“Rita” was sexually exploited for two years, without anyone in her family noticing. During that time, the adolescent went to school, slept at home every day and attended her confirmation classes and Mass on Sundays. Anyone would have thought that she had a normal life but, in reality, it was a living hell.

A boy that she met via the internet enamored her little by little, giving her lots of attention. He became her boyfriend until, by ways of lies and blackmail, he forced her to prostitute herself. He converted her into a sexual slave.

When rescued, she was asked why she had never said anything about it, while being surrounded by so many people and she said: “Because nobody ever asked me what was happening to me…”

This story was shared by Ana L. Gómez, a cathechist and educator of parents and adolescents about human trafficking during a conference at St. Mark Church in Venice. She added that although girls are the majority, boys can also be victims of this crime. As it happened to “Pablo.”

This young man, who lived in a familiar environment, spoke daily via the internet with a “beautiful girl” whom he knew only by a photograph. One day she sent him a photo of herself in the nude. She asked him to do the same. And the boy did just that.

It turned out that his “girlfriend” on the internet was an adult male who blackmailed him by saying that if they did not meet at a certain hour and place, he was going to publish “Pablo’s” photo on the internet. Fearful, the boy showed up for the date and became a sexual slave of this depraved man for a long time, until he was motivated to report him

“These boys go through horrible things, and often their parents do not notice. They could be being trafficked and because of fear, do not talk about it. The traffickers tell them: ‘You can go home but I want you here at such a day and such a time,’” said Gómez, and added that it is absolutely necessary that parents find out about their children’s activities, get to know their friends and know where they go and what they do online.

“We have to encourage them to tell us if they are having a problem which they do not know how to solve. We must be loving and understanding with them. Tell them: ‘I am with you; we are always going to believe you.’ Let them see that their house is a safe place where they are not going to be judged, and where they will always be welcome no matter what happens, because it is never their fault,” he said.

According to Gómez, human trafficking is the second largest illegal business and the one experiencing the fastest growth in the entire world. “Drug trafficking is first, but human trafficking is growing so rapidly it could very well come to be number one.”

Every year, at least 1,000 children in the United States are being exploited sexually, according to a study conducted by Shared Hope International, an organization financed by the Justice Department. This study indicates that the industry of people generates earnings of $9.8 billion in the U.S., and that the average age when the exploitation begins is 13. Studies indicate that 1 of every 9 girls and 1of every 10 boys will be sexually victimized before they reach adulthood.

Why is this happening? Gómez explained that it is because there is a lot of money involved in this business.

“A drug trafficker can sell a drug only once, then needs to find another one and sell that one. A person trafficker utilizes his/her victim over and over and over. He or she could make around $200,000 a year with only one person,” she said.

“For this reason, many drug traffickers are leaving the commercialization of drugs and turning to human trafficking. And we, as a community, must put a stop to this crime.”

Who is the trafficker? This is a common person, according to Gómez. “It could be a very attractive, professional person; it could be a woman, it could be a man and even an underage individual; it is an impostor that makes believe he or she is the same age as your children, or that attends the same school.”

She explained that traffickers use diverse tactics to recruit their potential victims. “They are audacious and take their time to learn about them. They know where they go to school, who their friends are, their favorite sport and music. ... And as parents, do we know this about our children?” she said.

“Traffickers often know more about our children than we do. How is this possible? Because of the internet,” she said. Minors put too much information online because they think only their friends can see it, and accept any friend invitation thinking that the more friends they have, the more popular it makes them.

How do these types of traffickers operate? According to Gómez, they take their time to study and get to know their possible victim; they become friends and they trap them.

“Years ago we saw that children were kidnapped by force and even with a gun, and this still happens. Lately, traffickers also operate from the comfort of their own home, on the internet, talking and communicating with minors. We can keep our children behind locked doors so they are not exposed to danger, but the traffickers are already inside of our home through the computer, social media or through cell phones.”

Gómez added that the predators go to the schools, malls, movies, parks and every place where their possible victims might be. “Since they cannot enter an educational facility, they find young children that work for them,” she added.

As in the case of “Rita,” “they can become a young girl’s boyfriend, and they behave very well and all of a sudden say: ‘I don’t have money to pay my rent. … My friend will give me so much if you go to bed with him.’ And the girl, feeling love for the boy does it once. He then tells her he needs money for something else and that he has another friend until the girl realizes she is being prostituted and tells him she will not do it again. He then tells her that she must do it otherwise he will tell her parents, teachers and friends that she is a prostitute. She is trapped and realizes too late what her boyfriend really was.”

What can the parents do?

The educator highlighted that this crime can happen in front of the noses of the family without anyone noticing. Families need to educate themselves and accept that the problem exists.

 “We have to learn more about people’s behavior; attend events that inform us; demand from our schools and parishes that they offer more programs for parents and young people,” said Gómez.

She concluded that it is vital to talk with our teenage children, even though at times this might not be easy. “They get home and if we ask them questions they tend to give us one-syllable answers. This does not mean that if they do not speak to me, I as a mother do not speak to them either,” she said.

“This lack of communication is the attitude that the traffickers want us to have. They want us to separate ourselves from our children so they (the traffickers) move in and earn their confidence. We need to recover that confidence; take the time to communicate with them with love and without judging.”