The Internet is making a devastating problem worse, according to officials at a conference, and Minnesota has not been immune.
St. Paul police officer Heather Weyker scrolls through the "personals" advertisements on the Internet every day, peering into the faces of women and girls offering their sexual services.
Weyker, a 10-year police veteran, said the sheer volume of prostituted women and girls has exploded in recent years, as the Internet has made the buying and selling of sex both anonymous and swift.
She said it's a driving force behind the growth in human trafficking in Minnesota -- both local and international -- which was the focus of a conference Friday in St. Paul.
"We're on Craig's List constantly, looking for girls who look young," Weyker said at the conference, describing the popular online classifieds site. "They always have captors. How many 13-year-old girls think, 'Hey, I think I'll put myself on Craig's List."'
While prostitution investigations for years have uncovered slave-like conditions, trafficking has emerged as a distinct category of crime, said participants at the conference, organized by Civil Society of St. Paul and several immigrant groups that work with victims. Trafficking involves individuals who are forced, defrauded or coerced into servitude.
They don't have the option to quit their "work" without suffering physical or sexual punishment, conference participants said. They can't even walk out the door unaccompanied by one of their captors.
"We're not just talking about illegal aliens or about people who are disadvantaged," said U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose. "These are also girls from the suburbs. It can affect anyone."
Paulose told the group that halting human trafficking was one of the priorities of her office. Since 2005, the number of defendants under indictment for trafficking went from zero to 30.
That includes the 25 men and women busted in May for running eight brothels of Latin American women in the Twin Cities and Austin, Minn. Sixteen of those defendants have pled guilty and five are going to trial.
It also includes a teenager running a prostitution ring of high school students through a Burnsville hotel, she said, and a Burnsville man who took a 16-year-old girl to several states to sell her for sex.
Danette Buskovick, a statistical director at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said it's very difficult to quantify the scope of the problem in Minnesota. Human trafficking, by its nature, "is a hidden crime whose victims often go unidentified, misidentified or undiscovered," said Buskovick. "There is no centralized way to count them."
This month, her office released a report to the Minnesota Legislature on trafficking, relying on its surveys of law enforcement officers, nurses and human service providers. Officials released information in the report earlier than planned after the Star Tribune filed a state data practices request for it.
The report found that 48 percent of the 106 service providers helped at least one victim of human trafficking in 2007, up from 43 percent the previous year. They had assisted 446 female victims, 62 child victims and one male victim.
However, only a quarter of law enforcement officials and nurses believed trafficking was a growing problem in the state, the report said. Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society, said Minnesota has been making progress in urging victims to come out of the shadows. Just one trafficking victim sought help from Civil Society in 1998, for example, compared to 132 people over the past two years. Those women were primarily immigrants.
The state human trafficking tip line operates 24 hours a day. It is (888)-7-SAFE-24.
Staff writer Dan Browning contributed to this report. Jean Hopfensperger 612-673-4511