Human sex traffickers. They're the social media boogeyman. People often post in community groups about suspicious people at grocery stores. They complain of shady characters approaching, following, or just looking at them the wrong way and assume they're human traffickers.
"They really make it seem like a kidnapping scenario like the movie Taken, and it's not usually like that," said Michelle Rucker, Outreach and Education Program Manager at the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
Rucker is part of a coalition to educate workers in the tourism industry on how to spot the signs of trafficking. It's a new program called the SAFE (Safeguarding All From Exploitation) Action Project, launched at Sky Harbor Airport Tuesday with the Arizona Anti Trafficking Network and the Department of Homeland Security. Rucker said human trafficking is real problem nationwide. But traffickers are not usually snatching kids out of grocery carts.
"What would be the easiest way to do it? Abduct someone in broad daylight at Target or maybe groom them over social media and form a relationship and try to force them into trafficking? Probably the latter," said Rucker.
Experts say they use abuse, assault, confiscation of money to control their victims. Airline workers were told to look for people who weren't allowed to go to the restroom alone, or have control of their identification, cell phones, or money. Rucker said typically the victims are in vulnerable situations like foster kids, runaways, or homeless.
The average victim. they said, is a 14-year-old girl. The training, hosted by American Airlines, was the first for the group. The goal is to reach places where large groups of people gather and travel.
"Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is committed to working with our law enforcement partners and non-profit organizations to educate the community and business on the dangers of human trafficking," said Scott Brown, Special Agent in Charge for HSI Phoenix. "The more people that receive this invaluable training, the more we can help identify and rescue potential human trafficking victims."
And though trafficking may not happen like the movies portray, it's happening in Arizona. According to the Attorney General's Office, since January 2015, the office has logged 62 convictions related to "sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, or illegal enterprises/money laundering in the trafficking arena, such as massage parlors."
"Ultimately it does happen every single day here," said Rucker.
But more often victims are approached online, not abducted on a shopping trip.