Human trafficking ‘prevalent’ in Durham Region

Photo arranged by Shanelle Somers

This is part one of a three-part series on human trafficking in Durham. 

Written by: Shanelle Somers and Shana Fillatrau

Durham Region is on the 401, making it a hot-bed for human trafficking because victims are easily and quickly moved around from city to city. Hotels along the highway make it easy for pimps to hide these women in plain sight.

Jason Price, detective constable in the Durham Regional Police Services human-trafficking unit, says many of the hotel owners and staff have been educated on the warning signs. He says one of their most recent investigations started with a tip from a hotel staffer.

Hotels and motels along Kingston Road are known to be temporary housing to pimps, victims and their clients. Toronto Police have a project focusing on these hotels named Hotel Tango 2.

They are living “very transient” lifestyles, according to Price. They are forced to service (a professional term used by traffickers to describe a woman engaging in forced sexual activity), fed minimal and/or poor food and are sometimes denied feminine hygiene products.

“People would be surprised to know how prevalent it is in the hotels within the region,” says Price. “The members of the public would be baffled at how active it is, the ages of the girls that are involved and the amount of money that’s being spent on it.”

What can you do to keep your loved ones from ending up in these hotels? Pay attention, says Price. Young women with low self-esteem are especially vulnerable. There are many red flags, according to Price. These include unexplained gifts or money, long absences, change in mental health, multiple cellphones and new friends or boyfriend.

Jeff Tucker, another detective constable in the human-trafficking unit of seven, says, “I think that would really shock the public to see that these are the girls next door.”

In Durham, Tucker says their youngest victim was 13-years-old. She was first trafficked at the age of nine.

Within the last few months, Tucker says they’re seeing girls 14 and 15-years-old being victimized the most.

Photo by Shana Fillatrau, Durham Regional Police Services human trafficking unit officers (left) Jason Price and Jeff Tucker.

The most common tactic is called the “boyfriend trafficker.” A younger pimp is used to lure in the girls with affection, romance and gifts. The relationship usually moves quickly and the boyfriend makes a lot of promises he can’t keep, like marriage or moving in together.

This makes the girl feel loved and secure, especially if she has low self-esteem. Then the boyfriend comes into trouble. He needs money and the girl is expected to help. It usually starts when he asks her to do one explicit activity – stripping, or service a client just one time.

If she does, she’s trapped. This is also called the “Romeo Pimp.”

These girls also need to be wary of female lures as well. These traffickers are called the “Bottom B**ch.” This is when the main pimp picks his “best girl” to recruit for him. She is busy, therefore services less so it motivates her to do his dirty work.

The police officers also feel social media has made things harder. Price says, “It’s certainly has grown because of social media.”

Another unforeseen effect of social media, as well as pop culture, according to Tucker, is girls are being desensitized. The elaborate and expensive lives they see on TV and in movies, “that’s the lifestyle that these guys are selling. Bottom line, it’s an easy sell.” Price says, “The younger they are, the easier it is for them to do.”

These are some of the reasons why Tucker and Price feel it’s important to raise awareness about the issue.

“This is Canada, this is not something that should be allowed or tolerated. We need to make sure those folks who do this are punished to the true extent of the law,” says John Henry, Oshawa Mayor.

Police give presentations about the warning signs to young girls. The presentation is only given to females because they don’t want to give males tools on how to traffic girls.

This educates teachers on the red flags, as well.

Teachers within the Durham Region have played a key role in successfully identifying students who may be a victim of human trafficking. Tucker says, “To date, any teacher or VP has been correct.”

Price says the unit gets their leads from teachers, parents or Crime Stoppers.

Tucker’s his main concern is getting through to the victim. “They’ve been brainwashed by the person who’s controlling them,” he says.

But these traffickers can sometimes be difficult to track, partly due to technology. Texting apps make it difficult to keep track of phone records and pre-paid credit cards can make it almost impossible to keep record of the pimp’s purchases.

Project Protect is an initiative working to support police to combat this.

The initiative started in 2016 and was introduced in partnership with Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, known as FinTrac.

FinTrac works with Canada’s five major banks to follow the transactions of traffickers. They monitor suspicious purchases such as multiple hotel stays, motel bookings, pharmacy purchases, late-night ATM deposits and Uber or taxi payments.

Once a suspicious transaction is found, FinTrac will notify law enforcement.

FinTrac has been a successful aid in providing tips to police across Canada and gathering evidence against alleged human traffickers.

BMO banker and coordinator of Project Protect, Peter Warrack, says one of the main ways they are able to flag suspicious activity is through advertisement purchases.

However, they are not tracking ordinary advertisement purchases you typically see online.

These ads are specifically made, purchased and marketed for escort service websites like backpages.com, a website many men visit to purchase young trafficked girls and/or women.

Warrack says BMO cross-references transaction systems and flags people or companies who are making payments towards those types of ads.

“We have noticed that almost 99 per cent of these ads are on backpages.com,” says Warrack.

To date, Durham Regional Police have not received any tips from FinTrac but they do rely on the similar strategies when gathering evidence against a human trafficker.

“I can tell you that I’m proud of the work they do each and every day and you know you can see the difference that they make in communities. But it’s only through help through the community that we can fix things. So if you know something that’s wrong please take the opportunity to contact the regional police,” says mayor Henry.

Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services is also developing strategies to stop human trafficking.

Julie Richardson, Senior Policy Analyst of the Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, says, “Two out of three police reported cases of human trafficking in Canada are in Ontario.”

Photo by Shanelle Somers, Julie Richardson, Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, senior policy analyst speaking at a human trafficking event held at the Regent Theatre in Oshawa, Ont

Recognizing how vigorous human trafficking is within Ontario despite the sparsity of data available, the provincial government has invested 72 million dollars towards holding human traffickers accountable, educating communities, and developing Indigenous-led approaches to stop trafficking.

“We are the third province in Canada to have a strategy to fight human trafficking … and as far as I am aware, it is one of the largest financial investments in North America,” says Richardson, who was recently on a panel as part of a human trafficking prevention event held at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

The provincial government also realizes the importance of working with people who have been involved in trafficking and affected by trafficking. Richardson says they work with a lot of people who are experienced and who have been involved in trafficking. “One of my bosses comes from lived experience,” says Richardson.

These professionals believe it is important to be passionate about stopping human trafficking. Tucker says, “You can’t help but be emotionally invested.”

Human trafficking is happening in Durham but knowing the red flags can make a difference in a potential victim’s life.

Mayor Henry says the public needs to be part of the solution in ending human trafficking.

“You have a voice. Our democracy is a democracy that demands participation. So if you see something that’s wrong take the time, make the call, send the email, let’s work together to make Canada the greatest place to live. We can do this if we work together. You know being silent doesn’t help the issue,” says mayor Henry.

Update: According to media reports, the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division has seized backpages.com and affiliated websites for allegedly facilitating human trafficking Apr. 6.

Former backpage.com Chief Executive Officer Carl Ferrer, has pleased guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of money laundering. The company has also pleaded guilty to human trafficking. 

Backpage.com co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin were also arrested on federal charges last week. Lacey has been released from custody on $1 million but, Larkin and five other employees still remain in custody. A bail hearing is scheduled for Larkin on Monday Apr. 17. 

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