COMMENTARY: Traffickers prey on the vulnerable

As many of our daily activities have moved online due to the novel coronavirus, so have criminals. And one of their targets is our children.

Recently my office, working with the U.S. Marshals Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, arrested Silviano Lucas Mederos in Austin. Mederos had an outstanding warrant for continuous sexual abuse of young children and is just one example of the predators lurking in society and online every day, but especially now.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools closed, businesses shuttered and social distancing became the norm. This put school-aged children at home with more access to the online and social media worlds than ever before. In April, the New York Times reported that social media use was up 15% to 27% because of the pandemic. With schools closed for the term, it likely these numbers will only increase.

The unprecedented access children have online is creating a perfect storm that makes them even more vulnerable to those who would exploit them online or lure them into a world of commercial sex. Traffickers offer companionship, food, “love,” and promises of a “family” life to our children, through a process known as “grooming.” These criminals do not have to go to the malls or the schoolyards; they are able to enter into your homes through your children’s computers.

My office does not rest when it comes to protecting children from exploitation and sex trafficking. Neither should you.

On April 23, William Adam Jonathan Smith, a Denton man, was charged with conspiracy to engage in child sex trafficking after allegedly renting hotel rooms for men to engage in sex for money with females, including a minor, and then keeping the money that was given by the commercial sex clients to the minor. The case was investigated by my office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Denton Police Department.

On May 1, the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Coordinating Council released a timely five-year strategic plan detailing the work that the state is doing to combat this complex issue, and the challenges that lie ahead. The council is a group of state agencies formed by the Texas Legislature and led by my office that is committed to the eradication of human trafficking.

Because of stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closings, illicit massage parlors that can be fronts for international labor trafficking and prostitution, and were previously hidden in plain sight in strip malls, are now moving to private residences to continue their illegal activity. Our investigators’ work tracking and investigating this illegal activity does not stop just because the criminals have moved their location.

Now, more than ever, it is important for you to be the eyes and ears in the fight to stop human trafficking.

So, how can you help? Watch the video, “Be the One,” found on our agency’s website www. texasattorneygeneral.gov/initiatives/humantrafficking. All it takes is for an observant neighbor, teacher, bystander or parent to see the signs and report it. All it takes is one person, one moment, and one act to save a life.

If you or someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888, or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733 (“BeFree”). If you suspect child abuse, call 1-800-252-5400.

Ken Paxton is Texas Attorney General.