Human trafficking occurs in Scottsdale daily, officials say

Human trafficking predators are reaching today’s youth through cell phone apps, social media and video games, officials say. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

Across every ZIP code in the Valley, the state and the nation, a modern-day form of slavery is a thriving business.

Trafficking humans for money is more prevalent than most people think. And even more alarming: The average age of sex trafficking victims is 15.

Human trafficking — whether it be for forced labor, commercial purposes or for sex — is defined as using force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engagement in services against his or her will.

Scottsdale is not immune to one of the world’s oldest crimes. According to local police, the number of human trafficking cases reported in Scottsdale has more than doubled over the past five years — and one police official says sex trafficking occurs daily within the city.

Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 2,079 calls in Arizona — 162,660 total nationwide (including telephone calls, webforms and emails). So far this year, the hotline has received 13,897 calls, with 210 of them stemming from Arizona.

“According to data compiled by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, between 2012 and 2016 Arizona saw a 146 percent increase in the number of reported human trafficking cases,” Scottsdale Police Department Detective Scott Carpenter of the special victims’ unit said in a Dec. 14 emailed response to questions.

“Scottsdale experienced a similar increase in human trafficking cases during (the) same time frame. While determining the exact cause of the increase is difficult, it can most likely be attributed to the growing awareness of human trafficking by the public and increase enforcement by law enforcement.”

On Dec. 22, 2015, Gov. Doug Ducey renewed the Arizona Human Trafficking Council by signing an executive order. The goal of the council is to implement best practices, develop a victims’ service plan and evaluate and report statewide data in addition to other duties.

The council has instituted a number of educational programs since 2016, including the training of 72 Arizona school resource officers.

Officials at The Starbright Foundation, Inc., a local nonprofit entity that advocates and protects child victims from exploitation, abuse and trafficking, say online devices, games and applications are opening a gateway to human trafficking.

“Our children are walking around with smart phones even as young as 5,” said Starbright Foundation President Pastor Michael Chalberg in a Dec. 14 emailed response to questions.

“There are many apps now that are GPS-activated. A child can be talking to a predator and that predator can know the location. Children play games with ‘avatars’ and so do posers who want to get access to kids. This truly is a platform for predators of all kinds to get to our kids.”

Ultimately, local officials say educated and involved parents are the sole deterrent to stopping this modern-day form of slavery.

Local law enforcement efforts

Det. Carpenter says labor and commercial sex trafficking are the two most common types of human trafficking cases found in Scottsdale.

The detective said murder, robbery, assault and other violent crimes are also often committed in conjunction with human trafficking.

“Labor trafficking can occur in a variety of businesses,” he explained. “Commercial sex trafficking occurs in Scottsdale daily but is not readily visible to the average citizen.”

In addition to the internet, Det. Carpenter says sex trafficking occurs in local hotels, motels and private residences.

“Unlike the glamorous life portrayed in the media, sex trafficking is rife with physical, sexual and mental violence,” Det. Carpenter said. “The average age of victims being sex trafficked is 15 and most adult victims started as juveniles.”

The Scottsdale Police Department works with other Valley law enforcement agencies, the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, the Arizona Human Trafficking Council, and has detectives assigned to the Greater Phoenix Area Human Trafficking Task Force run by the FBI.

The local police department has ongoing efforts to impact sex trafficking regionally, and detectives in the Person’s Crimes Section, working with other units, routinely conduct proactive stings to identify victims, buyers and traffickers, Det. Carpenter said.

“Victims are offered services to assist in getting out of ‘the life’ while traffickers and buyers face incarceration and hefty fines if convicted,” he explained.

“Detectives also frequently receive tips from the public and other governmental organizations, including the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which are thoroughly investigated and have led to successful victim recovery and trafficker prosecutions.”

Detective Carpenter says the single biggest deterrent to a trafficker is an involved parent.

“Traffickers are master manipulators that identify personal weaknesses and exploit them,” he explained. “The internet has become the No. 1 recruiting ground for traffickers. Parents should be aware of the site or apps their children utilize and question them on suspicious activity.”

Det. Carpenter says potential danger signs include: expensive gifts received by the child, a new cell phone not purchased by the parent, and a sudden decrease in involvement with the family.

Community efforts to protect children

Mr. Chalberg has been involved with the Starbright Foundation for several years. He says supply and demand and lack of education are causing the increase in human trafficking cases.

“Trafficking is an issue in every ZIP code. I think part of the issue is that people expect this to be a third-world country problem, but child pornography, trafficking and exploitation happen here in our own backyards every day,” he said.

“We are a world driven by social media and cell phones. With this comes an increase in predators having easy access to the children and teens.”

Mr. Chalberg says Phoenix is a place with high business travel and host to many national sporting events.

“It is all about supply and demand,” he says. “It may be higher in areas where children have more privileges, more freedom and have money to purchase more electronics. Many of our schools now also provide tablets for students and sadly we know that kids are smart and can break firewalls, are curious about porn and chatting with strangers.”

Arizona’s proximity to the Mexican border and placement on the I-10 corridor are also troublesome.

“There are predators in places where you will find a child, such as parks, coffee shops, gyms, nail salons, movie theaters, malls and online,” he says. “Teach your children what that might look like and to trust their judgment.”

Mr. Chalberg advises parents to educate themselves online, set-up a training, watch educational movies as a family and to put controls on their children’s cell phones.

“Don’t let children use chat rooms or go to bed with electronic devices. Monitor them at all times and encourage safety as a family,” he says.

“We live in a fearful world but education is key. Start those conversations at a young age when they are exposed to electronic devices.”

For more information go to sextraffickinghelp.com or humantraffickinghotline.org.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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