Did I just witness a human trafficker? Here’s what happened:
I was thrift-shopping for infant clothing this morning for a friend with a growing family. At first distracted by my task, I was soon aware of a conversation between two people in the same area. A young woman was shopping down a row of children’s clothing, and an older man (in his 40’s), standing in the next aisle, was leaning over that rack of clothing, talking to her as she shopped. It is not my habit to eavesdrop, but the conversation became more and more alarming, in terms of the private information shared.
He asked/She answered – Clearly, by their conversation, they were strangers before this encounter. I missed the conversation’s beginning, but he asked her more and more personal questions as it continued. She answered them all. She was shopping for her preschooler son and couldn’t afford to shop for new clothes. She returned often to that theme of not making a lot of money (in response to his different question/comments about “times [being] hard”). He told her he was only in town for a few weeks and didn’t know much about the area. Answering her question, he said he was a photographer – supplying magazines and books mostly.
He said something about how she could get work as a model and asked her age. She said she was 21, almost 22 (she was a petite young woman, fair-complexioned, with black hair pulled back in a ponytail – she could be a lot younger by her appearance). He asked her about her work, and she said she waitressed at a bar in a nearby town. Then she continued to answer his questions as to what days and hours she worked and when she got off.
After so many years living overseas, cross-culturally, I am shocked at how Americans are willing to answer questions and how self-revealing people are willing to be.
He stepped away for a minute, and I regret not saying something to her then. She continued to look through the children’s clothing. When he returned, she said she only found one item and began walking to check-out. He walked with her. They went through check-out together, and lingered outside the front of the store talking.
As I write I’m thinking how weird it sounds (even to me), but I really had a sick feeling that something was very wrong. It seemed important to find out if they left together, although she would have a vehicle there. She gave him so much information, he would be able to find her at her work. Although she gave him all this personal information (more than I’ve shared here), she was an adult so hopefully if he pushed for more than information, she would have been able to take care of herself. Hopefully. By the time I got the courage to at least see how she left the parking lot, she was gone, and I didn’t see him anywhere either.
I prayed for her all the way home and still am praying, feeling a little nauseated at what I witnessed. The tone of that conversation was way more than pickup lines at a bar somewhere. It could have been an over-friendly conversation between an interested man and a young woman glad to talk to anyone who showed care. It seemed more than that…dark somehow. The questions he asked had too much intentionality and the information he shared about himself made him appear non-threatening and possibly intriguing. At least to a beautiful young woman with limited resources. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I had just watched an attempt to lure a victim into trafficking.
I didn’t do much, but for those few minutes, I made as much of an annoyance of myself as possible to the man, and pointed out clothing options to the girl (their conversation was loud enough for anyone around to hear). I was hoping to divert him away, but I didn’t. You may think me overly dramatic, but then I will ask you:
1) Did you know that human trafficking in the US is third only to guns and drugs in its financial profitability?
2) Do you live in a city that’s a hub for human trafficking? I do. [Department Of Justice (2007) identified the top twenty human trafficking jurisdictions in the country:” Houston • El Paso • Los Angeles • Atlanta • Chicago • Charlotte • Miami • Las Vegas • New York • Long Island • New Orleans • Washington, D.C. • Philadelphia • Phoenix • Richmond • San Diego• San Francisco • St Louis • Seattle • Tampa].
3) Do you think this is too big a problem to tackle? Or too small a problem? Check links below of agencies and non-profits who have made huge strides in dealing with this issue in the US.
4) Do you know there is a Human Trafficking Hotline for reporting suspicious activity? I called it today – 1-888-373-7888. The counselor was very helpful and didn’t think I was overly dramatic at all. Put the number in your phone directory in case you may need it some day.
5) Did you know that there are several professional and age-appropriate trafficking awareness programs (video, online, and speaker options) to help prepare young people for the dangers of trafficking? [See links below.]
5) Do you believe there are situations where your very presence could diffuse a dangerous situation for someone else? I’m sure you do. I do, too. Today, I did something. Only God knows if something more should/could have been done. Now I pray for that lovely young woman, and for that man lingering around her.
*Name withheld – rescued and restored young woman who endured being held and trafficked.