At night, the rooms above a building in downtown Bucharest resemble a scene straight from the 18th-century slave trades, and it's taking place in front of 48 Hours' hidden cameras.
There, Correspondent Peter Van Sant is negotiating to buy a human being – not for an hour, but forever. In this 48 Hours report that first aired last February, Van Sant infiltrates the billion-dollar business of human trafficking, a business that is worldwide.
Hundreds of thousands of young, desperate girls are trafficked each year as sex slaves. Some are lured overseas with the promise of a good job, only to be enslaved once they arrive. Others are simply abducted.
To investigate, 48 Hours traveled to Bucharest, Romania, with hidden cameras to find out if it was really possible to purchase a sex slave.
Posing as traffickers from America, 48 Hours crews went undercover, hoping to rescue a victim of this insidious industry. To infiltrate this world, crews hired streetwise journalists Paul Radu and Daniel Neamu as guides.
Like many poor Eastern European countries, Romania has become a popular place for international traffickers looking to recruit, or even purchase, girls.
After dark, the 48 Hours team ventures into the older sectors of Bucharest, to see what money can buy. Within minutes, the crew finds what looks like the kind of pimping and prostitution you can see in any large city. But soon it is learned that some of these girls are for sale as slaves.
"You can buy 10 girls in one night, if you want to. You can say, 'I want a 13-, a 16-, a 17-, and a 21-year-old,' and you can buy them all like that," says Iana Matei, who runs a shelter for trafficking victims outside Bucharest.
Matei agreed to take in any girl that 48 Hours could rescue. "Young girls and women, bought and sold, first to work in prostitution. That's slavery. We choose to believe that they are prostitutes and we don't look into it," says Matei.
She says that many of the girls on the street look like prostitutes but are actually slaves, ready for purchase and export to western Europe or the United States.
"It's on the street. It's impossible not to see," says Matei. "It's not a secret industry. It's right in your face."
A woman named Francesca claims to have girls all over Bucharest. Over a meal, our undercover team explains to Francesca that it wants to buy her girls and bring them back to the United States. The team asks if the girls have the proper documents to cross the border.
"No problem," says Francesca, who is hungry to close the deal.
But 48 Hours decides to do business with another trafficker, Nadia, who says she has a young, blonde girl for sale.
Nadia brings out the girl, Nicoleta, to meet with Van Sant. She and her business partner and husband, Costel, put Nicoleta on display in the filthy apartment where she services clients.
To rescue Nicoleta, it is crucial that Van Sant and the 48 Hours team convincingly play the role of cold-hearted traffickers.
Nicoleta undresses. "They usually show the girls to see she doesn't have any marks, any skin disease so they can show she's good to be used," says Matei. "It's like when you, say, sell a cattle in the market."
"To you, it's a human being. To them, it's not," adds Matei. "To them, it's income. It's a way of making money."
Van Sant offers to pay $1,000 for Nicoleta, but suddenly there is a problem: Nicoleta doesn't have any ID on her. However, Costel assures 48 Hours that the issue will be resolved the next day.
The plan is to return to the traffickers' apartment the next day, buy Nicoleta for $1,000, and then bring her to Matei's shelter, and let Nicoleta reclaim her life.
But within minutes, negotiations hit a snag. Now, Nadia wants $2,000 for the sale. Why has the price doubled overnight? "Obviously, they understood that you are going to take her overseas," says Matei. "So she goes overseas, the price goes up $1,000."
Nadia says much of the money will support Nicoleta's family. In the end, Van Sant offers $1,800, and the deal is settled. But even though the traffickers haven't produced Nicoleta's ID, 48 Hours wants to get her out of there. Nicoleta leaves with only the clothes on her back.
Once in the car, 48 Hours hands over the rest of the cash. In less time than it takes to buy groceries, 48 Hours had bought a human being.
"I want you to know that you are absolutely safe with us," Van Sant tells Nicoleta. "You've got nothing to fear."
It's now a very difficult decision for Van Sant, who is trying to decide whether he should tell Nicoleta that the 48 Hours team are undercover reporters. He's concerned that Nicoleta might jump out of the car, think that he is lying to her, or believe that he is part of the authorities.
But Nicoleta is convinced that Van Sant is her new owner. During the drive, she tells 48 Hours that this is the first time she's been outside in more than a year. She says her owners brutally beat her, and that she was fed like a dog.
How did she become a slave? Nicoleta says her mother abandoned her at an orphanage: "Then, they threw me out. With no family, I didn't know where to go."
She says she eventually came to Bucharest, where she spent years living in the sewers and shantytowns with other young runaways. The traffickers found her by the side of a road. They promised her food and shelter. But they ended up making her bad world worse.
After nearly two hours of driving, Van Sant tells Nicoleta the truth: "We are journalists from the United States. We have bought you because we want to set you free."
Exhausted and a bit stunned, Nicoleta hugs our translator, and says: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart, that you saved me from that hell."