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TBI cracking down on human trafficking

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Bristol, Tenn. - The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has begun a major crackdown on human trafficking, setting up sting operations across the state.

"We want men online, when they're looking to purchase illicit sex, to be worried that when they go to that hotel room to meet a woman they might encounter one of our agents on the other side of the door," Leslie Earhart, TBI Public Information Officer, told News 5.

It's a very real problem here and across the country. According to the TBI, a child is bought or sold for sex every two minutes in the United States. The average age of those victims is 13. Twenty-five percent of runaways will be propositioned by a sex trafficker within 48 hours of leaving home.

Here in our area, Earhart says so much of this is tied to the increased demand for drugs. She says it is all about preying on the vulnerable, those with nowhere else to turn for either food and shelter - or, most often, that next drug fix. "Traffickers use drugs to hold that over the heads of victims on a daily basis."

She says victims are primarily targeted online. "When we did our last operation, "Someone Like Me,' in Memphis, we posted four ads online, undercover agents did, and we had 400 plus different men respond to those ads over a three day period."

But there are plenty of cases where it all starts closer to home. "In reality, it could be a domestic violence situation where boyfriend is using his girlfriend to obtain drugs and money by pimping her out," Earhart said. "It can also, sadly enough, be parents. We've found the parents sometimes sell their children in exchange for drugs and money."

Kate Trudell is the executive director of The Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking out of Knoxville. She says the days of believing this is a problem that happens somewhere else are over.

"Right now, traffickers know that this is a community where people might not understand the ins and outs of the crime or how to look for it or identify it, and certainly that's the perfect place for a trafficker to operate."

Her organization is working to educate people in the community, like guidance counselors, hotel clerks, truck stop managers, and others. "Victims of trafficking rarely come forward and report their victimization so typically what it takes is for some good citizen to be paying attention, to notice the red flags and report it."

The TBI is planning major sting operations across the state. Earhart warns that traffickers "might encounter one of our agents on the other side of the door."

The TBI said minors can be targeted online. Victims are often lured with the promise of a better life, like a modeling contract. But Earhart said it can also be more subtle, starting with a friendship that turns into a grooming process.

Earhart said human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal industry, only behind drugs. She advises parents to constantly monitor what your kids are doing online.

To learn more about how to recognize the signs, click here.

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