WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Sex trafficking in Wilmington is a bigger concern than most people would ever imagine.
"Some of these victims that we have had in cases that are minor victims are being exploited at night and going to school during the day and no one is the wiser," Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Roberson explained. "No one knows what is happening to these kids."
How it can start may surprise you.
Pimps and sex traffickers are now using popular sites and apps like Facebook, Instagram and KiK to recruit victims.
"Social media makes it so easy for people potentially going to exploit minors, and people of age, to move in on them without ever meeting them in person first," Roberson explained.
"A lot of the cases that I have had when we have gotten the records back, there has been thousands and thousand of messages that have been sent out through social media," said a New Hanover County Detective who investigates the majority of these cases.
Roberson said pimps do not recruit one girl at a time, instead they prey on several different women at once.
"We had one pimp in the last couple of years, when we got his Facebook records over the course of an eight month period he had reached out to 118 different women on Facebook trying to recruit them," Roberson recalled. "He is sending them all the same message. He is sending them all the same blast. He is using the same language with all of them, and what he is doing is hoping someone will respond."
The messages don't stand out and are similar to some you may have even seen.
"I got a mass blast on my phone one day that I recognized immediately that was just a mass text, like 'I've seen your pictures, you are really cute do you think we could meet up or talk sometime?'" Roberson said. "And of course I am not going to respond to that, but who would? A 14-year-old or 15-year-old girl who is really craving that attention."
"They are fishing," explained the detective, who because of his job, cannot release his name. "They are asking the victims, 'What do you do? Where do you go to school? Do you like school? Do you like your parents? Do you play sports, are you a cheerleader?'"
It may look innocent, but here is what the pimp is really asking: "Do you have a support system, will someone go looking for you if you go missing?"
According to the detective, pimps will start to prey on girls who say they hate school, they hate their family, their parents, and they are alone for most of the day.
"It is almost like they have a textbook," Roberson said. "It is really scary, because they have learned what works and that is what they do."
"If they are fishing and they get a hook, they start reeling," the detective explained saying pimps will then start showing all the ways they can provide for the girl that they are not getting at home.
They'll say things like, "I can take you places," "I can take you to see the world," "I can buy you nice things."
"A lot of times it is that girl who something bad had already happened to her and she is vulnerable and really wanting that attention," Roberson said.
It is so common, they refer to the process as the pimp "boyfriending themselves in."
"A lot of these kids, even adults, teenagers they are desiring to be desired by someone and that is how these people are getting their foot in the door," the detective explained.
Roberson said the pimps will start to pretend to be someone who is romantically involved in a girl to make them more vulnerable. They may even say things like, "I love you," or "I want to spend more time with you."
The detective said the pimps gain the trust of that girl, for however long it takes until she is completely wrapped up in him. He will take her on dates and really make her feel like he loves her.
"Then it will sort of turn like a domestic violence relationship," the detective explained. "He will insert some physical and mental abuse things like that to make it to where these girls don't feel like, where they can't leave."
It creates a brainwashing effect.
"These girls are doing this for them, because they are trying to make them happy," the detective said. "They have been brought into this idea that this guy is their provider, their boyfriend."
Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Roberson said when they were able to get all of the messages sent to a victim in a recent case, they were able to see how extensive his solicitation of her was.
Often times the pimp is moving the girls into a mindset of "we can make money together."
Just like recruiting can often start online, sex trafficking and prostitution for the most part starts at a keyboard too.
"I can show you 50 or 60 advertisements for escort services, which we know that that is prostitution," the detective explained. "Here in Wilmington, I can show you 50 or 60 that have been posted since 8 a.m. this morning."
While you may not see people walking the streets, it does not mean it is not happening.
"We've driven up and down a certain road in Wilmington that a lot of people think is seedy, and I have not seen one suspicious person walking the street that might be a victim or a prostitute of sex trafficking. But the website we went on this morning, there were over 20 ads that have been posted since the day started," the detective explained.
Escort sites like Backpage are technically legal, that site even has a disclaimer about the need to report sex trafficking on it.
"She very well might be doing this on her own, not to say every single advertisement on here is human trafficking, someone is forcing these girls to do this, but a lot of them are," the detective said of escort sites in general.
On some, you will even find prices.
One post lists "60/100/140" at the top of the post. "$60 is a quick visit that would call for 15 minutes, $100 for half and hour and $140 for an hour and that's how they do it," the detective explained.
"We get frequent reports of girls who work in hotels here in Wilmington, as well as doing outcalls to individual homes," said Cary Ramsey with A Safe Place.
"It's like ordering a pizza. You figure out which one you want and call and tell them where you are and where you are going to go and no one ever knows," the detective added.
There are times when a pimp will have two or three girls in the car on the way to meet a john or a client so that if they get stopped by law enforcement or another person it looks like they are just hanging out.
Deputies in New Hanover County and officers with the Wilmington Police Department have been trained on which red flags to look out for.
"We know they are out there, we know there are kids being sold in hotels and motels right now in our town, but until we know how to look for them that is going to continue and we are not going to find it because unfortunately, the most vulnerable victims are the ones who don't even know they are victims. So they do not call 911, they do not reach out," Roberson said.
The detective said it's imperative to jump on this kind of case because the suspected traffickers move around a lot.
"It is almost like a circuit they go from city to city," the detective explained.
He said that the investigation in these cases is working backwards, like peeling back an onion – the more you dig the more you find.
As detectives work to investigate, case workers like Cary Ramsey at A Safe Place offer counseling and help the victims find a home and a job.
"We are working on our end to support the women who are involved in each case and to help them heal," Ramsey said.
The demand for sex trafficking is in Wilmington.
"We hear all the time about men who come with a car seat in the back of their car, businessmen who come into town for conferences, there is a large demand, unfortunately and that feeds the industry we have here," Ramsey said.
Roberson said the best way to stop sex trafficking is by trying to prevent it all together with education about what it can look like and the resources available.
"It is a new world unfortunately for parents to be looking at the vulnerability of their children where people can exploit their kids, and their kids are still in the house, they haven't even walked outside yet," Roberson said.
A Safe Place has a 24 hour toll-free/anonymous/hotline anyone can call for HELP: 855-723-7529.