BAY COUNTY, Fla. - Every year, thousands of young women and men are exploited and forced to work in unimaginable conditions.
"Selling people is far more lucrative than selling narcotics," Lt. J.R. Talamantez, Panama City Police, said.
Human Trafficking is the fasted-growing crime in the United States. It affects every age, ethnicity, and community including Northwest Florida.
"In our area, yes, it's here," Talamantez said.
In the last three years, The Florida Department of Children and Families received reports on 338 sex trafficking victims. Officials were able to verify that 59 of those victims were being sold in the sex trade.
Of the total victims, 58 were in Bay County. Eight victims were verified.
"Too many people are still looking at sex trafficking as prostitution, and it's not," Talamantez said. "Traffickers are manipulating victims to think what they are doing is not wrong and what they are doing is benefiting both of them when in fact the only person who is benefiting is the person who is making them do it."
"We're just seeing more and more of these girls being taken advantage of," Sherri Eckhardt, a local Guardian ad-Litem and advocate, said.
Local advocates said the majority of the victims come from broken homes. About 90% of victims nationwide have spent time in the foster care system. Bay County currently has one of the highest child removal rates in the state.
A trafficker grooms his victim by making her feel special then dependent on him.
"This guy comes to her, that she had met just one time prior and buys her five different types of flowers and says, ' look, I know you weren't feeling well, but I didn't know what type of flowers were your favorite so I bought you all different kinds.' She's in love with him and will do anything for him at that point. She's never seen that type of kindness and love," Eckhardt said about a local teen she helped.
The ability of prey on those young girls is now easier than ever, too.
"What adds to the problem is the internet and the accessibility now," Eckhardt said. "You don't see girls walking up and down the street that you would have years ago, but it doesn't exist, it does exist that way, but it's not as common as what you're seeing on the internet."
One local case involved a Panama City Beach man posing as a modeling agent, using ads on Craigslist to lure in his victims.
"He did all the right things, gave her all the right items, and three years later, we found her working as a sex worker," Talamantez said.
Police busted Joe Worthy Dobbs in 2014 for running what they called a "prostitution ring," involving as many as six teens at local resort. After looking into the crime for several months, a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Hotline led to the arrest and conviction of Dobbs.
Law enforcement relies on tips like this because the internet is everywhere, giving traffickers the means to adapt and stay ahead of the law.
"If people started helping each other a little bit more, we can fix this," Talamantez said.
Panama City Beach Police said the best defense against sex trafficking is for parents to take measures to protect their children from abuse. The signs their child could be at risk include fear or anxious behavior, has new and older friends, suddenly changes their routine and appearance, or is hired in a job that promises unrealistic rewards of fame and fortune.
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