On the Front Lines of the Human Trafficking Battle
NATIONAL REPORT — Adults, teens and children across the country are being exploited daily by human traffickers who force them to perform commercial sex or labor against their will.
Nearly 11,000 cases of human trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2018, a 25 percent increase from 2017. Overall, the hotline received more than 41,000 contacts via phone calls, texts, webchats, webforms and emails in 2018. Experts say the actual number of people being trafficked is probably a lot higher.
Human trafficking is the second-largest crime in the world (after drug trafficking) and the fastest-growing, according to Convenience Stores Against Trafficking (CSAT), a program of the nonprofit organization In Our Backyard. The organization engages the convenience store and fuel industries to play a role in the fight against human trafficking.
With longer hours of operation, public restrooms and more than 153,000 stores in communities across the country that serve half the U.S. population each day, convenience store operators are in a unique position to disrupt this criminal enterprise and help victims of human trafficking, according to CSAT. Travel centers and truck stops, situated at key points on America’s highway system — and thus even more likely to encounter human trafficking — are also positioned to make a difference.
The Industry Response
C-stores and travel centers are responding. In April, two major Iowa-based convenience store chains announced their joint partnership with CSAT to combat trafficking. Des Moines-based Kum & Go LC, which operates nearly 400 stores throughout the Midwest, and Ankeny-based Casey’s General Stores Inc., which has more than 2,100 stores in small and midsize markets in the Midwest and South, agreed to leverage their network of stores — many of which are open 24 hours a day — to provide a neighborhood watch and safe haven for trafficking victims. Store associates at both chains participate in CSAT training, and stickers are placed in bathroom stalls with numbers for victims to call or text to reach the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
CSAT is run by In Our Backyard, a national nonprofit known for its anti-trafficking work around the past eight Super Bowls and for the critically acclaimed book by Founder and Executive Director Nita Belles: “In Our Backyard: Human Trafficking in America and What We Can Do to Stop It.”
“Traffickers and their victims are walking around in plain sight just like anyone else and just like anyone else, they go into c-stores daily,” Belles told Convenience Store News. “The c-store industry has begun to see they have a huge opportunity to safely help those who are being trafficked. C-stores have become heroes in the fight against human trafficking, in many instances by joining CSAT and bringing hope and help to those who need it most.”
Savannah, Ga.-based convenience store chain Enmarket was approached in May 2017 by In Our Backyard/CSAT. At the time, company executives didn’t know just how significant the problem is, particularly in the states where it operates, said Brett Giesick, president of the retailer that operates 124 stores in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“One of the biggest motivators for us to get involved was learning that the abductees are brought into convenience stores to use the restroom, for food, general clean-up, etc., as they are transported along interstates and highways,” Giesick told CSNews. “Knowing that we could potentially provide an outlet for help for even one individual was enough for us to get involved.”
As a result, Enmarket worked with CSAT to place victim outreach materials in all its restrooms and at registers, providing a phone number for abductees to call if they are in trouble.
“On top of that, as new Enmarket employees are onboarded, they are educated about the issue and what they should do if they encounter a child looking for help or seemingly in trouble,” said Giesick, who also noted that a page in the retailer’s monthly marketing bulletin is dedicated to this cause in order to keep awareness heightened throughout the year.
On the Lookout
Travel centers and truck stops are doing their part to end human trafficking, too.
Situated at key points on America's highway system, travel centers and truck stops may be the retailers most likely to encounter human trafficking.
"Human traffickers tend to move their victims from their home base to areas where they have no support system. This applies to both the sex trade and labor trafficking," said Tom Liutkus, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for TravelCenters of America (TA), explaining what prompted the Westlake, Ohio-based company, which operates in 43 states and Canada, to get involved. "Here in this country, the quickest way to go undetected from Point A to Point B is to use the interstate highway system. So, our sites might encounter this activity and need to be vigilant."
Keeping an eye out for the warning signs of trafficking is just step one. To be effective, employees need to know three things: what they’re looking for, what to do if they see something suspicious, and what to avoid doing.
"At Pilot Flying J, we are committed to the safety and security of all our team members and guests. This is why we require each new team member at our travel centers to complete an e-learning module on human trafficking," said Stephanie Myers, corporate spokesperson for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot Flying J, which has 750-plus locations in 44 states. "This module emphasizes that team members should look out for individuals — oftentimes young girls — moving from truck to truck in the parking lot as a sign of trafficking."
The module includes a video segment created by Truckers Against Trafficking that features a real-life trafficking story to showcase the severity of the issue.
Pilot Flying J also recently held a staff training on the matter at its headquarters. Led by Knoxville-based nonprofit The Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, team members were trained on what trafficking looks like, how to identify red flags, and what to do if they witness a potential trafficking situation. This includes calling the local authorities, as well as the national hotline number for Truckers Against Trafficking.
The industry’s efforts are already making a difference.
In late July, Channel 13 in Iowa reported that two young women in Ankeny, Iowa, were rescued from an alleged sex trafficking ring due to the quick thinking of a truck driver and a convenience store worker. A newspaper delivery driver noticed a woman in distress. She waved her down and upon talking with her, the driver noticed the woman didn’t have a purse, ID or a cell phone. At that moment, the driver said her gut told her something wasn’t right.
She drove the young woman to a Kum & Go store down the road, where the clerk called the police. After questioning the young woman, police were led to a motel across the street, leading to the arrest of a suspect for allegedly running a sex trafficking ring. Local police then handed the case over to federal investigators because some criminal activity possibly occurred in another state. The young woman and another victim were granted no-contact orders against the suspect.
Still, despite these efforts by social service organizations, law enforcement, c-stores and travel centers, there’s more that needs to be done — and more partners needed.
“As more stores in our industry become involved, the better the chances that traffickers will be identified,” said Giesick of Enmarket. “There’s zero cost to acquire the victim outreach materials and CSAT has put together any training materials necessary to implement an awareness program. It all begins with awareness, and continues with consistent and repeated training to keep the issue top of mind.”