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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

This week, the FBI announced its most successful child trafficking raid to date. The national operation known as Operation Cross Country is the seventh of its kind, and it highlights an ongoing problem in the U.S.: the sex trafficking of young people.

SHEILA SIMPKINS MCCLAIN: It's a very bad lifestyle, and it's a very violent lifestyle. You know, you have a quota that you have to make, and if you don't make that money, you normally get your head busted.

LYDEN: That's Sheila Simpkins McClain. We'll hear more from her later.

During this raid, the FBI recovered 105 victims between the ages of 13 and 17, and arrested 150 pimps. But the way this kind of trafficking happens has changed significantly in the last several years, as is the way it's policed because of the Internet. That's our cover story today: sex trafficking in the digital age.

Before we talk about policing the Internet for sex trafficking, one constant remains the same. Now as then, the people likely to be trafficked are the young.

JOHN RYAN: Up until about five years ago, sex trafficking for both adults and children were occurring in traditional venues like street corners, alleys, bus stops. The Internet has changed all that, particularly through social media platforms.

LYDEN: That's John Ryan. He's the CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They worked in partnership with the FBI on Operation Cross Country, collecting and analyzing information they received on missing and exploited kids. During the FBI raids, the office functioned like a command center, analyzing data gathered from the Internet. Thousands of sites and social media have made it easier to be anonymous online. One of the most well-known online classified sites is Backpage.com. They cooperated with the FBI sweep.

RYAN: For instance, the pimps now have found a very convenient and inexpensive platform on online classified spaces such as Backpage to promote their business and their enterprise. They post images of young adults or, unfortunately, many times, minors, who they are offering for sale for jobs. And unfortunately, they are able to do that with very little investment. The postings are a modest cost. The most concerning feature is they do this in an anonymous fashion.

So when Backpage encourages nontraditional payment schemes, that means that when law enforcement is seeking a lead who might be involved in these activities, they typically are finding a dead end.

LYDEN: What is a nontraditional payment scheme?

RYAN: It could be a prepaid card where the purchaser does not have to leave any personal information or can leave any information, but it's not validated by any third-party source, which is more typical with a credit card.

LYDEN: And this kind of untraceable anonymity is causing much of the criticism of these online classified websites. Elizabeth McDougall is the general legal counsel for Backpage.com.

ELIZABETH MCDOUGALL: For the adult and the dating categories, we charge a fee. And one of the reasons for charging a fee is because that provides one of the most reliable evidentiary trails for law enforcement to identify individuals. It's true that we do not collect information on every user who would like to post an ad to our site. And that is not irregular in the Internet realm.

LYDEN: A few years ago, Craigslist stopped listing ads for adult services under the pressure of an investigation. Backpage picked up a lot of the business. In fact, McDougall says that shutting down the adult classifieds on Backpage would do more harm than good.

MCDOUGALL: When you shut down services like Craigslist or Backpage who are domestic and who are cooperative is that the content will migrate again, and it will migrate to the black hat and the offshore websites. They are not going to do the proactive work that we do at Backpage to try to identify potential victims and potential illegal activity and get that information to law enforcement that can use the information to investigate, arrest and prosecute and get convictions of the traffickers.

LYDEN: She also says there are lots of precautions the site takes to flag down people who may be doing questionable, illegal activities like trafficking minors on the site.

MCDOUGALL: There are two primary avenues where we can be helpful in that regard. First, we have a triple-tier moderation system that begins with the automated filtering of all contents submitted for posting on the service. But then for the adult and for the dating category, we have a team of individuals who hand-review every ad before it goes live on the site.

LYDEN: John Ryan at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children would like to see companies like Backpage.com take a more proactive approach.

RYAN: By cooperation, they mean when law enforcement is submitting legal process, such as a subpoena or court order for information, they are cooperating. That's not what I call voluntary cooperation. That's responding to process, which they are obligated to do.

LYDEN: But the most important thing to keep in mind is that all of this technology has a direct effect on human lives. For Sheila McClain, that meant a life that was fractured by violence.

MCCLAIN: I know I've been duct taped, tied up. I have a road map on my head from where I've been beat so many times. I've ran away numerous amounts of times, I've been found. It's a very bad lifestyle, and it's a very violent lifestyle. You know, you have a quota that you have to make, and if you don't make that money, you normally get your head busted.

LYDEN: Sadly, that part of sex trafficking hasn't changed. Other parts of it have.

MCCLAIN: When I was a teenager, there was no Internet. So we were predominantly on the streets doing it. And so it's actually been a dramatic change because now you don't really see the girls out on the streets. And so it's harder to be able to rescue them because they're behind closed doors.

LYDEN: Sheila McClain today is the assistant resident manager for Magdalene in Nashville, Tennessee, and an intervention specialist with End Slavery Tennessee. Those are two nonprofits that work to bring women out of prostitution. When she was 14, Sheila left home and became involved in sex trafficking. Now, many years later, she's dedicated her life to working with women who are coming out of situations similar to hers. And she says pimps have the advantage online.

MCCLAIN: That's the reason why it's easier for the traffickers to control the women, because they pretty much keep them locked up, you know? They control everything around them. Whereas back whenever I was in the lifestyle, we were allowed to move around because we were on the streets to get our money, and so it was a lot easier to get away if we really wanted to.

LYDEN: Research shows that the majority of domestic victims enslaved in the sex industry are runaway and homeless youth. The State Department estimates that about a third of the teens living on the streets are trafficked within 48 hours of leaving home. That's about 150,000 kids a year. They get lured in by pimps, says Sheila, who almost hypnotize young women.

MCCLAIN: A lot of them really think that they're in love, you know, and that they're doing it out of love. They don't really realize that what's going on is wrong.

LYDEN: And Sheila McClain helps to break that spell. What do you say to a girl when she says, I just don't know if I can do this - get out of this?

MCCLAIN: You can. Just tell yourself. Sometimes you have to do it minute by minute. Sometimes you have to do it second by second, you know? And then eventually, they keep on telling their self, you know, because you've just got to hold on, you know, that not every day is going to be a good day. Not everything is going to be comfortable. I just tell them to hold on, you know? And just like they trusted the pimp, they need to learn how to trust us.

LYDEN: The runaways are obviously more vulnerable. It would be a mistake to think that kids in more stable environments are immune.

John Ryan of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children points to the very county where his own organization is headquartered in Virginia.

RYAN: Right here in Fairfax County, which is one of the most affluent communities in the nation with one of the best school districts, the FBI just arrested five pimps who were trafficking over the course of a number of years schoolchildren recruited from Fairfax schools and being sold and trafficked for sex. Those children were going home at night. They were going to school the next day, but they were being trafficked for sex.

So we like to use this as a wake-up call. We need to do more. Everyone points to, and understandably so, the global human sex trafficking problem. It's a problem here in the United States.

LYDEN: Experts point out that there are thousands of websites and social media sites that traffic in underage prostitution. Even this unprecedented FBI sweep has rescued just a fraction of the children being exploited.

Sheila McClain keeps that in mind. It's one of the motivations to keep her doing the work she's doing now. She and her colleagues recognize that more efforts need to be made to bring children out of prostitution.

MCCLAIN: This is a new adventure that I'm on right now. And guess what? I'm really, really loving it. God has kind of positioned me to be able to do something that my heart really, really enjoys, you know?

LYDEN: At Magdalene and End Slavery Tennessee in Nashville, she's helped hundreds of women recover their lives. At the end of the day, she goes home to her husband, her two kids, her own home, never forgetting how many younger versions of her former self are still out there unseen.

To hear more on this story and the FBI investigation that led to the rescue, tune into WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY tomorrow. Host Rachel Martin spoke with FBI assistant director Ron Hosko about this persistent problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RON HOSKO: We think that we are trying to do the right thing and bring attention to this problem. But at our core, we're a law enforcement organization. We, by and large, don't provide social services. We don't have bed space at the FBI. And so that really points back to the importance of communities to find it in their budgets, to find it in their hearts as they look at some engagement on the street, not to just think, well, look at that girl selling herself, because that girl could be a minor.

LYDEN: You can also see pictures and video of Sheila McClain and the Magdalene program from a previous series rising up out of prostitution on npr.org.

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