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Sex traffickers looking to cash in on Tampa’s Super Bowl advertise and sell victims via the Internet

Nonprofit goes high tech to reach victims being sold for sex
Posted at 8:35 PM, Jan 25, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — Kimberly is a sex trafficking survivor. She told ABC Action News her trafficker sold her for sex for three years in North Florida.

"I was hit multiple times. There were times I would be dragged across the pavement," she said.

Kimberly, whose last name we are not using to protect her identity, said at one point she was advertised online.

A new study by the group Freedom Signal indicates 75% of those who sell sex or are trafficked are marketed on the internet. That same study found 62% of trafficking victims under the age of 18 are advertised online.

The U. S. Institute Against Human Trafficking uses specialized software to find and reach victims virtually, said Natalie Kehn, director of operations for the organization, who runs its "Project Reach Out." The institute uses the software to scrape tens of thousands of locally posted sex ads.

"We are able to get a phone number and send a message to the person," said Ronnie Nicholas, a volunteer who uses the data to send a customized message to hundreds of phone numbers attached to the ads.

One outgoing text reads:

"Hi, we want to offer our services for free. We can work together at finding housing solutions. We can support you with job search, education, and? free health care."

The response rate averages around 10%. For those who do reply, the nonprofit sends a follow-up message repeating an offer to help.

"Whatever your situation is or if you ever need any support, I would love to chat with you when you are ready."

"That is what I love about this program, we can build that relationship and trust factor," Kehn said.

The institute is also battling sex trafficking and prostitution on the demand side. "Operation Stomp Out" targets potential sex buyers on social media.

Using algorithms that identify men's social media profiles most likely to buy sex, volunteers blast out messages to more than 100,000 potential local sex buyers every month. Last year the institute reported 17,000 potential sex buyers watched at least one of these videos then clicked on a page that offered resources for sex addiction.

Kimberly credits rescue groups like the Institute Against Human Trafficking for connecting her with shelter, therapy and education that turned her life around.

"I am living a life today I never could have dreamed up," she said.

Tampa police say they fully support the rescue efforts by local nonprofits. Detective Andrea Hughes, who heads up the local multi-agency task force on sex trafficking, says nonprofits play a large role in gaining victims' trust, which sometimes leads to the arrest of their trafficker.

"Oftentimes when the nonprofits are reaching out to the females through escort advertisement they are reaching where we can't reach as law enforcement," Hughes said.

Project Reach Out and Operation Stomp Out will focus this week on the two competing Super Bowl cities, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, then will ramp up efforts here in Tampa Bay.

For more information on their efforts, click here.