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Researchers who study trafficking consider Alabama to be a microcosm of what’s going on in the U.S. In other words, the problem is here and issues in Alabama are likely occurring everywhere. One way to put trafficking into focus in Alabama is by looking at the numbers.
“The fact is that there’s a prevalence of human trafficking throughout the entire state,” said Christian Lim, who is leading a project at the University of Alabama’s College of Social Work on human trafficking in the state.
His team spent 2017 conducting interviews around Alabama to get a snapshot of how many suspected victims of trafficking asked for help from the police or social service agencies. Lim said the final number was nearly 1,200, and that’s not the disquieting part.
“Clearly whatever we recovering is a smaller percentage of what’s happening,” he said.
So small, Lim believes, that some estimates put the real figure at 10 times higher. If that’s true, the total could be closer to 12,000, just in Alabama, just in 2017. Lim said the point is that authorities know what they know, but that's it.
“If you flip that on their head, what that means is there are a lot of professionals in our state who are running across victims of human trafficking, but not identifying them and seeing them as victims of human trafficking,” Lim said.
But, the College of Social Work found another number that could give an even clearer picture of trafficking in Alabama. It's based on when traffickers come out in the open and advertise on the internet. Two years ago, the college counted those ads and the total was 641,000, just in Alabama in 2017.
Gary Warner is a computer analyst in Birmingham.
“The biggest problem with getting a realistic number is that the only people who know what’s going on are the participants,” he said of the buyers and sellers of sex trafficking, known as Johns and pimps, “and they’re not likely to report the situation."
At least, not voluntarily. And that’s where Warner comes in. If you look at trafficking like a business, there is a point where some traffickers come out in the open. Like most businesses, you have sellers, you have buyers, and you have merchandise, which happens to be people. And, like most business owners in Alabama, traffickers advertise.
“If we go down further, it says, 'Hey daddy, if you’re looking for….' and that’s about all we’re able to say about this ad on the radio,'” Warner said. “'But, if you want to have a great time, contact me.' And, it lists the telephone number again.”
Warner sits in front of a large computer screen. It’s cluttered with online ads in Birmingham featuring pictures of young women. Some are unclothed. Others are performing sex acts. And many of the messages get specific.
“And, in this case, she describes many different sex acts she’ll perform, and then the prices go as low as $10 for these services, up to $100, if you want to her to spend the night with you,” Warner said.
The ads on Warner’s computer screen are basic. No flashy videos or graphics. Just a photo and a price list. None of these ads gives details on this person may be going through.
“I was forced to stay in a motel room. I was basically in a box for a year,” Dixie Shannon said.
She lives in central Alabama. Shannon isn’t in any of the sex ads on Warner’s computer screen. But, the experience she shared with APR showed what it was like to be trafficked. Shannon said it didn’t just start with Johns with handfuls of cash. Her trafficker had a process, first. It’s referred to as grooming.
“There was many episodes where, you know like, he would test me many times, and use different forms of punishment,” Shannon said. “He would break me down until I was nothing. And then, he would build me a little bit from that, then break me down, and keep rebuilding me, and breaking me down.”
Part of Shannon’s grooming process was on how to use internet sex ads to drum up business. She was trafficked twice. First when Shannon was 17, then again in her mid-twenties as she was going through a divorce.
Warner isn’t alone studying sex trafficking ads in Alabama. Outside his office, there’s a workroom where analysts sit hunched over their own PC’s. One of them arrived late. She had a test in Western Civilization class. This is the computer forensics lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Outside the lab, other UAB students prepare for their next class. Inside the lab, Warner’s crew works to dredge the seamy underbelly of the internet. Technically, their main client is Facebook. But, Warner and his team aren’t looking just for irritating pop-up ads.
“We do this in the area of terrorism, in opioid and fentanyl trafficking, and we were doing this in the area of sex trafficking for Facebook,” Warner said.
When it comes to sex trafficking in Alabama, Warner said Alabamians are more likely to use the web to arrange hook-ups. Particularly in larger cities like Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville.
“[It's] largely because we don’t have the same organized crime structure as some of the larger cities,” Warner said.
And, that makes them easier to track. Remember that number of human trafficking ads? The 641,000 for Alabama in 2017? That may sound impressive, but Warner’s job is to look below the surface, and his result is different.
“It’s a much smaller than 641,000, but it’s a pretty large number,” he said.
Warner's students use computers to scrape the internet. Their system logs onto trafficking sites and chat rooms and studies the ads for sexual services. That sifting process shows not all of Alabama’s sex trafficking ads in 2017 were what they appeared to be.
“A lot of these websites where you see these ads aren’t making their money by the girls who are being trafficked,” Warner said. “They’re making their money by affiliate programs that are selling pornography.”
Warner and his team pick a day at random and used their computer tools to look at the commercial sex trade in Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville.
“In Birmingham, we had 251 ads,” Warner said. “In Mobile, we had 114. In Huntsville, we had 160, and in Montgomery we had 89, which is about 550 ads, roughly, for a single day in four major cities in Alabama. Five hundred and fifty distinctly different advertisements.”
Five hundred and sixty when you total it up. Alabama is a small and rural location for trafficking compared to say Atlanta, which is a considered a main hub in the southeast. Warner’ calls up Atlanta’s numbers for the same day as Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville.
“We get 20 ads per hour, which is higher than any city in Alabama," he said.
But, if that hourly rate kept up for the whole day, Atlanta’s total would be 480 ads. That’s less than the 560 ads for the Alabama cities in Warner’s study. The possible takeaway could be that Alabama may be small, but maybe not insignifcant.
“If we go to these ads…Birmingham ads,” Warner explained while looking at the pictures, “I’m on one of these sites. But, this one, you’ll notice the time stamp on these, and these are Birmingham, Alabama ads...One says 25 minutes ago, one has 33 minutes, two hours ago, there are several listed."
Warner clicked on one photo and then told the computer to scan the web for other pictures exactly like it. Ad after ad appears with the same girl, in the same pose as the original.
“The fact it’s across many different websites, that aren’t necessarily selling escort services, and the fact that the person is being called different names in the photos, makes it more likely that they’ve stolen an image,” Warner said.
Then, Warner called up another example.
“And, in this case, the only copy of this image is the website we’re looking for,” Warner said. “This is likely going to be that individual.”
And, Warner said the trail of clues doesn’t end with whether a sex trafficking ad is real or not. It can also track if these young women are moving into and out of Alabama, either alone are in groups.
“If I can find five girls who are in Atlanta on Monday, and Birmingham on Tuesday, and Chattanooga on Wednesday, that’s something we would consider a strong indicator of trafficking,” he said.
The trafficking roadshow Warner is describing typically starts in Atlanta. From Atlanta, the next step is often interstate 20, which runs from Georgia west into Alabama. It also splits into I-59 running between Birmingham northeast to Chattanooga. Warner said those stretches of highway have already earned a reputation among human trafficking support groups.
“There are certainly girls who are trafficked up and down the I-20 corridor. They certainly stop in Birmingham and provide services here,” Warner said.
It’s easy to get the impression that Warner is focused on the numbers. He keeps the good data is finds on sex trafficking, and discards the bad. But, chasing cybercriminals isn’t what got him into this line of work.
“I had a daughter who was very troubled,” Warner said. “She had drug problems and sexual identity problems. [She] went through some very hard times."
As a result, Warner and his wife began supporting the anti-human trafficking group A21, which operates in 14 countries. They found it through their church.
“My daughter said ‘You know, a lot of girls in a situation like mine, their parents throw them out of the house, and they end up getting trafficked. So, I’m glad that you’re supporting that,'" he said. "We lost our daughter a few years after that and personally got involved in fighting human trafficking in memory of my daughter after that, to tell the truth.”
APR heard similar stories on how runaways end up being trafficked.
“I shut down from my family and everyone I knew to trust, but I developed a pure 15, 16, 17, normal rebellion as well,” Shannon said. “I just got fed up and tired, with what I was seeing in my family...I didn’t beat to the drum they beat to, so I ran away from home.”
Within a short time, Shannon was being trafficked. Her first Johns were college students from Georgia. The National Human Trafficking hotline quotes a study in Chicago that says 56 percent of women in the sex trade start off as runaways. This raises a sensitive question. Just because someone is a prostitute, does that automatically mean they’re being trafficked? Even support groups for trafficking survivors disagree on this, but Warner doesn’t.
“Our interpretation, and having talked to many sociologists and criminologists, about this…there are few volunteer sex workers,” Warner said. “Even if you claim you’re a volunteer, your economic situation has likely drove you to this point of desperation.”
The FBI says a young person in the sex trade is considered a trafficking victim. Adults have to be forced into it through coercion, fraud or deception. None of the women pictured in the ads Warner showed us appear afraid. He said they don’t need to.
“There may be some people who are doing this for kicks and money. But, usually there’s some form of abuse or harm in the past that caused them to gravitate to this line of work,” Warner said.
National studies put the average age of a sex trafficking victim in the U.S. ranges from 12 to 15 years old, where the notion of choice doesn’t enter into it.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is being trafficked, Alabama Public Radio has a list of resources to help. Go to apr.org-slash-traffic for phone numbers and links to groups that support trafficking survivors. You can also text the word traffic to 855-353-6644.