works for the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program, right here in South Bend.

“If a victim is identified, they are referred to us and immediately being receiving services,” said Hurst.

Because all of us use technology so often, the most vulnerable can be targeted in an instant.

“Social media, it offers a great anonymity for these traffickers,” said Hurst.

So the cyber crimes unit is working to combat those traffickers head on.

“Read what they’re saying in the ad, you can tell it is for trafficking for sex with children,” said Kajzer.

Both Kajzer and Hurst say most of these social media predators will wait before making any sudden moves. They’ll do their research first,  then reach out as a friend.

“These traffickers can pick up on these patterns and find ways to begin a conversation that relates directly to what that young person or adult has put out there on social media,” said Hurst.

Hurst says Facebook and apps like Tinder and Grindr, or even Snapchat also allow traffickers to know where you are and when. This can make it easier for people to get lured into a trafficking trap.

“We have these teenagers that aren't necessarily thinking about what they're putting out there. They're posting their feelings and their relationship status,” said Hurst.

Making it easier for the trafficker and more challenging for investigators like Kajzer who are going after them.

Last year, county police conducted several undercover human trafficking operations using social media and popular websites like Backpage, where trafficking is known to happen.

"We went online posing as traffickers who had two children. We placed ads online to see if people would contact us,” said Kajzer.

And suspects took the bait.

“We got responses,” said Kajzer.

Messages were exchanged in that conversation between undercover officers posing as traffickers and “the John” who was knowingly looking to have sex with minors ages 13 and 14 years old.

“Ended up making arrests from that,” said Kajzer.

The number of human trafficking cases involving those under 21 years old continues to rise in the state of Indiana and so do reports of suspected cases.

According to the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans Task Force, or iPATH, in2014, 130 tips were called in to law enforcement. In 2015, 275, and last year, 520 were called in.

One way people can avoid being targeted is to be wary of online strangers and be prudent about what they post.

"That trafficker is intentionally breaking down barriers of trust to win over so they can more easily manipulate their identified victim,” said Hurst.

Just last year, more than 178 children were identified as human trafficking victims in Indiana according to the Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking.

Services:

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, click here or call 1 (888) 373-7888.

For the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program, click here.

For ways to help stop human trafficking, click here.

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