Online brothels

In generations past, the world's oldest profession was a tawdry trade practiced mostly in the shadows of unlit street corners and darkened alleys. Today, vulnerable young women and girls are still being tricked or forced into selling their bodies to strangers by predatory and amoral pimps who deceive, threaten and abuse them — but the locus of "the stroll" has changed from sidewalks to computer screens. Increasingly, traffickers are going online to market their victims, and as a new study by the Abell Foundation warns, the rise in Internet sex trafficking is rapidly outstripping efforts to combat it.

The study's authors concede that hard numbers are notoriously difficult to come by, since the vast majority of transactions take place out of view of authorities, and traffickers have become extremely sophisticated in managing their businesses. A computer-savvy pimp can drive into town with four or five girls, set them up in a hotel room and post their pictures on the Internet; within hours, 50 or more men may have responded to the ads. By the time the trafficker checks out later that day, he's put $10,000 or more in his pocket, all before police even knew he was there.

Nor do the number of arrests for prostitution, hospital emergency room visits or calls to 24-hour hotlines run by victims' advocacy groups tell the whole story. Often it's unclear whether a spike in such indicators signals an increase in trafficking or simply reflects greater public awareness of the problem. Most people are still surprised to learn how pervasive sex trafficking is.

Last year, for example, residents of a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood were shocked when police uncovered a brothel operating in their midst disguised as a private residence. Likewise, an innocent observer might easily mistake casually dressed young women idling at a downtown hotel bar for guests at a wedding party or bridal shower; victims trafficked over the Internet rarely wear the short skirts and spiked heels that instantly identify them as prostitutes, and pimps don't really strut around in big fur coats and gold chains.

But as more people learn to recognize the signs of trafficking — and as more of its victims decide to flee those who exploit them — the veil of secrecy that masks such crimes is slowly being lifted. And those on the front lines of the fight against the sexual exploitation of young women and girls are convinced the Internet is fueling a surge in trafficking.

The Abell researchers interviewed dozens of officials working to halt the trade — including local police, prosecutors, federal investigators, social workers and victims' rights advocates — as well as women and girls who have been trafficked. All of them described a modern-day form of slavery that debases its victims and devalues their humanity all the more efficiently because they are marketed online.

Maryland has already taken important steps to combat trafficking in the state. In 2007, lawmakers changed the law against child sex trafficking from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison, and in 2010 the General Assembly approved another bill permitting victims' rights groups to post the phone number of a national hotline for trafficking victims at bus stations, truck stops and other locations frequented by traffickers.

But current law still treats the trafficking of adult women as a simple misdemeanor, and it provides no penalties for the network of landlords, drivers and others associated with the trade who knowingly benefit from trafficking.

The Abell report calls on lawmakers to toughen the state's laws against trafficking by passing an asset forfeiture bill for convicted sex traffickers. The least the state can do is approve a bill in this year's General Assembly session that would allow law enforcement authorities to seize and freeze the assets traffickers have purchased while selling women and girls. The proceeds from such sales would be used to fund services and programs for trafficking victims.

To end this terrible scourge, Maryland not only must crack down harder on the criminals who commit such crimes but also reach out to those most in need of help.

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