The anti-human-trafficking film Sound of Freedom ends with a statement telling viewers that human trafficking is a $150 billion (that’s with a b) enterprise and that more than 40 million individuals are enslaved worldwide. That latter figure is more than the population of Canada and a dozen other countries. This led me to wonder how pervasive human trafficking is in the Carolinas, particularly their largest metro area of greater Charlotte, which includes parts of both states.

The sheriff of York County, Kevin Tolson, said he views even one instance of human trafficking as a problem. He said the problem isn’t just about individuals being abducted but also about perpetrators soliciting inappropriate pictures and then blackmailing the senders.

South Carolina, according to Tolson, is fortunate enough to have the strictest human trafficking laws in the county. That’s the good news. The real imbroglio is finding enough resources and personnel to gather sufficient evidence to convict anyone. Therapy for victims is essential to a potentially good outcome. Even in the face of a strong support system, the victims have a very difficult recovery.

As one might expect, human trafficking has not traditionally been a major issue in York County, but a Special Victim’s unit has been established to meet the rising epidemic. Most of us think of human trafficking, if we think of it at all, as happening elsewhere. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Nor is it a black van rushing up and kidnapping individuals, though that does occur. It is much more subtle than that.

In York County, human trafficking isn’t so much young people being brought from other areas as it is luring young people who live here. The federal government began funding a national network of state and local law enforcement cyber units to investigate child sexual molestation in the late 1990s. The SC Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force began out of this initiative. Since taking office, Sheriff Tolson has created a Cyber Crimes Unit that focuses on these kinds of cases.

Diana Scimone is the president of Born2Fly Project, an organization operating in 65 countries designed to stop child trafficking before victimization occurs. The project offers a trafficking-prevention curriculum designed for young children and teens and is downloadable in 12 languages. I asked Scimone recently about the prevalence of human trafficking.

“Trafficking is an issue everywhere including throughout York and Charlotte-Meckleburg area,” Scimone said. “As a member of the SC Human Trafficking Task Force, our biggest hurdle is getting people to understand that trafficking doesn’t just happen across the world but also across the street — and that their own children are absolutely vulnerable.”

Scimone pointed out that kids are trafficked in two main ways: online and in schools. From phones to online games to laptops at home, in schools, malls, and libraries, traffickers are less likely to pull up in a van than they are to recruit through these venues. Once a young person is caught in the web of deceit and lies, they are forced to recruit others with whom they have contact. Traffickers are experts at creating a “Stockholm Syndrome” environment, according to Scimone. They spend months establishing a rapport with their victims, bonding with them in ways that others in the child’s life have not.

Scimone added this chilling warning: “It’s nearly impossible for parents to understand that this happening everywhere — all over the Charlotte metro area. Why would traffickers leave our children alone? They don’t.”

North Carolina information was more difficult to obtain, even after two months of inquiring with half a dozen offices. Criminal offices have much more to do, obviously, than respond to author inquiries, but the number of referrals seemed to me to be excessive.

Eventually, a spokesperson from the FBI responded. All 56 of the FBI’s field offices have reported human-trafficking incidents. The problem is prevalent in every state and all over the world. Human trafficking involves both sex trafficking and forced labor. Once involved, the FBI uses a victim-centered approach throughout the investigation. Agreeing with Sheriff Tolson, the FBI underscores that the problem is less about kidnapping or physically forcing an individual into an untoward situation. Rather, it is most often about defrauding, manipulating, or threatening victims into commercial sex or exploitative labor.

The Mecklenburg 2023 Human Trafficking Minors Report offers a glimpse into the problem. From 2011 to 2023, for example, there was a 62% increase in persons referred to US attorneys for human trafficking. In 2020, only 53% of the human trafficking cases were confirmed. In 2022, more than 80% had been, showing encouraging promise. Sixty-four percent of the victims were 15 years old or younger. Ninety-eight percent of human trafficking victims in the Queen City from 2020-2022 were female.

With so many cases locally and worldwide, why aren’t there more convictions? Officials here argue that while the laws are more than sufficient, it is extremely time-intensive to gather sufficient evidence to successfully prosecute. There simply aren’t enough prosecutors, investigators, and court personnel to tackle this problem.

Large venues (like concerts and sporting events) may attract those seeking to exploit others, but the internet is chiefly responsible for luring the vulnerable. Parents or guardians must remain vigilant about what their children or young charges are doing on and offline, including gaming, texting, messaging, and even with whom they have the closest contact. This not only includes their friends but anyone who might want to put them in harm’s way, including teachers, coaches, and even those in churches, sad to say.

It’s also sad to say that the $150 billion revenue estimate on this diabolical industry, given by the “Sound of Freedom,” is likely accurate. We know for example that pornography generates more revenue than sports and of all the major television networks combined There are close to 50 million internet porn sites, and all of them can be venues for recruitment. Human trafficking is just one more sordid plank in our self-inflicted, self-built house of horrors.

But we can do more than opine about the evil of pornography on the web. Laurie Schlegel, a Louisiana state representative, introduced legislation there in 2022 that required age verification for access to any internet porn site. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both houses and sparked similar reforms in Arkansas Texas, Utah, Wyoming, Virginia, and Utah. Is it effective? Pornhub, the chief offender, noted an 80% drop in traffic in Louisiana and has ceased operation in Utah, Virginia, and Mississippi. Having to enter a driver’s license number on a site has not only stymied young people, but adults are also loath to broadcast their prurient interests in person rather than anonymously.

North Carolina passed HB 8 (effective Jan. 1, 2024) this session, which will apply the same requirements in the Tar Heel State.

Federal Bureau Statistics indicate that human trafficking is the largest and fastest-growing crime worldwide, with incidents in all 50 states. Men are almost alone among consumers, though there are women who help the grooming process along. Young girls (15 and under) are the chief targets, while young males are pursued to a lesser degree. Typically, young people are lured to some too-good-to-be-true event where they are groomed for sale.

What can we do about human trafficking? Scimone offers a list of 99 things a person can do right now to stop human trafficking.

“Absolutely none of them,” says Scimone, “require an airplane ticket, and they will all make a difference in the fight to stop trafficking.”

Numerous other sites offer various kinds of help and instruction, but the chief resource is information. Knowing about this human tragedy and making sure others know is tantamount to beginning the process. While these sites offer not only prevention but also help, victims of this heinous crime still struggle to surmount their nightmare. Our best defense is a stout offense but so is knowing the pervasiveness of this crime and making sure targets of it are equally aware.