When most of us think about the victims of sex trafficking, rarely does an image of a suburban professional woman come to mind. Many imagine that it's a crime mainly affecting young girls and runaways in this country and others. However, North Carolina journalist Brittney Cason reveals how she was nearly kidnapped into a sex trafficking ring by a man claiming to be a talent acquisitions agent looking for people to cover the Sochi Olympics. There was just one thing that ultimately saved her.
The former NFL cheerleader has been making a living as a radio show host for quite some time, so when the call came in, the request wasn't unusual. "I immediately did my research because he put his company name, his website, his Twitter, and I did my research and saw that he is a legit talent acquisition agent. Well, so he appeared to be," Cason recalled. At that point, she began the process of applying for what seemed like her dream job. She sent in several reels, auditioned in person, applied for a visa, he even had her fill out a non-disclosure agreement, a standard practice in the industry. "I believed it to be real actual experience and adjusted my life because I thought it was real," she said.
Everyone in her life was excited about the opportunity. At Christmas, her family gave her gear for the cold temps she'd face in the more frigid Sochi. Though, as the departure date drew closer, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.
"Honestly, the red flags did not start waving until two weeks before we were set to go to Russia, and that is when he essentially got greedy and tried to recruit more girls," she says. "And that was what waved the red flag because I and the other girl who was booked to go, we had spent four months jumping through hoops for this guy to interview and to prove that we were worthy of this job and capable of it." She was especially alarmed when she got an email from someone claiming to be his assistant (she later found out it was him operating under an alias) who asked her to have a friend fill out a work visa too. "I was like, 'Don’t you need her reel and stuff,'" she said. "It just didn't feel right. My friend wanted to do it but I told her something is off about it. I’m going to investigate this further before I have you write your passport and Social Security number down for a relative stranger."
That's when she reached out to the other woman who had been recruited around the same time. "I asked, 'Do you think there is something fishy here?' And she was like, 'Oh thank god you said that. I do. I think something is weird about this and I don’t know what. I’m afraid I’m just being paranoid.'"
At that point Cason decided to call the LA production company directly. Turns out, they didn't know who the guy was or that he had hired her to work for them. It was a frightening realization for her. She had been in communication with him for months, he had all her personal information, she was getting ready to board a plane with him, and he had been lying the entire time. Posing as a devout family man, she had no idea what his real intentions were.
At that point, she cut off all communication with him and called the authorities. The FBI is now investigating the case, but she fears there may be some girls that actually left on the trip. "Guys like this prey on women's dreams and put them in scary situations," she says. "I don’t really want to think about what would have happened to me had I gotten on the plane."
It may seem like this guy's scheme was elaborate, but these sex trafficking syndicates are very sophisticated. According to Dr. Yolanda Graham, a Georgia-based psychiatrist widely known for her work with victims of sexual exploitation, there are certain warning signs every woman needs to be aware of.
Among the most likely victims of this crime? Runaway victims of both sexes, explains Graham. Predators are often lurking at bus stops, train stations, malls, and places where young people congregate. And as Cason's example proves, this isn't just an inner city problem. "Exploiters utilize the same methods in rural and suburban areas," adds Graham, who also serves as Devereux Georgia's Medical Director.
Women should also be leery online too. "Victims are also recruited through the Internet using chat lines, which have become more common in the United States," she warns. "The incidents of girls being sold into sexual servitude in order to pay off family debts or to provide financial security for their families is much greater in other countries than in the United States."
The scariest part of this crime is that once you are captured, it is incredibly difficult to escape. Often these victims are drugged and, as part of the psychological trauma they endure, many become dependent. "Exploiters learn their personal information and threaten the victim and their family if they attempt to escape," further explains Dr. Graham. "Victims can call 911 for help. In many metropolitan areas, businesses place 'safe' signs in their windows indicating that they are safe places for victims to seek help or alert someone for help and rescue." Still, most victims are reluctant to tell on their exploiters because they fear retaliation. And in many cases, they move them from area to area to avoid detection. This also prevents victims from escaping by placing them in unfamiliar environments. Girls are usually housed in apartments with other victims, and there is usually a "top girl" in charge, according to Graham. "Their role is to establish control and compliance often through direct physical abuse."
Though all hope is not lost. There are several federal initiatives addressing the issue. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000 and has been reauthorized many times since then. And there's currently a federal strategic action plan involving multiple agencies to coordinate services for victims and prosecution of exploiters. Though a woman's best protection still may be her intuition. So if that little voice in the back of your head gives you pause, run the other way.
Have you ever suspected someone was trying to lure you into something dangerous?
Image via Brittney Cason