Internet sex trafficking, already escalating during major events in the Twin Cities, is being scrutinized by law enforcement officials and social justice organizations as they brace for the first Super Bowl in Minnesota in 26 years.

Metro-area prosecutors and police agencies anticipate that hundreds of women and girls will be sold on the sex market during Super Bowl 2018, mostly at huge organized parties and through provocative online ads and social media connections.

“There’s no doubt that when you have an increased amount of individuals congregating, and when alcohol is involved, that you are going to have an increase in crime committed. It’s naive to assume it wouldn’t be,” said Imran Ali, Washington County’s major crimes prosecutor.

And sex trafficking is no longer just an urban street-corner problem. Officials say it has engulfed suburban counties because the internet and digital devices remove geographical boundaries and use mobile apps like Wickr and Whisper to avoid detection.

Before Super Bowl mania descends, another major sporting event is drawing the masses to Minnesota and opening the door to sex trafficking: the Ryder Cup. Authorities expect as many as 300,000 visitors will come to Chaska in September for the six-day golf competition between the U.S. and Europe.

A task force already at work includes numerous Twin Cities agencies alarmed by the proliferation of sex trafficking ads on internet sites. More juveniles are being forced into the sex trade, authorities say, because the internet has exponentially expanded the market.

The FBI recently reported that sex trafficking, much of it involving children, is the fastest-growing organized crime in the U.S. and that victims are regularly transported for sale at “lucrative venues” such as major sporting events.

“They’re targeting those that are mentally ill, are chemically dependent,” Ali said.

Ali’s assistants, crime analyst Aimee Schroeder and law clerk Jessica Hockley, found 34,593 online solicitations from January to June for sex in the metro area on backpage.com, the leading internet sex marketplace.

Metro-area solicitations, promoted as “two-for-one football specials,” doubled on NFC and AFC championship game days, even though those games were held elsewhere. Schroeder’s research showed that solicitations surged during the Crashed Ice event in St. Paul last winter, and tripled on St. Patrick’s Day compared with other days in March.

Carver County Attorney Mark Metz said his county is working to draw attention to sex trafficking before the Ryder Cup by educating its law enforcement partners.

“Aside from the enforcement side, I think that education is a key component since some people may not appreciate how significant an issue sex trafficking can be at large events,” he said.

Real, or harmful myth?

Some national experts say the notion that Super Bowls attract a large commercial sex trade is a harmful myth that distracts public attention from the year-round plight of women and girls forced into trafficking.

“Publicity regarding the alleged increase in trafficking around these events does nothing to deter exploitation, and focuses law enforcement resources in precisely the wrong way,” said Kate Mogulescu, supervising attorney for the Exploitation Intervention Project at the Legal Aid Society in New York City.

She said that in past Super Bowls in Dallas, Indianapolis, New Orleans and New Jersey, law enforcement agencies wanting to appear tough on crime arrest trafficking victims already subjected to extensive brutality, violence and trauma. Rarely, she said, did they investigate and prosecute the actual traffickers.

Typical victims are runaways with histories of molestation and abuse who are groomed by traffickers to become dependent on them for money, drugs and alcohol.

Minnesota passed the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth law in 2011, making the state a national leader in treating sexually trafficked adolescents and teenagers as victims and not criminals.

Some federal agencies share Minnesota’s focus on finding and prosecuting traffickers and helping victims.

“I think it’s unique among federal agencies in that we have a very victim-centered approach. Our goal is to rescue somebody in a situation,” said Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations, an investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Jamie Cork, a prosecutor in the Hennepin County attorney office’s child protection division, said that law enforcement and service industry workers have become increasingly aware of sex trafficking. Reported cases in 2015 were triple the number from the previous two years, she said.

Much of the sex trade now is driven by social media, Cork said. While backpage.com has gotten most of the attention, the reality is that there are dozens of similar sites out there.

“If you took backpage down today, there’d be 10 other ones that anybody could use,” she said.

Sold like merchandise

In 2005, the FBI identified Minneapolis as being second only to Los Angeles among cities nationwide in terms of rates of children used in prostitution.

Much sex trafficking takes place in hotels. But as hotels book up for the Super Bowl, sex traffickers could turn to private rentals. One likely target, Airbnb, is being discussed among sex trafficking prevention groups, said Katie Kramer, program manager of prevention for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

“Airbnbs are a new avenue for this type of activity to take place,” Kramer said.

Airbnb is taking its own steps to discourage sex traffickers. The company is working with law enforcement and hospitality industry groups to train its employees to identify and prevent trafficking.

“We take the challenge of confronting human trafficking very seriously,” said Nick Shapiro, an Airbnb spokesman.

Minneapolis police will offer additional training for service providers — including restaurants, hotels and vehicle services — on how to spot sex trafficking, said Melissa Chiodo, commander of the special crimes investigations division at the Minneapolis Police Department.

“The only thing that changes for us is not the type of event, just the number of people coming for the events,” she said.

Trafficking has become the commercial exploitation of humans, packaged and sold much like any other online merchandise, Ali said.

Ali, in Washington County, said large events attract sex trafficking because “it involves the basic economic principal of supply and demand. When the demand is high, the supply increases.”

Staff writers Libor Jany and Beatrice Dupuy contributed to this story.