UTAH COUNTY — Sadly, the issues of sex trafficking and exploitation exist within the States, even Utah, and if anything, are a bigger issue than ever. The Internet, social media and easy global access have made it more simplistic for criminals to entice targets into their enterprise of selling sex.

And the targets of these criminals, young men and women, are more exposed than ever. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 13 percent of young Internet users have received unwanted sexual solicitations. And in 27 percent of these incidents, solicitors asked these users for sexual photographs of themselves. Of those, 76 percent of these incidents, and all Internet-initiated sex crimes, started in a chat room.

Leo Lucey, chief investigations officer with the Utah Attorney General’s Office said against popular belief, chat rooms are still around and sadly, the weapon of choice for criminals looking to exploit.

“If you can locate and monitor [chat rooms], that’s where you can see the most graphic conversations,” Lucey said.

Crimes defined

Tammy Atkin, a victim’s witness coordinator with the Utah Attorney General’s office, said sex trafficking is when a person is coerced by force or otherwise into committing a sexual act. Usually, the person is “recruited” and will be harbored and transported around by their captor to perform sexual acts with others. Trafficking does not have to involve physical movement of the victim.

Exploitation is slightly different and is a major crime police and law officials face daily. According to Sgt. Jason Randall of the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, sexual exploitation typically involves minors being forced to engage in sexual acts usually used on pornographic and sexually explicit websites.

Randall said the Internet, as helpful as it can be, is the big reason this has become such a problem.

“It makes the communication, it makes setting up these types of events so much easier. And it’s incredibly anonymous,” he said.

Statistics and Internet ease

As Randall said, the anonymity of the Internet and a username makes it extremely difficult to trace the criminal.

Of these crimes committed, about half of the criminals lure the victim into security by offering gifts or money to build the relationship. Atkin said then, once a relationship is built, they engage in sexual activity with them, and before the victim knows it, they’re enslaved, usually after the criminal gets them addicted to drugs or alcohol. They may sometimes even tell their victims they can only be fed after having sex with someone.

The Internet, though first in popularity, isn’t the only way youths are recruited. Atkin provided a scenario where a girl runs away for some reason, maybe her step-dad abused her. She’s walking down the road, passes by a few homeless people, and it’s blatantly obvious she’s never been on the streets before. So a man approaches her, offers to help her out. He gives her some food, shelter and even a bed for the night. But soon, he becomes her pimp and she’s bound to him.

Against popular theory, sex trafficking is a booming business -- one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the country.

“Human trafficking is second in profitability only in drug trafficking. I think it’s passed it, we just don’t know that,” Atkin said.

Atkin said one girl can make a criminal a couple thousand dollars a day having sex with about a dozen men.

“Nobody would choose this,” she said. “Nobody.”

ICAC involvement in sex trafficking

Utah has a surprisingly high rate of sex trafficking occurring and the Attorney General’s Office is actively combating it.

“We could work full-time around the clock working just this,” Lucey said. “A lot of the laws are fairly weak. Historically, this is a high-profit low-risk industry for a criminal.”

Lucey said the task force spends hours every day “mining the internet” for any hint or advertisement for recruiting for women and children in chat rooms or on Craig’s List.

The Internet Crime Against Children (ICAC) task force has also worked with legislatures to make Utah a safer place for victims of sex trafficking. For example, Atkin said victims used to be put in the criminal justice system, but now, they go into protective care through DCFS.

“These kids are not prostitutes, they’re victims,” she said. “No kid grows up and says I want to be a prostitute when I’m 12.”

ICAC task force’s assistance with exploitation

As difficult as it can be to fight this crime, organizations are set up to combat this plague within Utah.

ICAC was set up back in 2000, when the Internet was really just getting set up as well. Anonymity was a scary thing ICAC didn’t want to get out of hand. Early members of ICAC, like Jessica Farnsworth, current ICAC commander, recognized the danger this posed to children at risk. But for a while, technology wasn’t fast enough to help them as much as they knew it should.

“It used to take us about eight months to get the evidence back,” Farnsworth said. “We were missing a lot of cases that these people were manufacturing child pornography in their home.”

But now, ICAC has a new high-tech mobile forensics lab, disguised as any other vehicle. The mobile lab is fully equipped with high speed. ICAC members can process evidence more efficiently, and save lives faster. They can now collect computers and other electronic equipment from criminals, scour their hard drives, and find if child pornography is being distributed using a suspect’s computer.

“It allows us to process things quickly and we can do it right then and there,” Farnsworth said.

Randall said he believes pornography is at the source of all the exploitation problems.

“As pornography becomes more accepted and more popular, people are more accepting of it and are more willing to look at it,” Randall said. “Pornography is just like drugs. People can dabble in it and never get addicted to it. But some people — it’s just taking that first hit of meth, and then they’re hooked.”

Randall said as they see pornography grow in acceptability, the number of cases of sex-related crimes rise.

“There’s no question that there’s a correlation between pornography and sex offenses,” he said.

Rescue and counseling

Once ICAC saves a victim, they then go to victim’s advocates like Atkin. The costs of these crimes, Atkin said, go far past the offense.

“It’s a terrible awful thing. They probably had some issues that got them in that in the first place,” she said. Following trafficking, Atkin said victims often think “they’re garbage.”

“In my experience and the literature I’ve read, if you’re working with a trafficking victim of any kind, it’s a minimum of 5 years for recovery. Sometimes life,” Atkin said.

Lucey said many problems these victims face are major psychological problems, including Stockholm’s syndrome. The victim may not want to cooperate, Lucey said, and fight the advocates’ attempts to rescue them.

Frankly, Randall has seen many victims he doesn’t consider “rescued.”

“I don’t think they’re ever rescued,” he said. “What happened to them stays with them for the rest of their lives. The thing with victims — children, women and men who have been abused — their right to say no has been taken away.”

And Randall said it’s their job to restore that right. Randall said every detective who works with the special victims unit is there for the victim. His unit works tirelessly with victims to reintegrate them into what much of a normal life they can have.

Gender is often brought up as an issue with victims of these crimes, but Randall said genuine concern trumps this apprehension.

“If they understand you’re truly there to help them, and that you believe them and that you’re vested in their interests, whether they’re male or female, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Education and protection

In any crime, it’s never a victim’s fault if they’re ever in a situation where they are exploited or trafficked for sex.

But education provides one extra layer of armor which can, in some situations, mean the difference.

The Utah County Health Department offices offer classes teaching citizens how to protect themselves against falling prey to dangerous situations.

But much of the education falls on citizens to arm themselves and their children against such issues.

“Ninety-nine percent of all abuse of children is done by somebody they know,” Randall said. “The fact of the matter is if they get touched inappropriately, it won’t be by a stranger.

Randall said people need to also be leery of suspicious acts or requests on the Internet which could be signs of criminals pursuing new victims.

Lucey said to beware of people on any networking site who asks deep personal questions, or ask to meet “in real life.” Lucey said parents need to also monitor their children’s Internet usage. If they notice any withdrawal, social detachment or abnormal times on the computer, they need to confront their child. It may not be anything, or it may be the worst.

Stark reality

Lucey said there’s a misconception these issues don’t happen in the country, let alone Utah.

“I think the average person that’s living their lives well doesn’t realize it’s all around them. It’s all around us and there’s nowhere that’s exempt to us with the internet,” he said. “There’s no safe place where it can’t happen or won’t happen.”

Lucey said there have been children involved in cases who, by all circumstances, appear to be “well-adjusted.” But people need to be able to see through these facades, he said, and understand the crime is happening right here at home.

Kurt Hanson is the Breaking News and Courts reporter for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at (801) 344-2560 or khanson@heraldextra.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kthehanson.