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Sgt. Bauer, Donna Oberlander Hold Informative Human Trafficking Town Hall Meeting
CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Hundreds turned out to learn more about the threat of human trafficking and suspicious behavior for a town hall meeting on Monday night at Trinity Point Church of God.
The town hall meeting was hosted by state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest) and the Pennsylvania State Police-Clarion Station.
“Rural areas such as ours are not immune from the dangers of human trafficking, and in fact, can be an attractive place for which to traffic or entrap victims,” Oberlander said. “Our area includes two major transportation arteries, Interstate 80 and Route 28/66, which are often prime highways to transport victims to more populated areas.”
“By knowing the warning signs and increasing education, we can help prevent men, women, and children from becoming victims and thwart this type of illegal activity in our communities.”
Megan Sands, an intelligence analyst with the State Police’s Critical Infrastructure/Key Resource Unit, was the featured speaker.
Sands was an energetic and informative speaker who explained how human trafficking works, where it is most prevalent, and signs people can look for to help detect it.
“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which force and coercion are used to force victims to engage in sex acts against his or her will,” Sands said. “It occurs mostly in the Philadelphia area, but there are some areas of high activity in central Ohio and near the Pennsylvania borders.”
“For Pennsylvania, the connections are Interstates 80 and 95. The two highways connect most of the East Coast. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the country,” Sands said. “It has become a $150 billion business.”
Sands said one of the common perceptions is that only troubled youths from broken homes are the victims of sex trafficking.
“It can happen to anyone,” Sands said. “We’ve seen cases of parents selling their kids in exchange for drugs, food, or money.”
“Sex trafficking is a major activity for gangs. A human being can be used over and over until they get to the point where they take their own life. The average of a trafficking victim is just 13 years old,” Sands said. “There was a former Amish couple who kept their six daughters in virtual sex slavery for years, starting when one of the girls was just seven.”
Sands pointed out some of the things people should be aware of in terms of possible trafficking victims:
- Use of social media sites such as Craig’s List, Eros, backpage.com and mobile apps such as Tango, Kik, Plenty of Fish or receiving random friend requests on Facebook;
- Sudden change in dress or appearance;
- Physical abuse;
- Drug use;
- New tattoos;
Sands said some of the tattoos they have seen on victims included a bar code on their arm or “Cash Only” on their back.
Sands said 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have a cell phone, and of those, 93 percent of them are online on their phones, including 63 percent on a daily basis.
She added that on the live.me mobile app, adolescent and pre-pubescent girls were observed performing sex acts.
The backpage.com site holds 80 percent of the market for online sex ads. It also allows code words and emojis to be used so they can’t be tracked.
Sands questioned the audience about “How well do you know your neighbors?”
In one case in Atlanta, the girls being sex trafficked in a small mansion in a gated community.
“Neighbors weren’t happy with the comings and goings at the house, but they didn’t call the police, they called the homeowner’s association which did virtually nothing,” Sands said.
“Learning about it and the signs of it are important, and it’s why I’m so pleased with how many of you came out tonight,” Sands said.
She said for those with suspicions, they should call the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Center at 1-888-373-7888.
In the second part of the presentation, Sands talked about suspicious activity and how the public can be of great help to law enforcement.
“Our officers do a great job, but they can’t be everywhere, and that’s where an informed and vigilant public is so important to discovering things before they became disasters,” Sands said.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world that’s frightening, it’s violent, and it’s bloody, and it has become part of our lives every day,” Sands said.
Certain things to look for include:
- Someone standing, parking, or loitering in the same place on multiple days;
- Seasonal inappropriate clothing, such as a long overcoat on a hot day;
- Unattended packages in open spaces;
- Buying unusual amounts of products that can be used as weapons or explosives;
- Increasingly violent messages on social media.
Sands also said it was very important for people to remove personal bias when they believe they are witnessing suspicious behavior.
“Don’t discount Al-Qaeda for one minute, but in 2017, it was the fifth deadliest year for domestic extremist killings, and they were mostly done by white supremacists,” Sands said. “They killed at a higher rate than Islamic militants.”
Sands said there are tools available for those who want to report suspicious activity, including a mobile app “See Something, Say Something.”
“Obviously, if something bad or urgent is happening right now, call 911, but there are tiplines for terrorism (888-292-1919) or drugs (877-726-6378).”
“Most arrests begin with tips from the public,” Sands said.
Sergeant Scott Bauer, the station commander of the Clarion barracks, feels fortunate that his officers aren’t investigating such incidents locally, but he knows the activity is nearby.
“We’ve seen it close to here and while we would be happy to never deal with it, it’s important for the public to be aware that it can happen here,” Bauer said.
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