"These predators will take the time to know them, even if it takes a year. They will take the time because our children, our young adults are worth up to $300,000 a year to them," said Sheila Roemeling, co-chair of the Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force.
Roemeling, who hosted a Community Address on trafficking Jan. 22 at the Bluffton Library, is also founder and executive director of Fresh Start Healing Heart, a local nonprofit that works to rescue and heal human trafficking survivors.
The task force is a coalition that comes under the South Carolina Office of the Attorney General, and covers Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Colleton and Allendale counties.
"One of the things we are seeing is the majority of the clients of Fresh Start in the local area have been recruited through boyfriending, through friends of their own or through the internet," she said. "A lot of that has been somebody that they met online, gotten to know."
What did our parents say from the beginning?
Do not talk to strangers. Do not open the door to somebody you do not know.
"Can you imagine the feeling that we would have if we walked by a dark alley, and we saw our child talking to somebody we do not know? Yet every day they're doing that on the internet," said Duffie Stone, 14th Circuit Solicitor, at the meeting. "Nobody's breaking into our house anymore through windows. They don't need to. They can come through in our child's cell phone."
Stone continued, "The Pew Institute did a study in 2018. At that time, 95 percent of our children had access to cell phones, 45 percent of which were spending almost all of their time on those cell phones. That same year, 2018, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported 18 million cyber tips on exploitation of children. 18 million. 98 percent of the offenders were strangers."
The Department of Homeland Security recently released a report stating that in 2018, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline was contacted 41,088 times and reported 10,949 cases of human trafficking, a number that has grown each year.
What does a victim of human trafficking look like?
Kathryn Moorehead is the director of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) and Human Trafficking Programs at the South Carolina Office of Attorney General Alan Wilson.
"When you're talking about children, you need to be concerned if they're starting to have a lot of absences in school, disappearing on weekends, they can't tell you where they've been, they look like they're malnourished, or they're tired, they're withdrawn from peers, or if they're with someone and the person's not allowing them to speak for themselves," she said. "Not one of these is going to indicate the individual is a trafficking victim. But as they start to add up - is the child walking around with multiple cell phones? Are they walking around with multiple motel keys? Are they dressing in a more provocative fashion? - these are some of the red flags that indicate a person is being trafficked."
Moorehead said many of the same red flags can also indicate adult victims.
"At the very root, trafficking is power and control to exploit another person for something of value," said Moorehead. "Traffickers are trying to identify what a potential victim's vulnerability is, what their need is. They're going to supply that need, and then they're going to have control over that person as long as they are providing that need they are devoid of."
Stone said technology is the biggest difference in criminal activity he has seen during his years as a prosecutor.
"Years ago, if narcotics officers went out and would execute a search warrant and if they found drugs, as well as guns, drug paraphernalia, scales, that was considered a successful search warrant," he said. "But if they could get the notebook - the little pad of paper that was in the drug dealer's house that had who he bought from, who he sold to, how much was owed, how much money transpired, all of that contact information - that was something that not only helped the narcotics agent bring him down, but the entire operation.
"Today that's not on a pad. Today it's in your cell phone."
Stone said organized crime is running today's human trafficking operations.
"This isn't Bubba with a pickup truck. It literally has to be the logistics of kidnapping, the logistics of bringing people into other areas, of having customers lined up, of having places for them to stay, whether it's sexual trafficking or labor trafficking," Stone said. "That cell phone is of great use to those people who are perpetuating those types of crime."
South Carolina has made major changes in order to combat these crimes. For years, Stone said, the state was known as one of the "Dirty Dozen" that had poor statutes related to human trafficking.
"Attorney General Alan Wilson is somebody who has been out in front of this one. The human trafficking statute that was passed a few years ago is considered one of the best statutes in the country," Stone said.
South Carolina Code, Sections 16-3-2010 through 2090, became effective Dec. 15, 2012, and the state now has one of the highest-ranking human trafficking laws in the country. It includes asset forfeiture by convicted traffickers in addition to higher penalties than the previous human trafficking statute, criminal liability for business owners engaging in human trafficking, restitution for victims, and civil action availability for victims.
Stone said the forfeiture clause is what makes the law so effective.
"What we know about this organized crime is human trafficking is based in money. It's about money," said Stone. "They don't care about the children that they abuse. They don't care about the people that they're providing the children to. They care about the money that they're getting. And if you don't take the money from them after you prosecute them, then you're not really solving the problem."
Law enforcement, hospitals, social services, nonprofit organizations, religious groups and private citizens are working in support of the task force's mission but more than a dozen other entities have formed partnerships with the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force.
One of those is the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association.
"We've got 16 distributor members who live and work all across South Carolina, and all of our 2,500 men and women who work in this industry, they're South Carolinians just like all of us," said Lance Boozer, executive director. "One of these victims could very easily be one of our own family members, one of our employees' children."
Boozer said SCBWA vehicles operate every day in all 46 counties, servicing 11,000 retail outlets and making a million stops a year to any place that sells beer. In addition to employee training in human trafficking awareness, each vehicle has a sign on it with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number - 1-888-373-7888.
"I cannot imagine the hopelessness and loss one would feel going through this, whether you're the actual victim or one of the family members, so being involved with this is a no-brainer," said Boozer.
For more information, contact the Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 843-644-1991.
"I'm sure what you're going to see in the next five or 10 years is many more of these cases," said Stone, "not because crime is higher, but because there is going to be greater awareness and there's going to be more cases developed."
To report suspected human trafficking, call the Department of Homeland Security at 866-347-2423.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.