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Investigators: Human trafficking likely rising, but cases may be ‘underreported’

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 5:25 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 31, 2021 at 5:54 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - A renewed effort is underway across Wisconsin to find and arrest people involved in human trafficking to try to again get a handle on the growing problem.

As we’ve reported, five men were arrested as part of an undercover operation in Fond du Lac County involving men investigators say were soliciting sex.

While some proactive investigations may have slowed during COVID, that is now changing.

“This crime remains one that is a focus of our Human Trafficking Bureau and through other work we do, and we need to keep working to fight,” says Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul.

It’s a fight we have shown you over the last several years as we’ve ridden alongside local and state investigators as they’ve conducted undercover operations, putting attention on human trafficking and focusing on the people who direct and organize the crimes, as well as those soliciting sex.

Non-profit organizations often take part, too, to offer help for victims- many of whom become addicted to drugs and can’t get out on their own.

“Once the survivors can receive those services, that obviously does a lot of good for the survivor, but it can also help enable that person and feel empowered to be a witness and to work to prosecute the trafficker who’s responsible,” explains Kaul.

But those kinds of investigations and prosecutions have slowed in the last year-and-a-half, thanks to COVID.

Undercover operations became increasingly difficult because of contact guidelines and other restrictions, slowing law enforcement’s usual proactive efforts.

Investigators tell us they are still catching up from a backlog in other cases, but acknowledge there is likely more trafficking happening now involving people who may simply not think law enforcement is on to them.

As people got used to being more isolated and spending more time online, investigators fear more people have likely been exposed to trafficking and may be involved in it, unaware they could be arrested and charged for their involvement.

“It can be a challenge statewide because we don’t know what’s not reported,” says Kaul. “And there’s a lot of reason to think that this is a crime that’s significantly underreported.”

Kaul is urging people to know and watch for signs of trafficking, especially those in the hotel industry, truck drivers and hair stylists, who may see it more often.

“The main thing for people to be aware of is that if they see something that looks suspicious, for example, the same people meeting at the same convenience store at the same time every week, to reach out, to let law enforcement know what they’re seeing,” explains Kaul.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Bureau has a thorough list of warning signs, as well as programs and resources for survivors.

If you or someone you know needs help or you want to report a tip, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

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