Thousands of signs designed to alert victims of human trafficking to a phone number and text line where they can seek help were purchased and printed using the wrong text number due an error in the city legislation approved this year requiring them to be posted in every Baltimore hotel room.
City officials and hotels are scrambling to fix the problem.
Hotels in Baltimore already “have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars complying with the legislation,” said Frank Boston III, a lawyer and lobbyist for the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association. They don’t want to have to expend that much again, he said, but also believe that “it would be a tragedy for a cry for help [from a trafficking victim] to fall on deaf ears.”
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"In good faith our members have cooperated with the legislation,” Boston said. “Unfortunately, signage information provided through the legislation was inaccurate.”
He said the hotel industry is hopeful that the city can acquire the number that is posted on the signs, and activate it as a hotline — or have it somehow reroute texts to the actual text line — so that the signs don’t have to be replaced. But that may not be possible.
City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, co-chair of the Baltimore City Human Trafficking Collaborative, sponsored the bill. He said he regrets that the error was made, but is working to fix it.
“It was an honest mistake,” he said.
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The bill, signed in January by then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, requires hotels, adult entertainment businesses and food service facilities to post the signs. Hotels must post them on the back of the door in every guest room. In addition to a national hotline number, the signs were to include a text number. The language of the bill reads, “Text ‘BEFREE’ (233722).”
Maryland Policy & Politics
The letters “BEFREE” are correct, but they correspond to the numbers 233733, not 233722 as listed.
Currently, when the incorrect number is texted, an error message is received noting it is an invalid number.
Burnett said staff realized the error in drafting a new bill that would require signs to be posted in municipal buildings as well.
“It’s unfortunate that it took revisiting it to catch it, but at the same time we are very thankful that we caught it,” he said.
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In addition to acquiring the wrong number and turning it into another text line or having it redirect to the correct text line, Burnett said he is considering other options — including stickers to place over the incorrect number. He said he also has forwarded the issue to the law department, and is “working with the hotel industry representatives to figure out a solution to this.”
He said some larger hotel chains do not like the sticker solution. Whatever the solution, it needs to happen, he said.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Maryland has one of the highest rates of “domestic human trafficking" in the country. A report last year by the University of Maryland School of Social Work found that more than 440 reports of child sex trafficking were reported across the state from 2014 to 2018, and most cases were reported in Baltimore.