Human traffickers using social media to prey on victims - FOX 35 News Orlando

Human traffickers using social media to prey on victims

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OCALA, Fla. (WOGX FOX 51) -

It could happen anywhere.

"We've been in some of the best homes in Marion County and some of the worst homes," said Master Sgt. Jerry Bevan. "It makes no difference."

And it could happen to anyone.

"One of them was even in my neighborhood on a case I worked," said Bevan.

Bevan investigates human trafficking for the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

He said local boys and girls, children and teenagers, are becoming victims of human trafficking.

Bevan said he first trained on the issue in 2009.  He said they now work 10 to15 potential cases a year.  He said other agencies are working a similar caseload, as well.

One recent human trafficking case includes the arrest of Melissa Rodriguez in Ocala.

"I want to tell the public, I don't prostitute girls, especially children," Rodriguez told the media last fall.

Ocala Police and the FBI arrested the mother of seven and Ysbette Joseph in October 2013.

Investigators charged them with human trafficking after they allegedly tried to sell several young women to an undercover agent. The affidavit states Rodriguez worked out of an Ocala nightclub. The report also stated that Rodriguez referred to the girls as "horses" and one could get up to $50,000.

"Every time you say something that I'm quoted I never said those things, ma'am," Rodriguez told FOX 35 in October 2013.

Both cases are still moving through the courts.

While Rodriguez is accused of working face to face, Bevan said more traffickers are becoming tech savvy.

"It's not even computers," said Bevan. "A lot of the cases we get nowadays are with smartphones."

Attorney General Pam Bondi recently launched a statewide campaign.  She's hoping to spread awareness.  Several posters are going up on billboards, bus shelters and mall displays throughout the state.

Bevan added that traffickers now use social media to connect with young people. He said they'll send the victim a message, develop a friendship, get them to send or message pictures, and eventually the traffickers ask for nude ones. Bevan said those pictures are then used to threaten victims.

"I'm going to send it to all your friends at school," said Bevan. "I'm going to send it to your parents and relatives, and to avoid that they get lured into prostitution."

Bevan said this can all happen while the child is at home.

"All the time they're in the bedroom and the parents could be out watching TV," said Bevan.

What can parents do to protect their children?  Master Sgt. Bevan said parents should:

  1. Talk to their children about sex trafficking and sexual abuse.
  2. Restrict computer usage to areas of the house where guardians will be around.
  3. Know your child's screen names.
  4. Make sure children know everyone online is not their friend.
  5. Tell young people they should not send pictures to people they've met online.
  6. Tell young people they shouldn't keep any pictures that strangers send them.
  7. Let young people know they should contact an adult if someone sends them a pornographic image.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office just released a tip sheet for parents. You can read the document by clicking here (PDF).

 

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