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Sex trafficking sting shines light on problem in MN, particularly online

An East Metro task force arrested seven people for sex trafficking-related crimes, shining a light on a pervasive problem that has gotten more complicated online.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Sex trafficking is sometimes described as a “hidden crime.”

But, make no mistake: It is prevalent, both with adult victims and minors. The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, for example, states on its website that Minneapolis specifically is “one of the top locations in the U.S. for child sex trafficking,” and that trafficking “affects people from all parts of Minnesota."

“It happens in every neighborhood, in every town in Minnesota,” said Kjersti Bohrer, the director of communications and program development at the St. Paul non-profit Breaking Free. “It does not discriminate.”

Breaking Free, which is survivor-led, has been helping survivors with direct services and housing since 1996. Sex trafficking has evolved in the Internet era, with dating apps and social media giving predators more opportunities.

That was on full display this month in Minnesota, when investigators with the East Metro Sex Trafficking Task Force went undercover, posing as 15-year-old girls with posts on online marketplaces and through popular apps. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput announced this week that law enforcement arrested seven people who solicited sex with a minor, including two cases that involved the apps “Whisper” and “MeetMe.”

“The amount of volume from men communicating with law enforcement surprised even the most seasoned sex trafficking detectives,” the Washington County Attorney’s Office said in a press release.

The undercover sting shines a light on the problem in Minnesota, particularly as it relates to the dangers of social media and online activity.

At Breaking Free, Kjersti Bohrer said parents should talk with their children about what they’re sharing – and how.

“You just need to keep your personal information private online. Don’t talk about where you go to school, or post pictures with your sweatshirt that has your high school in it,” she said. “You want to make sure you actually know the person you’re friending or following on social media… and I think it’s important for children and teens, especially, to learn about perpetrator tactics.”

Once kids can spot red flags, Bohrer said, danger can be more easily avoided.

But it’s all about having those difficult but important conversations with kids.

“We really just have to acknowledge that this is happening,” Bohrer said, “and listen.”