Human trafficking is a worldwide scourge, and U.S. citizens are the No. 1 buyers into it in the world. Among American states, Florida is No. 3 in the country for cases of it.

It’s part of a $32 billion industry, run by those who work just as hard as law enforcement to stay one step ahead, in order to keep their business going and maintain a roster of 20 to 30 million victims worldwide.

The only thing that can stop this are trained eyes. And the law enforcement community is working to get a message out of what to look for.

Last week, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office brought all local agencies together with members of the hotel and lodging community to share the telltale signs of what human trafficking looks like, and how to safely report it.

“We see traffickers using money and drugs to enslave their victims — not chains,” Sheriff Marcos Lopez said. “Victims don’t recognize they’re victims, or they’re told they’ll go to jail if they tell anyone.”

Human trafficking survivor and activist Cindy Rivero told of how she was pulled into servitude and spent seven years in it, “Until the right person saw me.”

“I didn’t trust the police, because my captors also wore uniforms,” Rivero said, noting that people in jails and hospitals she’d pass through didn’t notice the signs, either.

Part of understanding is teaching the signs narcotics traffickers use to keep victims addicted, and the behaviors of the victims — and the traffickers who work them — that are often displayed in hotels, the fertile ground for where the industry lives and breathes. That was the loudest message of Thursday’s symposium.

“Most victims are locals,” said Sheriff’s Detective Justin Akins. “They may move from one street to another. Controlled substances are what keep them in the industry, along with threats against them and their families.”

Akins noted the industry remains lucrative because humans don’t depreciate.

“If I buy a person for $5,000, I may turn around later and sell them for $10,000 or $20,000,” he said.

Akins showed a video of a victim checking into a hotel, paying cash (it leaves no digital trail or fingerprint) and showing certain behaviors of how they handle the money — putting it on the counter without touching it again, with another person, generally a trafficker or “madam” quickly snatching any change away, and making sure they didn’t talk about what was going on. Rivero said she’d often pay cash for one night at a time, and make sure housekeeping never entered the room.

Female victims will likely not have IDs and little to no luggage for a multi-day stay, and one person will be doing all the talking at check-in, Akins said.

State statutes are moving toward making hotels civilly responsible if they facilitate a case, if it can be proved the staff “should have known” a trafficking case was right in front of them.

“The state has shut down four hotels in the last six months,” Akins said of the law.

If you are a hotelier or housekeeper looking for other references for what to look for, here are some websites with information:

By Ken Jackson