AUG 22, 2020 AT 5:30 AM

Human traffickers who typically use Central Florida’s busy tourism industry to camouflage their efforts are turning to other recruitment tools to lure victims amid the coronavirus pandemic, advocates warn. Especially vulnerable, they say, are the thousands of students spending long hours online.

“That has dramatically escalated in the last six months with COVID-19,” said Tomas Lares, founder and president of United Abolitionists, an Orlando-based national anti-trafficking organization. “According to the intelligence we’re hearing, with kids basically being on their devices nonstop, these buyers and perpetrators are using social media, games, apps — all kinds of online platforms — to connect with children online.”

Predators sometimes reach out through private messaging of various apps or troll online forums and chat rooms to identify young targets, often posing as an admirer or potential friend, Lares said. They may persuade children to take compromising photos of themselves — and then use those photos for pornography or to blackmail the children to do other things.

“It’s called sextortion,” Lares said. “They’ll threaten, ‘If you don’t do what I say, I’ll send these to your parents,’ or, ‘I’ll post them on your social media.’ And it’s almost impossible to track all that. Kids need to know: Online strangers are not your friends.”

His warning comes on the heels of the most recent “Trafficking In Persons” annual report from the U.S. State Department, in which Secretary Mike Pompeo calls trafficking “a crisis that has reached previously unimagined proportions” and blames the pandemic for an environment of instability and desperation that makes would-be victims more vulnerable.

Jill Bolander Cohen, founder and CEO of The Lifeboat Project — a Central Florida nonprofit that helps survivors with housing, medical care, counseling and education — said the need is greater than ever.


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