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US Attorney’s task force spotlights warning signs

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January marks Human Trafficking Awareness Month. In Buffalo, the United States Attorney’s Office is working with members of a task force who are helping people recognize potential warning signs of human trafficking activity while also dispelling some of the myths about its victims.

US Attorney James P. Kennedy and members of the Western District of New York Human Trafficking Task Force hosted a training session in Buffalo Tuesday, the first of two scheduled within the 17-county region his office covers. During a lunch break, Kennedy introduced a new video public service announcement for human trafficking awareness. He also noted the US Justice Department is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2020, and its first task was to counter violent crimes committed by those who opposed the end of slavery in the nation.

Kennedy and his peers welcomed nearly 300 people to the Buffalo Grand Hotel to discuss what they see as a modern form of slavery, human trafficking.

“It is all about coercion and control. A trafficker, a person who is looking to exploit somebody else, has the opportunity to unfettered access, especially in some of the cases we’re hearing about today, youth and other vulnerable individuals,” he said, while addressing the growing problem of online exploitation.

The International Labor Organization estimates as many as 500,000 individuals are being trafficked within the United States.

“The FBI investigates all forms of human trafficking and our caseload has increased significantly in the past several years,” said Robert Guyton, Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge for the FBI in Buffalo. “In November of 2019, there were more than 1,900 pending human trafficking investigations across the FBI.”

Guyton also spoke of the myths and misconceptions of human trafficking, beginning with the notion that women and girls are the only victims of sex trafficking. He says statistics show nearly half are male, including LGBTQ boys and young men. In addition, many cases do not involve movement of the victim from one place to another, and may involve people familiar to the victim including family members. The biggest myth, according to Guyton, is that human trafficking victims are kidnapped to be forced into servitude.

“In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means to trick, manipulate or threaten victims, rather than physical removal or force,” he said.

Underage human trafficking is a growing problem. Task force coordinator Mary Moran spoke of the many warning signs that a youth may be a victim.

“If an individual is no longer attending school, if the individual has an older boyfriend that is providing gifts or money, if the student or the child is couch surfing, not living in any particular place, if there’s comings and goings at odd hours of the day or the evening, anything that looks suspicious,” Moran said, adding that signs of emotional or physical abuse are other signs.

The task force has established a website, WNY Trafficking, to offer more information.

US Attorney Kennedy and his task force partners are holding a second training session in Rochester Wednesday.

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