Can Retailers Teach Us How to Prevent Human Trafficking?

5 06 2009

I got a glimpse of the underbelly of fraudsters and organized crime a couple of years ago when I worked at a company that created software for online retailers to help them process good payments and weed out fraudulent ones. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world I hadn’t been exposed to and only knew about peripherally.

Hands and feet in Chains from iStockPhotoOnline fraud started out as pranksters or one-off transactions…individuals trying to get something for nothing. There’s still that happening, but online fraud progressed to being perpetrated by large organized crime rings, with a lot of it coming from eastern Europe and western Africa. Why the change? Organized crime can hide anonymously behind a computer, and with their organizations being so spread out geographically and across many jurisdictions, most law enforcement groups are not able to catch them. It’s an easy crime for many of them.

Analysts from my previous company monitored chat rooms where criminals sold stolen credit cards…or the information on your credit card or social security card… for $10 each. They got inside the criminals’ territories and learned the tricks of what they were doing…hiring waiters to take skimming machines and run credit cards through them to capture the information in the strip when you give them your card to pay for dinner, installing fake fronts to ATMs to capture the keystrokes of your PIN and your debit card number, etc. They had to find ways to put techniques in the software that allows retailers to stay two steps ahead of the criminals, who are very tech-savvy themselves.

As part of my work, I had several calls with the IC3…the Internet Crime Complaint Center…and the FBI and participated in the announcement of the www.LooksTooGoodToBeTrue.com initiative, to help people avoid becoming a victim of online fraud. I was the press manager (one of the many hats I wore) for a large organization of retailers that came together to develop best practices to combat and prevent online fraud.

Okay…perhaps some of that is interesting…but my point of saying all that is this…organized crime got really savvy about how to commit fraud online. There have been a lot of businesses (including the one I worked with) that built software to prevent and stop this fraud and find these savvy fraudsters, which has led to many prosecutions.

Retailers banded together to pool their knowledge of how to outsmart the criminals. It’s a constant cat and mouse game; the fraudsters learn how to go around the software and the software companies come up with new techniques they hope the fraudsters can’t go around.

If all that is possible, why aren’t there businesses out there developing software…and maybe there are but I don’t know about them…that look for certain patterns and other things to detect that someone online might be engaging in child trafficking or sexual exploitation? There is software for keeping databases of sex offenders, but I’m talking about software that would stop this stuff from happening in the first place…that would disallow child pornography from being sold or a child being sold online.

Unfortunately, a lot of child trafficking is done the low-tech way…not online…so admittedly this makes it more difficult to track when it happens. But…just as fraud in stores orginally was mostly stealing stuff in stores (and of course this still happens) but progressed to online massive stealing…I suspect that child trafficking may also “progress” (if it isn’t already happening) to being done online.

Isn’t it worth it for someone to be developing high-tech solutions to stop and find traffickers? It seems at least an international tracking system is needed. I see so many stories about trafficking in so many countries. Is anyone looking at the big picture and tracking these occurrences across countries? In the retail world, that’s the only way they are beginning to find some of these organized crime rings and prosecute them.

Does anyone know if anything like this is being done? Isn’t it about time it was?

UPDATE 10/19/09: After writing this article, I received an email from the National Association to Protect Children. Read what they and the Oak Ridge National Laboratories are doing to stop child predators in the post I wrote on 10/19/09 entitled Oak Ridge, TN: Developed the Atomic Bomb and Now Stopping Child Predators.

Advertisements




1.2 Million Child Prostitutes in India

12 05 2009

This is heartbreaking. Over one million children live treacherous and degraded lives due to being trafficked in prostitution in India. And 100 million people are involved in human trafficking in India. ONE HUNDRED MILLION. These numbers are staggering and incredibly disturbing.

Child Prostitute in India

Child Prostitute in India

This is a country that has so much poverty and yet so much promise. Business has exploded there. And yet it is definitely a country of the haves and the have nots…those who are benefitting from the business explosion and those who live in the slums in abject poverty. Opportunists play both sides…the wealthy buy children to have sex with. The poor sell their children into prostitution. They are all players in this sick and soul-killing game.

If India as a country and as a people does not take bold steps to raise up the poor and stamp out child prostitution, they will see generations of moral and spiritual destitution and poverty that will plague them and destroy any potential greatness their country could realize.

Here’s the CNN article on this:

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) — Around 1.2 million children are believed to be involved in prostitution in India, the country’s federal police said Monday.

Ashwani Kumar, who heads the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), told a seminar on human trafficking, that India occupied a “unique position” as what he called a source, transit nation and destination of this trade.

India’s home secretary Madhukar Gupta remarked that at least 100 million people were involved in human trafficking in India.

“The number of trafficked persons is difficult to determine due to the secrecy and clandestine nature of the crime.

“However, studies and surveys sponsored by the ministry of women and child development estimate that there are about three million prostitutes in the country, of which an estimated 40 percent are children,” a CBI statement said.

Prostitution in pilgrim towns, exploitation through sex tourism and pedophilia are some of some of the “alarming trends” that have emerged in recent years in India, it noted.

Authorities believe 90 percent of human trafficking in India is “intra-country.”

UPDATE 9/27/09: Please visit my friend Shelley Seale’s blog on her book The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children in India. She writes about traveling there four times and witnessing the horrors of children living in orphanages, in the slums, and being vulnerable to being trafficked.





Somaly Mam: One of the World’s 100 Most Influential People and a Real Hero

5 05 2009

She was raped and tortured for five years in a horrendous brothel. Her parents and then her grandmother had disappeared. She was left to fend for herself. A “grandfather” (really a stranger) said he’d help. He raped her at age 10 or 12, made her be his personal slave, and then sold her at age 14 into sexual slavery in Cambodia. She escaped in 1993 and returned to help others living through the same nightmare. Somaly Mam is a true and courageous hero(ine).

Somaly Mam - Credit: Kris Connor - Getty

Somaly Mam - Credit: Kris Connor - Getty

In 1996 she founded a nonprofit organization called AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire, which is French for Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances) to help law enforcement rescue trafficked women and children from brothels and bring them back into society. One of every 40 Cambodian girls is sold into sexual slavery; some are as young as five years old.

So far, she has helped more than 4,000 women escape a life of sexual slavery. Somaly has suffered enormously for the stand she has taken and the work she has done. She has received death threats and assaults, had her house burned down, and endured the horrific kidnapping, drugging, and raping of her 14-year-old daughter in 2006. She courageously continues the work.

She details her experience in the September 2008-released book The Road of Lost Innocence. She offers vision and leadership to the Somaly Mam Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending slavery.

In November 2008 she was the first recipient of the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award “in recognition of her fight for a world without slavery” from the new human rights and Munich-based Roland Berger Foundation. The 1 million euro ($1.269 million) she received to continue her work is almost exactly the amount awarded to recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. She has won several other prestigious awards.

Somaly Mam was named this week one of the world’s 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and was lauded with the others named tonight at the TIME 100 Gala in New York. Angelina Jolie, who with her partner Brad Pitt adopted their son Maddox from Cambodia, wrote the TIME article about Somaly Mam. She is an Oscar-winning actress, goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, and co-chair of the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

Somaly Mam suffered tremendously in the first part of her life. She not only lifted herself up, but so many others with her decision to help those who lived the horrors she did. She has made a tremendous impact in the lives of thousands of trafficked young women and has given a face and voice to human trafficking throughout the world.

Stand up and applaud. This woman is a true hero.

Here are Somaly Mam and Somaly Mam Foundation board member and actress Susan Sarandon on the Tyra Banks show.





Cantina Workers in Houston: Sex Trafficked

27 04 2009

Women working in cantinas in Houston were trafficked and held in servitude. Now the mastermind is going to jail. People, this happens right in front of our eyes. This happened in the UNITED STATES…less than 200 miles from where I live in Austin. This is a typical story of human/sex trafficking. Take the time to read it. Be alert. You might save a life.

The U.S. Department of Justice website says here is how to report trafficking:

Report trafficking crimes or get help by calling the toll-free hotline 1-888-428-7581 (voice and TTY).

Here’s the article from today’s Houston Chronicle:

Sex-trafficking ringleader gets 13 years in prison

By Lise Olsen

Salvadoran smuggled Central American women into servitude at cantinas

 

He previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for recruiting and trafficking dozens of women and girls to Houston for commercial gain and for holding them “in a condition of indentured servitude.”

Maximino Mondrago - Credit: Houston Chronicle
Maximino Mondrago – Credit: Houston Chronicle

Along with others convicted in the case, he has also been ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution to victims, some of whom have obtained visas to stay in the United States and still live in the area.

The case involving Maximino Mondragon, 57, remains one of the largest human trafficking rings ever uncovered in the United States.

The Chronicle reported last year that Mondragon lured the women to the United States with false promises of legitimate jobs. Once here, traffickers charged the women huge fees for their trip and expenses and held them as prisoners until they could work off what, for many, seemed to be impossible debts.

The women were forced to wear skimpy clothes and sell high-priced drinks to men at local cantinas who were then allowed to touch them.

Mondragon “ruthlessly exploited these women’s hopes for a better life through coercion, false promises and threats of harm. The victims were forced into modern day slavery,” Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Monday. “The Justice Department will devote its efforts to prosecuting those who commit such abhorrent and exploitative crimes.”

More than 120 women were liberated on the night of Nov. 13, 2005, when Mondragon and his fellow defendants were arrested in a massive nighttime raid of five of their bars and restaurants in seedy strip malls in northwest Houston.

Mondragon is the last of eight ring members to be convicted and sentenced.

According to records, Mondragon ran cantinas in Houston for more than a decade, along with Walter Corea. Both are natives of El Salvador. Five members of their families and a female abortionist were previously convicted and sentenced as accomplices.

“The victims in this case were subjected to horrible treatment at the hands of these defendants,” said Tim Johnson, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

Several victims told the Chronicle they were threatened and beaten or told their families back home would be harmed or killed if they attempted escape. Most lived in low-rent apartments or houses watched over by ring members or by security cameras.

Mondragon, a legal permanent resident, his girlfriend and two siblings owned and operated most of the businesses used for trafficking. Corea was accused of serving as chief trafficker, importing women from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras for the ring. Illegally in the United States, he also ran a bar here with his wife and son.

Houston’s Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance spent a year investigating and assembling a case against Mondragon.

On the night of the raid, Mondragon was holding his own farewell party in his bar, El Potrero de Chimino, also known as the Wagon Wheel, on Hempstead Highway. He’d purchased a one-way ticket back home to El Salvador.

That ticket went unused.





International Free the Slaves Awareness Day

26 03 2009

Did you know that there are 27 million slaves worldwide today? Shocking, isn’t it? March 27 is International Free the Slaves Awareness Day. Free the Slaves is a not for profit organization that “… liberates slaves around the world, helps them rebuild their lives and researches real world solutions to eradicate slavery forever.” They have a 25-year plan to eradicate slavery. Here are facts they list about slavery:

slavery-facts-from-free-the-slaves2

Think slavery doesn’t exist in the U.S.? Think again. Slaves are harbored in 90 U.S. cities. An estimated 50% of the over 14,500 – 17,500 slaves trafficked into the U.S. each year are sex slaves; the other 50% are in the agriculture, domestic service, manufacturing, and other industries.

The largest numbers of slaves – as many as 18 million – are in Pakistan, Nepal, and India. The Free the Slaves website has an interactive map you can click on to find out about slavery in any part of the world.

President Obama calls human slavery a “top priority.” In a March 24, 2009 White House press release, “President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Luis C. de Baca as Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department.” If you want to help, Free the Slaves has a whole page of suggestions.

You can read other posts I have written about slavery/trafficking:

The average citizen in the U.S. can possibly save a person being held in slavery by being alert to things that don’t seem right and being inquisitive. A slave may even be a teenager living with their family and being coerced into sexual slavery as is the case in the post mentioned above.

Watch this excellent video from Free the Slaves with personal stories of people enslaved under false pretenses. The resiliency and spirit of people who have been through this horror is amazing. Join Free the Slaves and the many other excellent organizations such as isanctuary.org and FreeGirl Foundation that work to stamp out human slavery and trafficking. We all bear responsibility for our brothers and sisters all over the world.





A Teenage Sex Slave in an American Suburb

13 02 2009

Theresa Flores, 15, living in an up-scale Detroit neighborhood, became a sex slave. New to town, a cute guy offered her a ride home from school and she smittenly took him up on the offer. He took her to his house, kissed her, wouldn’t stop when she said no, and raped her. Stoutly Catholic, the shame of what happened to her caused her to keep it a secret…even from her mother.

MSNBC.com

Theresa Flores, Victim of Sex Slavery - Credit: MSNBC.com

Unbeknownst to her, the rapist’s cousins watched and took photos and these were used to blackmail her. The rapist took her to his cousins’ house. They gang raped and beat her and told her from then on, she had to do whatever they said. Three or four nights a week they would pick her up, drug her, rape her, and let paying “clients” rape her also. This went on for two years until Theresa moved. Her parents never knew.

In college she finally found the courage to say what had happened to her, but by then, it was too late to prosecute the initial rapist who psychologically tortured her into submission.

Theresa appeared on the Today Show today to tell her story…now 28 years later. She is a mother of three and has written a book about what she went through entitled “The Sacred Bath: An American Teen’s Story of Modern Day Slavery.” Amazon contributes this information about Theresa:

Ms. Flores has been a Licensed Social Worker for nearly twenty years. She holds a Master’s of Science in Counseling Education and is a Human Development Specialist. Ms. Flores writes a regular magazine article entitled Spiritual Parenting, facilitates a monthly kid’s group and is the mother of three children. She lectures nationally on parenting, multi-cultural issues and human trafficking. Ms. Flores’ mission is to educate others on the horrors of trafficking and fight against this huge injustice of innocent people. She hopes that by revealing her story, it will give victims of all types of abuse hope and assist in their healing process.

She has a website on this… http://traffickfree.com and has helped open a haven for trafficked girls in Ohio called Gracehaven House. Theresa says there are resources for foreign girls trafficked in the U.S., but not for American girls. There are only 39 beds for such girls in the entire country.

Your next door neighbor could be trafficking teenage girls and using them as sexual slaves. Girls don’t have to be moved somewhere to be trafficked. They could be leading otherwise normal lives and living at home. Your own daughter or sister or someone you know could be a sexual slave. If you have evidence of this or suspicion, you can call the Justice Department human trafficking hotline at 1-888-428-7581.

I wrote another post on human trafficking with statistics and what the state of Texas, where I live and which is one of the top areas where humans are trafficked, is doing about it.

Take the time to tune in to MSNBC on Sunday night starting at 8 p.m. EST for three programs on this topic: “Sex Slaves in America,” “Sex Slaves in the Suburbs,” and “Sex Slaves: The Teen Trade.” We all need to be educated on this topic and keep our eyes open and pay attention to those around us. Sexual slavery can happen anywhere.

I hope you’ll join me in contacting the White House and asking them to add Human Trafficking and Sexual Slavery in the U.S. to their agenda.

FOLLOW-UP

I watched the MSNBC shows mentioned above and they made the point repeatedly that most people have no idea how prevalent sexual slavery is in the U.S. Also, Theresa Flores was interviewed and I heard more of her story. She said on the worst night of her life, she was taken to a house where she was drugged and 20 men raped and beat her. Afterward she made her way in her shortie pajamas and a waitress helped her and called the police. They took her back to her home and her parents did not believe her…they thought she was just out partying…and the slavery continued since they did nothing. Truly, truly tragic.





Heroes Helping Child Sex Trafficking Victims

8 01 2009

Imagine selling all you have to move to India to help child victims of the sex trade. That’s what Stephanie Pollaro did. Fresh from getting a Masters degree in counseling, she had an “ah-ha” moment after reading a women’s magazine article on human trafficking…and knew she had to do something. She met Wendy Hicks on a two-week church trip to India to feed the poor. They stayed in touch and after Stephanie went back…this time to Mumbai…they forged a plan to help these sex trade victims.

Stephanie Pollaro and Wendy Hicks of iSanctuary

Stephanie Pollaro and Wendy Hicks of iSanctuary

Stephanie got in touch with the director of a rescue operation that pulled girls out of forced prostitution and torture and relocated them in a safehouse. Stephanie proposed a plan to teach the girls how to make jewelry and it was agreed. Wendy manages the non-profit organization back in the U.S. and sells the jewelry the girls make. The profit from the sales is then given to the girls and they are able to save money and begin to make a living.

Wendy read my post on children being trafficked and contacted me. I am so impressed with their very simple concept that makes such a difference in the lives of so many. Wendy and Stephanie are true heroes.

Another hero is John Curtis of The Grey Man organization in Brisbane, Australia. He, too, contacted me after reading my post. His non-profit organization focuses its efforts on Southeast Asia and works to eradicate the trafficking and exploitation of children. They rescue children and also educate potential victims of the sex trade.

These people and their organizations are helping children, who were living a nightmare of starvation, light deprivation, being locked in a room, being beaten, and being prostituted by pimps, to have new lives. Stephanie, Wendy, and John would make Teddy Roosevelt proud. Here’s an excerpt from an April 23, 1910 speech he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

To learn more about what Stephanie and Wendy are doing through their organization International Sanctuary, read their blog at http://isanctuary.wordpress.com or visit their organization’s website at http://isanctuary.org.

To learn more about what John and The Grey Man organization are doing, visit http://www.thegreyman.org.

Thanks to these heroes and to the many others in the world helping women and children who are victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery.

UPDATE 6/16/09: The Grey Man organization was featured on ABC in Australia on 6/15. You can read a transcript of their interview.





Is Your Neighbor a Victim of Slavery?

17 11 2008

Slavery may be going on in your neighborhood. It happened in mine. Texas is a major hub for human trafficking per a report released today by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. One out of every five victims of human trafficking have been in or travelled through Texas. The Department of Justice includes Houston and El Paso, which both lie along Interstate 10, in its list of “most intense trafficking jurisdictions in the country.”

How big a problem is human trafficking? “The Texas Response to Human Trafficking” report says:

The U.S. Department of State’s most recent Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that approximately 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders each year. Of those victims, between 14,500 and 17,500 are trafficked into the U.S. from Asia, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe. These figures do not include the large number of victims trafficked within their own countries, including domestic victims in the U.S. The State Department also estimates that of those trafficked internationally, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children.

The report distinguishes human trafficking from smuggling, which is usually done with the participant’s consent. Human trafficking victims:

…Are forced to work in domestic servitude, sweatshops, agricultural industries and the commercial sex trade, which includes prostitution, exotic dancing, pornography and live-sex shows. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking victims can be found working in ordinary locations, including hotels, restaurants and private residences, and are often “hiding in plain sight.”

I lived in a very nice neighborhood a few years back and was shocked to find out that there was a house a block over from mine where it was discovered that a prostitution ring was being run. These girls were human trafficking victims. We may see these people, but we don’t know the suffering they are enduring. Often they are brought to the U.S. on promises of good work, but then are forced into prostitution to pay over-inflated expenses and even to pay for drugs these women are forcibly given. These young women and even children have no way out.

The Texas report cites a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study, which:

…estimated that between 244,000 and 325,000 U.S. children and youth are ’at risk’ of becoming victims of sexual exploitation, including as victims of commercial sexual exploitation (e.g. child pornography, juvenile prostitution, and trafficking in children for sexual purposes).

In October 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act  to protect human trafficking victims. The goals of this act are to prevent human trafficking abroad, to protect victims and help them rebuild their lives, and to harshly prosecute traffickers. Over the next five years, 42 federally-funded Bureau of Justice Assistance task forces were created in the U.S. to combat human trafficking, with 5 of those being in Texas (Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio).

According to the report, Texas was “…one of the first states to introduce legislation criminalizing human trafficking. Introduced in 2003 and amended in 2007, the state statute is relatively new and largely untested.” Some of the findings in the report:

 • The need for training permeates the entire cycle of human trafficking, from the early detection of the crime, investigation and subsequent prosecution, to the delivery of services and ultimately to the prevention of the crime, and is vital for educating and  cross-training all those working to assist victims of human trafficking.
• Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, and victims are often treated as criminals.
• Sex trafficking is often confused with prostitution, and victims are often treated as criminals.
• The state statute is rarely utilized to prosecute human trafficking violations.
• The perception exists that only foreign nationals become human trafficking victims, and there are significant incidents of domestic trafficking within Texas and between states.
• Collaboration among state and federal law enforcement agencies promote better prosecution, protection and prevention of human trafficking violations.

I applaud the State of Texas for taking human trafficking seriously and seeking ways to help victims of this horrendous crime. Just as it happened in my suburban neighborhood, you could be living amongst or interacting with people who are in the throes of being treated as a slave. If you notice something that doesn’t look right to you, I urge you to have the courage to report it. You may just save a life.