NEW PORT RICHEY – A new, tech-based strategy to combat sex trafficking is being implemented in Pasco County, and law enforcement put potential online buyers on notice last week.
“Let me make something very clear today,” Cpl. Alan Wilkett of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office said during a July 9 press conference. “If you’re going to buy sex in Pasco, this is your buyer-beware warning.”
Wilkett, who leads the agency’s Human Trafficking Task Force, was joined by Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and leaders from the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking in introducing a collaboration to fight the sex trade in Pasco County, specifically online transactions.
The Tampa-based USIAHT’s TraffickingFree Zone program, which also collaborates with the group Seattle Against Slavery, targets online sex buyers through advertising and social media campaigns.
The program fights against sex trafficking through online intercept bots. Program managers and law enforcement personnel will create fake ads offering sex, often involving minors, and post them to websites and apps that attract high volumes of local buyers.
Codes will be attached to these ads and anyone engaging them will be communicating with a bot, not the individual shown in the ad. Law enforcement will be able to monitor that activity and collect information.
Stefanie Coslow, Florida regional manager for the TraffickingFree Zone Program, said that the program’s initial phase involves a period of 45 to 60 days during which data will be collected to understand what the online sex trafficking landscape looks like in Pasco. The Sheriff’s Office can then “develop the correct initiatives to really tackle this problem in the most efficient and effective way,” Coslow said.
Efficiency and effectiveness is key, Coslow noted, in that the bot can “talk to” thousands of potential buyers at the same time and collect data, freeing up time and money for Sheriff’s Office personnel targeting human trafficking.
The TraffickingFree Zone program is designed to be an effective force against all online money-for-sex transactions and its initial focus in Pasco County will be identifying individuals seeking underage victims.
“Soliciting sex is illegal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a minor or an adult,” said USIAHT CEO Geoffrey Rogers. Many of the bots, however, will be set up to identify people seeking sex from minors, he said.
“If we’re really going to end sex trafficking, we have got to go after the demand,” which is international Rogers said.
The program doesn’t just involve technological innovations and intercept bots, either, Coslow said.
“The Trafficking Free Zone is a community-based approach to fight this demand that fuels sex trafficking,” she said. “In addition to our initiatives with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, we’ve been engaging with Pasco County business leaders, church leaders, healthcare organizations, educational institutions and other community partners so that everyone is aware of what this looks like in our community.”