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Technology complicates FBI efforts to stop human trafficking

The J. Edgar Hoover FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Tuesday, May 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Kathryn Turman, FBI assistant director in charge of the Office of Victim Assistance, explains their role in the fight against human trafficking

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WASHINGTON — On Jan. 9, 2016, Meiti Metsla, 21, of Estonia, met a girl online.

Soon thereafter, he flew more than 7,000 miles to New Jersey, took a bus to Northern Virginia and hired a car to take him to a rendezvous location to meet her on Feb. 17, 2016.

That same morning, Makayla Phyllis Mattei, 15, of Dumfries, Virginia, didn’t show up for school. After a massive search, the two were found together more than 100 miles away in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a week later.

Metsla is now serving a five-year prison sentence for soliciting a child online.

His fate was sealed thanks in large part to the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world through social media.

And while the ease of communications facilitated by technology has a big upside, it has, according to FBI agent Rob Bornstein, a seedy dark side that is complicating efforts to fight human trafficking.

“In general, I think things are becoming more difficult as technology is enhanced,” said Bornstein, supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Washington Field Office’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force.

“Five to 10 years ago, the prevalence of various types of social media applications wasn’t as great,” but because of technological evolution, “law enforcement in general has challenges associated with end-to-end encryption,” Bornstein said during an interview with WTOP on Jan. 26.

A popular misconception is that human trafficking of this sort doesn’t happen in suburban and rural areas, but, “it’s happening throughout Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia itself,” Bornstein said.

The words “human trafficking” often conjure images of undocumented migrants being smuggled across international borders, but under U.S. law, the term has “a different and highly specific meaning,” according to Department of Justice documents.

Under the U.S. Criminal Code, “human trafficking crimes, which are defined in Title 18, Chapter 77, focus on the act of compelling or coercing a person’s labor, services, or commercial sex acts.”

Human trafficking cases have been investigated in all 56 field offices, according to FBI documents, and appear to be on the rise.

“I think it has increased a great deal, even in the 16 years I’ve been here,” said Kathryn Turman, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Office of Victim Assistance.

“I think part of it is a growing awareness of the victims who have been somewhat invisible in the past. People don’t see sometimes what they don’t want to see. So I think we’re much more aware of it. I think law enforcement has a more robust response to it than maybe we’ve had in past decades,” Turman said.

Turman agreed with Bornstein that technology is a double-edged sword — especially when it comes to inexperienced children.

“All the blessings and curses of social media and the internet make it sometimes easier for kids to get lured into situations that are ultimately very dangerous and exploitative for them.”

As the spotlight of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month dims, Bornstein is hopeful the focus will remain.

“That’s what we’re hoping to achieve through this public outreach and obtain even more awareness and more tips in solving this problem.”

Recognizing potential red flags and knowing the indicators of human trafficking is a key step in identifying victims and helping them find the assistance they need. Signs that may indicate someone is being held against her or his will and trafficked for sex include:

  • They do not hold their own identity or travel documents;
  • They appear to suffer from verbal or psychological abuse, which intimidates, degrades and frightens;
  • They are not permitted to speak for themselves;
  • They are not allowed to move about by themselves and seem to have little understanding of where they are.

The FBI doesn’t just track and arrest the perpetrators; it provides sorely needed “victim specialists.”

“Our victim and our child specialists play a huge part in human trafficking response. Our folks will be on scene and working with agents and task force officers when they are doing a take down and other operations to intervene in human trafficking,” Turman said.

The victim specialists are often literally around the corner from an arrest scene ready to provide help immediately, Turman said.

“They’re prepared to help victims find emergency lodging and clothing. Often, we have kids that may be taken right off the street or out of a brothel, and they need a change of clothing and maybe toiletries. They may need to contact family; (we’ll) try to help them figure out a place a safe place to go.”

The victim specialists also provide counseling and help victims find medical assistance.

Those who have observed indicators of human trafficking operations or are a victim are urged to contact the FBI online, or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.

Supervisory Special Agent Robert Bornstein of the FBI's Washington Field Office's Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force

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