GREAT FALLS — Despite a much different look this year, Super Bowl festivities continued in Tampa and around the country over the weekend.
But, large events like Super Bowl 55 attracted another type of crowd and activity to local towns, and in some cases, into your own home.
Football fans aren’t the only ones who look forward to Super Bowl weekend. Human Rights Anti-Trafficking advocates and athletes have used the annual tradition to bring attention to exploitation and trafficking in the U.S.
Global Education Philanthropists founder Cammy Bowker is a Montana native, who works with human rights organizations and alongside law enforcement in sting operations around the world and the U.S.
Bowker says her family still spends summers in Anaconda. She began her career focused on school administration; after building schools in third world countries, Bowker realized education is key to rehabilitation of trafficking victims.
She was in Tampa ahead of Super Bowl weekend, aiding in anti-trafficking efforts.
“There’s already been over 500 online ads soliciting sex with minors for just that (Super Bowl) weekend already,” she said. “We’ve already found over 200 undercover brothels in the Tampa area alone.”
But sex trafficking isn’t just a problem during the Super Bowl, and it’s not just in large cities or prevalent in a single state. “When there’s a huge party scene, you can guarantee sex with minors is happening as well,” she said.
Data shows a growing number of kids and teens in all 50 states are being trafficked without ever leaving their bedrooms.
“The on-demand live streaming sex trafficking is on the rise and that’s what we’re looking out for right now with this time with COVID,” she said.
Prevention advocates tell MTN News as students spend more time online due to the pandemic, digital traffickers around the world are actively recruiting them for revenue on popular platforms.
“13 and 14 years old- accessing Tinder and these online dating sites,” said The LifeGuard Group Founder Lowell Hochhalter. “And perpetrators are waiting for them. Literally there waiting there for them.”
A 2020 DHS report states emergency trafficking cases handled by the National Human Trafficking Hotline increased over 40% in the month following shelter in place orders compared to the previous month.
“The traffickers right now are referring to COVID, this time where our children are online for just a massive amount of hours a day now, they’re calling it the time of the harvest,” said Bowker.
And as millions of adults continue to work from home, she believes perpetrators are saturated in access to child sexual abuse materials. “A lot of these people who are buying sex with kids already have a pornography addiction and they’re into pedophilia and child porn,” she said.
Data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) shows a nearly 100% increase in online coercion of minors compared to the same period in 2019.
In Montana, DOJ officials also noticed an increase in illegal activity even before COVID.
DOJ officials told MTN News back in August they’d seen a 65.2% increase in human trafficking cases from 2018-2019, but officials also rescued 17.6% more victims thanks to advancements in technology.
Human Trafficking Team Supervisor Andy Yedinak said they expected both percentages to rise in 2020. State officials were not available for comment or updated statistics at the time of publication.
“There are secret apps that look like they could be a calculator,” said Solid Ground Outreach Founder Chelsi Lanphear. “But really it’s an app that they (victims) can talk to grown men on or women grown- women are traffickers too.”
Advocates say many victims don't realize they are unknowingly giving predators precious, personal information that keeps them under their perpetrator’s digital thumb.
“The youth don’t understand that when they tweet or when they're on Snapchat you can see their location, even if their location services are off,” said Bowker.
“They can see if you’re at two different houses- maybe that's your friend’s house or maybe that's your parents’ house, or your parents are divorced.”
After grooming their victims, traffickers keep them hooked with threats, debt, and lies.
“Like, ‘your family doesn’t love you. I'm the only one who's going to love you’,” said Lanphear. “And that love may not even be nice; he may be degrading her at the same time.”
Sometimes, all it takes to control a child is one compromising image. “Chances are, your child has probably sent a naked picture of their body,” said Bowker. “And they’re terrified for you to find that out.”
“‘If you don’t do this or you don’t do that, I’m gonna make these pictures public’,” said Hochhalter. “There are sites online where people bid for photos.”
Lanphear and husband Nathan told MTN News they’re all too familiar with trafficking tactics; Chelsi was a victim after being financially exploited. “I was technically forced to launder money,” she said.
“Having to watch her go through this was the scariest part for me,” said Nathan.
“Some days I would leave the house for a really long time and not come back because I was scared that someone would follow me home,” she said.
She told MTN News she’s used trials from the past, including that chaotic year, to push forward and believes everything happens for a reason.
“I was meant to be taken advantage of and God was really teaching me a lesson and opening my eyes to what I'm supposed to be doing in life.”
In the few months they've been in Great Falls, Solid Ground Outreach is on its way to becoming a non-profit.
The couple has started freedom walks and aims to educate everyone about the dangers of digital extortion, starting with their kids.
“I don’t sugarcoat for them, and I explain to my children that it’s something that could happen to them.”
Advocates believe more parents need to talk with their families about online predators and take an active role in monitoring who they're talking to.
“If your kids have time for social media, you have time for social media, and if they don’t have you as a friend, um, get on there,” Hochhalter said. “It’s not that you don't trust them. It's just that you don't trust anybody else.”
For parents who suspect their child could be a victim of digital trafficking, Bowker says being gentle in your approach is key. She says don't be afraid to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“If something seems off (with your child), just start opening convos of ‘hey, if something bad is going on, I can handle it, I might be mad for a minute but I can handle it and I will never leave you or I will never judge you,” said Bowker.
A father of three daughters, Hochhalter has fought for an end to human trafficking around the U.S. for over a decade.
He says The LifeGuard Group in Missoula just received the keys to their latest project -- a LifeHouse to help even more rescued victims regain strength, and, when they're ready- restart their lives.
“It’s been a dream of ours for a very long time,” he said. “So, we acquired that property and now the work starts.”
While the potential for child exploitation and trafficking will only increase, advocates challenge communities to pay closer attention to developing technologies and threats that may come with them.
“They’re out there on the internet without anyone having their back,” said Bowker. “And we’ve got to start doing it, that's our duty, that's our job.”
“We tell them all the time, no call is a wrong call,” said Hochhalter. “And you can look at that both ways.”
Advocates say transparency builds trust. They encourage families to learn each other's passwords and find a common place to charge phones at night, away from any bedrooms.
LATEST 2020 NCMEC STATISTICS:
HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE/TIPLINE: