NewsLocal NewsI-Team Investigations


Tampa Bay area group uses technology, social media to target sex buyers

Posted at 1:12 PM, Jan 21, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. — The war against sex trafficking is going high tech and the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking in Tampa has picked social media as its weapon of choice when it comes to deterring sex buyers.

“You can’t stop sex trafficking without addressing demand,” said Stephanie Costolo, a program manager at the nonprofit.

RECOMMENDED: Women and children branded, sold for sex in Tampa Bay area, I-Team finds

Costolo said the nonprofit blasts out Facebook ads to more than 100,000 potential local sex buyers each month. The ads show the consequences of buying sex — arrest, confessing to family members and a car impounded by police.

The group said it uses thousands of past arrests to target specific profiles and direct suspected offenders to help pages.

“A typical sex buyer in America is a white, middle aged man who earns medium to upper income and is likely a professional,” said Costolo.

Natalie Kehn, who works on outreach for the group, said the nonprofit combs through thousands of online sex ads and messages potential trafficking victims.

RECOMMENDED: Kids sold for sex and arrested for prostitution in Florida

It’s unclear how many of the victims are children and the I-Team couldn't independently verify any of the messages Kehn showed the I-Team, including several reported victims asking for help.

But Kehn said she and other staff are working to connect those who respond to their messages with shelters and treatment centers.

“We have to understand what their needs are and get them resources they need,” said Khen.

Red flags of potential trafficking in children

  • Unexplained absences from school
  • Changes in usual attire, behavior or relationships
  • Suddenly has more expensive material possessions
  • Chronically runs away from home
  • Fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous and paranoid
  • Defers to another person to speak for him or her, especially during interactions with school authority figures
  • Show signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement or other serious pain or suffering
  • Seems to be deprived of food, water, sleep, medical care or other life necessities
  • Has new branding/tattoos
  • Has a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” who is noticeably older
  • Makes references to sexual situations or terminology that are beyond age-specific norms or engaging in uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior

Source: Florida Department of Education

If you believe you are a victim of Human Trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline, or call them at 1-888-3737-888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.

I-TEAM INVESTIGATIONS | The latest investigations from our I-Team