ORLANDO, Fla. – Human trafficking is real and it is happening in Central Florida.
Crystal Blanton, co-chair of the Marion County Human Trafficking Task Force, said she receives thousands of reports from the National Human Trafficking Hotline every year.
“Usually the reports are in the thousands, every year,” Blanton said. “Thousands of people are being human trafficked. Right here in Marion County and across the state of Florida.”
Blanton said it’s not like the movies (“Taken” 2008), where young girls are taken during their summer vacations by foreign human traffickers to be sold to sultans or sheiks.
But local children, often as young as 12, are being recruited into a life of forced prostitution.
“I just think it’s the internet, I hate to say it,” Blanton said. “Social media has grown the field of human trafficking. It’s easier for these traffickers to make contact with victims.”
Blanton said traffickers look for vulnerable teenagers online — runaways, teenagers complaining about their lives and their parents, young people with drug addictions — and befriend them.
But human trafficking isn’t confined to any race or class, according to Blanton.
Some victims were on the honor roll headed to college.
“We’ve had doctors’ children who have been intertwined,” Blanton said.
Blanton also said human traffickers align with students and use them and their schools as recruiting grounds.
“There are recruiters, juvenile recruiters in the schools, working with a pimp of some kind, and they are sent out in the schools and given a job to bring other minors on board,” Blanton said.
Blanton said the task force has had success educating Marion County elementary, middle and high school principals in looking for signs of human trafficking and placing Human Trafficking Hotlineposters in schools.
Mike Lanfersiek, a sergeant at the Human Trafficking Squad at Orlando’s Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI), said the definition of human trafficking is forcing a person to have sex or to work through force, fraud or coercion.
“Human trafficking is quite simply the exploitation of another person for commercial sex or forced labor,” Lanfersiek said.
Lanfersiek said once victims, female or male, enter into the life of human trafficking, they are kept there by their captor, taking advantage of their vulnerability.
“A vulnerability to substance abuse, the fear of physical beating, or withholding passports or documents, things like that,” Lanfersiek.
Lanfersiek’s Human Trafficking Squad has rescued hundreds of young women and children, often from hotels in the tourist district of Orange and Osceola Counties.
“Anywhere where the trafficker thinks there might be demand for commercial sex,” Lanfersiek said.
Traffickers often set up their prostitution operation at hotels because they cater to visitors in town for business or pleasure who are looking for sex, according to Lanfersiek.
Lanfersiek said he just rescued a 15-year-old girl from a hotel on International Drive.
“She had met someone on the ‘Plenty of Fish’ website and felt this person was her boyfriend, exploiting her vulnerabilities, pimping her out,” Lanfersiek said.
In July, MBI agents arrested three men for luring a teenage girl through a social media app to an International Drive hotel and then prostituting her and having sex with her.
In 2016, Orlando police charged two men with the death of a 14-year-old girl who they’d been allegedly prostituting, driving her to men’s homes to have sex.
Lanfersiek said MBI regularly sets up undercover sting operations to catch traffickers and rescue victims.
MBI analysts spend their days online, searching through postings by human traffickers looking for victims and offering them for prostitution.
Lanfersiek offered this warning: If you’re coming to Central Florida looking for a date for sex, you may get a date with an undercover officer.