WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) -- Human trafficking is an underground crime that is intensifying across the country.
"Worldwide it's a massive business,” Resident Agent in Charge with US Homeland Security Investigations Robert Becker said.
Women and even young girls are trapped in lives of misery, forced to have sex with perhaps dozens of men a day. This modern-day slavery is hitting closer to home than you may expect. Human trafficking is happening right here in the Port City.
"In our district, what we find more is a smaller local brothel-like setting, where the perpetrators are vetted by the persons running the brothel," Becker said.
Federal investigators are working on several open cases of human trafficking.
"Victims in our area tend to be female, in their teens, found in rural areas," Becker said.
Many of the victims are immigrants promised a better life in the United States, but others are American girls.
Regional Director of NC Stop Human Trafficking Lindsey Roberson says runaways are a prime target for traffickers.
"What I'm seeing the most of here are girls who are in their teen years, 15 or 16 years old, who are meeting a man older than them, generally in their early 20s, who are romancing them," Roberson said.
Neet Childs was 16 when a 36-year-old man befriended her. He eventually began pimping her out for sex in cities along the east coast.
"I felt betrayed, you know?" Childs said "I didn't think that that could happen to me."
The buyers were not exactly who you may expect.
"Doctors, businessmen, police officers. The people that we trust with our lives," Childs said.
On the supply side, it's all about the money. According to the United Nations, human trafficking is a $32 billion business worldwide. North Carolina ranks seventh in the country for the worst states for the crime. And in Wilmington, investigators say Interstate 40 and the State Port are susceptible to trafficking, where girls can be moved in and out of the city quickly.
Federal investigators say the major difference between human trafficking and drug trafficking is that it's not a consumable product. That means a drug is sold one time. A girl can be sold over and over again.
"Bottom line, it's all about money, and that's why it's the fastest growing trade," Roberson said. "Now it surpassed, we think, gun trafficking, and it's right behind drug trafficking."
Organizers of the crime are using the Internet to pinpoint their next victim and to solicit customers. New York-based BackPage.com has come under fire for advertising trafficking victims under its adult services section.
The crime has many layers, making it even more difficult to identify and prosecute. New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David says society and local law enforcement have to change their mindset.
"We need to change the term from she's a prostitute to she's being prostituted," David said. "From a noun to a verb."
If you have information about a potential trafficking case, you can call the Polaris Project hotline at (888) 373-7888.
A new non-profit has plans to open the Centre of Redemption, a restorative home for young female survivors of sex trafficking. This Thursday, if you eat at the Moe's restaurant on Military Cutoff Road, a portion of the proceeds will go the Centre of Redemption.
To learn more about a local movement to combat this crime in the Port City through a bi-weekly newsletter, you can e-mail Cacky at email@example.com.