TAMPA, Fla. - Tampa Bay area educators, law enforcement and victims' advocates are teaming up to share an important message ahead of the Super Bowl in Tampa, warning about the increase in human trafficking.
In Pasco County, signage saying "Pasco doesn’t buy it" will go up on billboards and buses, in schools, and videos posted on social media to help raise awareness around the crime.
"With any large event, the Super Bowl included, there’s typically an influx of people coming into a particular. And when you have that, it’s been shown that instances of human trafficking are on the rise," said Stephanie Vazquez, vice-chair of the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking.
Vazquez said human trafficking is any person under 18 exchanging sex for payment and any adult who is coerced, tricked, or exploited for sex.
"I think the pandemic definitely makes it more challenging to spot human trafficking or other crimes of exploitation because we are behind masks and we’re keeping distanced from other people," said Vazquez. She said people can still look for warning signs in other ways. "Look at somebody’s eyes, look at their body language, look at who they’re with and what those relationship dynamics might be and just pay attention and go with your gut."
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and Florida ranks third in the country for the crime. Traffickers travel around so the awareness campaigns ahead of the Super Bowl are in several Bay Area counties. In Hillsborough County, the sheriff’s office and school district leaders shared Thursday how they are stepping up to prevent it.
"We’re meeting with Uber drivers. We’re meeting with the hospitality industry, the adult entertainment industry, the airport. We’re educating county employees," said Sheriff Chad Chronister of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
The Hillsborough County Schools superintendent said they are sharing public service announcements in middle and high schools about the dangers, and they are warning parents to pay attention to who their children are talking to online.
"I think that the more we talk about things we never used to talk about, the more awareness we’ll all have and the more we can protect our children as the days go on," said Lynn Gray, the chair of the Hillsborough County School Board.
Victims' advocates said parents should tell their children how important it is to never share personal information online with someone they don’t know in real life.
Report any signs of human trafficking to the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text "HELP" or "INFO" to 233733.