Human trafficking in York: How to avoid misinformation and identify signs of abuse

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

A quick look on social media might reveal countless stories from women sharing their personal encounters with human and sex trafficking. 

Whether it be wads of tissue stuffed into a door handle or men suspiciously following women in Walmart, viral videos increasingly purport to give viewers quick tips on how to spot human trafficking. But authorities say these videos can be counterproductive, as the actual process of identifying and helping victims is more nuanced.

“There is an agency called QAnon who is responsible for a lot of these,” said Crystal Perry, the human trafficking advocacy coordinator with the York YWCA. “Not only are they inundating social media, but they've actually had a lot of their members call the National Human Trafficking Hotline on multiple occasions to crash it.”

YWCA York in York City, Friday, July 9, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Trafficking can be compared to “stranger danger” of the 80s and 90s, notable for widespread panic of sketchy white vans parked in neighborhoods to snatch kids. History is repeating, Perry said, and issues around human trafficking are now at the forefront of misinformation campaigns.

“Traffickers don't do the snatch and grab," Perry said. "Traffickers are manipulative. In the seven years I've been doing this, I've actually met one survivor who was snatched. All the rest were trafficked by somebody they know.”

These apparent viral videos showing "signs" of human trafficking, such as toilet paper stuffed into a door or zip ties on a car handle, are not legitimate, Perry added.

And although the individuals sharing these tips might have good intentions, all it does is take away from genuine signs of trafficking.

Over the past five years, there were 876 trafficking offenses filed in state court — with 48% of those offenses involving involuntary servitude, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. 

Lindy Keefe, of York City, pours red sand into sidewalk cracks as part of an art installation of the Red Sand Project at YWCA York in York City, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The goal of the installation is to raise community awareness about human trafficking, while the red sand represents those who fall through the cracks. Dawn J. Sagert photo

While Lancaster County had the highest number of trafficking offenses filed at 30%, York County clocked in at 5%, according to data.

“By sharing the wrong information, it gets the general public looking in the wrong places,” Perry said. “When you're busy looking for things tied to your door knob and people working in stores, you're looking in the wrong area.”

Traffickers don’t discriminate and they’re experts with exploitation. Perpetrators tend to prey upon victims with instability in their life, looking at those who are homeless or suffer from substance abuse issues, Perry said.

People of color and members of the LGBTQ community are also often targeted.

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“There's some little void in somebody's life, and a trafficker being the expert manipulator and exploiter that they are, will pinpoint that void a mile away and move right in and exploit it,” Perry said. 

Anybody can identify victims of human trafficking — they just need to know what to look for, she added.

Victims who have little control over money or speech, for instance, could be a prime target.

Red sand lines the sidewalk cracks as part of an art installation of the Red Sand Project at YWCA York in York City, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The goal of the installation is to raise community awareness about human trafficking, while the red sand represents those who fall through the cracks. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Overnight lodging can also reveal a lot. 

For example, a victim could be somebody who has checked in for a couple of days with little or no luggage with them. On the flipside, if they’re only checking in for 30 minutes, Perry said. 

“Isolation and control is what they’re looking for,” she added. 

How can victims receive help, or how can bystanders intervene? 

For help on a national level, individuals should contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888 or texting “HELP” to 233733. 

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For help in Pennsylvania, individuals are encouraged to contact the York YWCA. This includes individuals out of state seeking shelter in Pennsylvania. 

The York YWCA hotline runs 24/7 and can be accessed at 717-846-5400. 

“You can come here,” Perry said. “We have shelter and counseling. We have legal, we have case management.”

Each case manager works one-on-one with victims in every step of their plan — whether they are ready to escape their situation or plan their future.

In instances with both human trafficking and domestic abuse, victims often develop a “trauma bond” with their perpetrator. This bond can make it difficult for victims to pull away from the situation they’re in. 

Bystanders trying to intervene should focus on remedying the key point a trafficker has used to manipulate their victim. For example, if a trafficker is controlling their victim through drugs or alcohol, a bystander could intervene with substance abuse treatment. 

Jessica Hummel, a human trafficking advocate with York YWCA, currently serves 10 clients in York County. 

“I work with clients who are still being trafficked,” Hummel said. “Some of my clients have left their traffickers. It's taken a long time, and they've gone on to live their lives. They've achieved their autonomy.”

Education can be the most valuable resource to offer to a community aiming to help trafficking victims.

To aid in this, the York YWCA offers training and panel discussions to individuals and organizations seeking to learn more. 

“At the end of the day, I just like to be a resource and a safety net for anybody who is being trafficked or who has been trafficked,” Hummel said.