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'It's So Disguised Now, It Almost Looks Legit': Sex Traffickers Searching Social Media To Find Vulnerable Youths

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Experts warn that sex trafficking happens daily in towns across Minnesota. The recent charges against GOP strategist Tony Lazzaro show it's not just an issue on the streets, but a crime finding new, young victims on social media.

A former pimp named James talked with WCCO about what can make teenagers vulnerable, and what he calls a dangerous tool.

"Either you're part of the problem or the part of the solution," James said.

James used to call himself a pimp. He says he's been out of the life for nearly a decade, after decades in.

"There's no way that you can actually do this without hurting somebody," he said.

Now realizing the harm he caused, he says he wants to help. James occasionally works with the survivor-led nonprofit Breaking Free and its restorative justice program. And he was willing to offer insight into the mind of a pimp or sex trafficker.

"Even though you're still offering them up out there, but you're really trying to protect them," James said.

He says he looked for people who were vulnerable in some way. The females he says he worked with were similar to the majority of survivors in Minnesota: in need of shelter, food, money, drugs, protection or acceptance. While that still goes on, James says the industry has evolved through social media.

"It is the most dangerous way. They can come into your living room a lot easier. It turns into more white-collar rather than just grimy street stuff. It's so disguised now that it almost look legit," James said.

And that's why experts advise parents to warn their kids. Anastasia Kramlinger with Breaking Free works with trafficked victims up to age 24. She says online recruitment can happen anywhere.

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"It can be through gaming, it can be through dating sites, it can be through different apps, it can be through TikTok," Kramlinger said.

She says sex traffickers often pose as someone else online to first build a relationship through simple conversation, trying to find a vulnerable individual, or someone with unmet needs.

"That's where an exploiter is going to try to fill that void to create that trauma bond," Kramlinger said.

She says it's important for teenagers to be cautious with what information they share online, and advises them to only talk to those who are friends in real life. Kramlinger says parents can also watch for unexplained gifts, or changes in behavior.

"If a young person starts acting different, if they start to be kind of secretive with their phone," Kramlinger said.

James believes it's important for parents to be open if a child comes to them with something that might seem uncomfortable.

"One of the signs would be to really learn how to just listen without judging, and make them know that they got a safe place," James said.

The Minnesota Department of Health says if you suspect someone of being trafficked, don't try to rescue them, get help instead. Call police, or the Day One Hotline at 1-866-223-1111.

Additional Resources

Breaking Free
The Link
Day One
Safe Harbor Regional Navigators
Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force

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