Human traffickers target UP victims through internet

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Todd Wilton, a special agent from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/HomelandSecurity Investigations, talks at a presentation on human trafficking Thursday at Michigan Technological University.

HOUGHTON — Reports of human trafficking are on the rise. In part, that’s a good thing.

“As we’re doing awareness now, the public’s helping us greatly to get those numbers higher and higher,” said Todd Wilton, an agent for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, during a Thursday presentation at Michigan Technological University by the Upper Peninsula Human Trafficking Task Force.

The group did several other presentations in the area this week, including at Finlandia University and Ojibwa Community College.

Exploitation distinguishes trafficking from smuggling, in which families pool money to get them across the border into the U.S. Yet smuggling can often merge into trafficking, Wilton said, as smugglers get the migrants to a safe house, raise the price for transport and force them to work off the debt.

Most of the cases in Michigan are happening in bigger cities such as Detroit and Grand Rapids, Wilton said.

“We don’t see a lot of human trafficking cases in the U.P.,” he said. “That’s why we’re here, to get awareness out there, because we’re seeing it happening up here. We’re just trying to get it out to the public, what the signs are, so they can call us and notify us, and then we can get involved.”

While most people still assume prostitution as being transacted on street corners, Wilton said it’s mostly happening online now. Other common forms seen are escort services or fake modeling offers, Wilton said.

The most common form of sex trafficking in the U.P. is homemade pornography, in which children send illicit photos to someone they believe is close to their age, Wilton said.

Wilton said child exploitation is “absolutely out of control” in the Upper Peninsula.

“In the U.P., we are so victim-rich,” he said. “Our kids are so naive when it comes to online and social media and who they talk to. It is ridiculous how desensitized our kids are today.”

One of Wilton’s tools is a website funded by Ashton Kucher and Demi Moore that aggregates sites advertising “escort services” or “dating services,” which is usually human trafficking.

“Instead of me trying to log in and get memberships and pose as someone trying to be into that thing … I can scroll through and look for anything that looks suspicious,” he said.

In fiscal year 2017, Homeland Security agents identified 384 victims of human trafficking, started 1,034 human trafficking investigations, made 1,437 arrests and obtained 587 convictions.

Three elements are required for a conviction, Wilton said: force, fraud and coercion. But even without those three, there are other state and federal laws with hefty sentences attached, such as first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. And charges involving underage victims don’t require the three.

“Don’t ever think, ‘I don’t have all three, I’m not going to call,'” Wilton said.

Labor trafficking is also common, forcibly putting people into agriculture, landscaping, restaurants and other menial jobs.

In one case a few years ago, Wilton found 115 Mexican restaurants in Michigan and 10 other states where undocumented immigrants were paid in cash and forced to work in the kitchen beyond their will.

“They’d stamp their time cards out at 40 hours and continue working,” he said.

While trafficking victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality, most are women and children, Wilton said.

About 28 percent of trafficking victims see a health care provider at some time during their trafficking and were not recognized, Wilton said.

There are red flags health care providers can recognize:

•The victims may say they’ve been the victim of domestic abuse, compared to domestic abuse victims.

•Trafficking victims are less likely to have bruises or scars in areas visible while clothed.

•Repeated abortions or miscarriages can also be a sign the person have engaged in commercial sex work.

•The person seems fearful of the person accompanying them, who might have control over their identification or travel documents.

•In the case of labor trafficking, they may have untreated skin infections or suffer from sleep deprivation.

Michigan State Police Trooper Matt Djerf of the Calumet Post said public involvement is crucial to solving cases.

“Nobody likes to go to court and have to testify,” he said. “Some people don’t like their name written on the notepad or the police making a couple phone calls to them, but sometimes it has to be done.”

Alicia Savela of Calumet said she came to become more aware of the issue, both as a mother of four kids and as a restaurant employee who might need to spot a potential victim.

“I’m just in the public a lot, so I feel feel like I should be more aware of what’s going on,” she said.

To report potential human trafficking violations, call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE.