ZOE International hosted a human trafficking and online security panel for parents and kids at Crossroads Community Church on Sunday.
The panel featured experts from the Los Angeles Police Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and ZOE leadership.
Hillary Phillips, social media specialist for ZOE, said the event was important because it gave insight into the extent of how prevalent the issue is online while also providing strategies to identify trafficking techniques and combat them.
“This event is incredibly important because not only is it teaching us about how to protect kids online, but really the Internet is a primary tool that a lot of traffickers use to lower children and even adults,” said Phillips. “So by making the parents and older people aware of some of those tactics, not only can you help spare children, I think it’s just really important for everyone to be aware that the internet, while it has plenty of benefits, is also being used as a tool to cause harm.”
Phillips explained the panel encouraged parents to not only monitor online behavior, but actively engage in conversations about how they spend their time online, what types of communities they’re a part of, what games they play, etc. All in an effort to watch for the red flags of potential traffickers.
“There are things that can be done. I think sometimes human trafficking, when you hear about it and you hear the statistics and science, it sounds so outside of our ability to do anything and things like this [are] really small changes that can cause large-scale impacts,” said Phillips. “Even educated teams and teachers who know what to look out for can help other kids in their lives if they notice the behaviors, or they do know some friends that are sending nudes or being blackmailed — it’s very common amongst teens.”
Guests on the panel included Kris Pitcher, chief of detectives for the LAPD, Tina Bidgeli, program manager for NCMEC and David Cox, COO of ZOE.
According to ZOE, human trafficking is an international slave trade that affects 40.3 million people, 5.5 million of which are children. In L.A, ZOE said they, and a partner organization, have cared for 450 sexually exploited children in 2022.
Pitcher said the LAPD’s task forces work every day to infiltrate and intercept human trafficking within the city.
“The predators are out there, whether they’re the sex offenders, those on Megan’s Law, or those that don’t pop up… they are out there in droves and the LAPD as well as our other ancillary agencies have dumped a tremendous amount of resources to continually battle this issue that continually pops up day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out,” said Pitcher. “It seemingly never ends.”
A lot of trafficking occurs through social media, gaming communities and other online communications, according to those on the panel.
They also told individual stories of how these situations happened. In one instance, a girl who posted about difficulties at home was directly messaged by a popular influencer who showered her with compliments, sent a fancy car to pick her up and invited her to a party. The girl, 17, ended up being trafficked.
Bigdeli said in cases like these, most of their tips come from internet providers and social media companies — the number of which total in the millions.
“The vast majority of our reports actually come from what we refer to as internet service providers and electronic service providers, about 99% of the reports come from them,” said Bigdeli. “These are the social media apps that you use, these are the gaming platforms. And if they’re US based they are federally required to report to NCMEC, if they suspect any exploitation on their platforms. Just last year, in 2022, we received over 32 million reports.”
ZOE said having people like Bigdeli, Pitcher and the other speakers are essential to fighting human trafficking and spreading awareness on the tactics used to perpetrate it.
Although the organization is faith based, Phillips said their services and resources are available to anyone from anywhere.
“It’s a multibillion dollar criminal industry, there is believed to be 49.6 million people enslaved today,” said Phillips. “So our desire regardless of a person’s religious affiliation, is to just spread awareness and to get people knowing what they can do in our daily lives to protect kids.”
ZOE also announced the purchase of 50 acres just north of Santa Clarita that will serve as the organizations first US-based home for commercially sexually exploited kids.