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State and federal officials team up to train hotel workers on signs of human trafficking

Posted at 6:16 PM, Jan 15, 2020

PHOENIX — It's a high profit, low-risk crime that is happening in plain view every single day.

Arizona has a united effort involving the Attorney General's office, Homeland Security Investigations, local police and advocacy groups like the Safe Action Project that are working to fight human trafficking around the clock.

Busting the bad players in this industry requires a lot of undercover work, and those working on the front lines say they need the community’s help. Over the last few years we have seen everyone from airport employees, to truck drivers, and beauty salon staff get training on how to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

Now the Arizona Attorney General's office, HSI, and Safe Action Project are teaming up to train the hotel industry. Staff working at the hundreds of hotels and motels throughout Arizona can play a big role in helping identify potential victims of sex trafficking. To help them do that, the government agencies are now offering specialized training at no cost to anyone in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries.

State and federal officials launched the training at the five-diamond luxury resort, The Phoenix on Wednesday morning.

Officials said tourism was a big industry in Arizona with about 45.5 Million visitors staying overnight in our communities in 2018. Along with the economic boost this provides, the dark side is the human trafficking that also takes place.

"With the see something, say something approach, we can make an impact," said John Meza, President of the Anti-Trafficking Network.

He also mentioned that recently human trafficking victims had filed lawsuits against major hotels alleging that staff had turned a blind eye and ignored the problems for years.

Katie Connor, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mark Brnovich, said combatting human trafficking is a big priority for their office. General Brnovich launched a new unit that would focus on prosecuting human trafficking cases in 2015, and the unit has been extremely busy.

Blain Gadow, a special prosecutor who led the unit said the office had 135 open cases right now with 251 defendants. Many of these suspects included men who tried to buy children for sex.

One big case the office has recently prosecuted is that of human trafficker Robert Hood who is now spending 108 years behind bars for his crimes.

"He was using hotels throughout the course of his work. The young girl, she was actually rescued from the hotel," said Gadow.

He added that hotel staff had been very cooperative in helping them build a case by providing documentation of their stays at the hotel.

"Hotel folks know when things are not right. We want them to step up and know the signs of trafficking. We hope to empower them with this knowledge," said Gadow.

Lon Weigland, Deputy special agent with Homeland Security Investigations’ Phoenix office said with Arizona being a border state, people were familiar with human smuggling, but not human trafficking as much, even though it was a crime that took place in plain sight.

"Nationally in 2019 we have had 2,900 investigations with over 600 arrests," said Weigland.

Many of the victims are underage girls, some who ran away from home, others who have no strong parent-figure in their lives. The suspects were men from all walks of life. From successful doctors and businessmen to truck drivers, and construction workers. Weigland said these men were all contributing to a very serious crime.

"At some point, we're going to catch up to you and you're going to be prosecuted and spend some time behind bars," he added.

He said human trafficking could take place anywhere. From cars to big fancy hotels, and seedy motels.

"That's why we want to train as many people as possible to be the eyes and ears for us," said Weigland.

The Safe Action Project has tips for people working in all jobs inside a hotel.

For front desk staff warning signs include:

-Individuals checking into rooms appearing distressed, coerced or injured.
-Few or no personal possessions carried in small plastic bags.
-Appears to be with a significantly older "boyfriend" or in the company of other males.
-Individuals dropped off at a hotel or visited repeatedly over time.

For Housekeeping staff warning signs include:

-'Do not disturb' sign constantly used
-Refusing access to a hotel room for room service deliveries
-Refusal of cleaning for several days, especially when excessive linens or amenities are requested.
-Overly smelly room
-Excessive foot traffic in and out of a room.

For more information on warning signs visit the Safe Action Project.

If you suspect human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-3737-888 or 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (1-888-347-2423).