LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Human trafficking may seem like a big city issue — one that's more likely seen in blockbusters than in your hometown. If it was happening here, you would know about it, right? Wrong.
Traffickers and their victims exist throughout the Louisville metropolitan area. They could be your neighborhoods, friends or even relatives — and the stories depicted in movies and shows is rarely their reality.
"I think people have their own idea of what human trafficking is, but...I don't think people truly understand the depth of what human trafficking is and how pervasive it is in the community," said Regina Vargo-Carirro, a People Against Trafficking Humans (PATH) board member.
Human trafficking, the buying and selling of humans for labor, sex or both, is happening here.
"More people are sold than gun sales themselves," one LMPD Special Victims Unit detective said. "Let that sink in for a minute. A human being, a life, is sold. And it has surpassed gun sales."
The detective, who also works undercover for the FBI's Human Trafficking Task Force said he has identified doctors, lawyers, teacher and even parents dropping kids off for practice as traffickers.
"You just don't realize...that stuff [is] right under your nose," the detective said. "Until I came to this unit, and you see how dark that side of the world is...and it's there."
Since 2007, there have been 373 cases of human trafficking reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline in state of Kentucky. Around 869 victims have been reported in those cases.
Trafficking has continued to increase, in part because people do not know how to identify it. Often times, a Facebook post goes viral warning people about an unsuspecting adult who was pushing into a van while walking out of a grocery store.
While those posts are spread by people with legitimate concerns, like your parents or grandparents, they are often proven to be lies. University of Kentucky multimedia professor Kakie Urch is an expert on viral posts, and the damage they can do.
"So far, the word 'trafficking' and 'child trafficking' and 'child sex ring' is now completely associated with the narrative of the insurrection, 'the big lie,' Q Anon, all of these things," Urch said. "So some people and some agencies are afraid to even get near the term, because of the conspiracy theory that's attached to it now."
PATH is working to spread correct information about trafficking in an effort to education the community on both the realities and falsehoods connected to the crime. Incorrect posts spread on social media, Vargo-Carirro said, hinder efforts of actual activists.
"It does a disservice to all organizations. It just means we have to do more work to be like, 'No this is an invalid claim, please don't continue spreading it,'" Vargo-Carirro said. Obviously we cant control what other people do the only thing we can do is try our hardest to be like, 'This is incorrect, please don't continue spreading misinformation.'"
How do you know if a post is real or not? Experts say you should not automatically take a Facebook share as fact.
"If someone you really know is saying that from a first-person point of view, that might be something to take seriously," Urch said, "but if people are just automatically sharing things...it's exponential."
Posts by reputable news sources or law enforcement in your area should be taken seriously. Police and journalists have likely followed up on any "viral" post.
Many social media posts also imply trafficking starts with victims being taken from parking lots or public areas, but that is not the case.
Polaris Project, a non-profit working to combat trafficking, reports that traffickers build a relationship with victims. Often, trafficking can start as a romantic relationship or promising business relationship with a young person.
Children are far more likely to be trafficked by people they know, including members of their own family, than a stranger off the street. In fact, children who are in unstable living situations are more at-risk for trafficking.
Vargo-Carirro, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said she understood that people who go through what she did as a child are more likely to be victims of human trafficking.
"During my healing process, I started to realize I'm not the only one out there that this happened to," Vargo-Carirro said.
With PATH, Vargo-Carirro is able to talk to trafficking survivors. She comes from a place of understanding, helping them process their pain and put into motion a plan to empower others who have faced the same difficulties.
The detective working with the FBI's task force said most recent trends show inner-city youth being targeted.
"You have traffickers that prey on people that are going through grief, hard times, and they'll use it to manipulate children, and women and some men, to get them into that life," the detective said.
Louisville has the most reported cases in the county. Jefferson County's trafficking can be closely linked to other growing issues: rising violence, child abuse, drug addiction in homelessness. Those issues intersect to yield desperate traffickers and vulnerable victims.
"No one wants to have sex with you in exchange for money. As much as they may put on a front that they do, they do," the detective said. "They are in a spot in their life where they feel like this is the only thing they can do to survive."
If you suspect someone is being trafficking, call the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.