Friday, July 12, 2013 - 9:43am

Des Moines-Ames (Iowa State Daily) -- The internet has dramatically transformed the way society lives. It provides communication, access to information and many methods of entertainment ranging from television shows to video games.

The internet offers endless product options for customers to purchase from the convenience of their homes. Products to suit every interest can be found. Purses, iPods and now, even people.

"The days of women and children being forced to walk the streets and stand on street corners are going by the way-side. Most transactions are happening online," said Cathy O'Keefe, the executive director of Braking Traffik, an Iowa-Illinois group that aims to raise awareness on sex trafficking.

Adult sex trafficking occurs when someone sells another's sexual services for profit under conditions of force, fraud or coercion. However, if a child is involved, proof of force, fraud or coercion is not needed. Any form of selling children's sexual acts, such as pornography, sexual massage or stripping, is considered trafficking.

"With sex trafficking now being advertised on the internet, it's easy for buyers to find and set up a transaction," O'Keefe said.

Such advertisements can be easily found, said Sr. Criminal Investigator Michael Ferjak. Websites such as Craiglist and especially Backpage have been criticized for their lack of screening for trafficking.

"If you go to Backpage, [then] to Iowa, [there are] more than 500 ads [for sexual services] in the state of Iowa," Ferjak said. "What one can reasonably presume, based on investigation and national trends, is that anywhere between one-third and half of those will involve some kind of trafficking stance."

Maggie Tinsman, Chair of Braking Traffik, said experts have looked at Backpage for the Quad Cities area: Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, Illi., for two to three weeks at a time and discovered at least 15 girls under the age of 18 years old, being advertised.

Out of all the advertisements, Ferjak said possibly one-fourth to a third are advertised as over the age of 18, but are actually minors. The average age of traffic entry is 12 to 16, numerous experts have said.

Internet advertising has created new challenges for law enforcement in tracking offenders.

"There will be a picture, name and age, which are usually bogus, [and] a phone number to call to set up a date," O'Keefe said. "You can see her and her picture, but you don't know where she is."

Although investigators continuously update training to overcome internet tactics, traffickers also create new methods of avoiding arrest. Methods include using pictures that don't show the victim's face and only leaving the ad up for a few days so that law enforcement can't follow the trail.

"Traffickers are smart about it because they're making a lot of money," O'Keefe said. "They don't want business to go away."

Despite new obstacles, Ferjak said arrests can still be made based on these advertisements.

Because children are especially susceptible to internet crime; Ferjak advises parents to strongly monitor their children's online activity, even if they are intimidated by the new technology.

Ferjak, O'Keefe and Tinsman all advise the "see something, say something" method of fighting the war on modern day slavery. Report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.

"So often we go on about our way. We don't want to get involved. We need to step up a bit," Ferjak said.

"Tell law enforcement. Let the people who are trained to deal with it, deal with it. If they're not aware of it, they can't. The worst that can happen is you were wrong. I'd much rather you be wrong than have us miss another victim."


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