Cambridge police were scrambling to investigate the disappearance of 23-year-old Olivia Ambrose when a text message went viral. The message claimed Uber drivers were operating a sex trafficking ring, drugging women with tainted water or candy and subsequently pimping them out. Cambridge police denied a connection to the Ambrose case as well as the existence of such a ring in the Boston area, but the possibility of the messages being true brought sex trafficking back into the public eye. While the Uber ring may have been fake, human trafficking in Massachusetts is very real.
In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 81 calls and had 36 reported cases of human trafficking in Massachusetts. This included a ring of four massage parlors in Boston and neighboring cities that provided sexual favors to clients with victims trafficked from Flushing, NY. There is an average of 9,000 searches a day in Boston regarding purchasing sex. Many of these locations are brothels disguised as spas or massage parlors.
Further trafficking happens under the disguise of a relationship. Male partners prey on women, grooming them with false affection and affirmation, before turning to selling their partner's body. Women are prostituted out of hotel rooms by partners they believed they could trust. Others are kidnapped and forced into the practice against their will. Besides close relationships, trafficking rings disguised as au pair or hostess businesses lure in women from abroad. Women are hired and then trapped in a cycle of abuse where they’re prevented from leaving due to threats of violence or financial dependency.
All three of these trafficking rings can be found in the United States, with big states like California and Texas, as well as less populated states like Ohio and Michigan, having the highest amounts of activity. In Massachusetts, trafficking saw a decrease in 2018 after steadily climbing over the previous five years. Much of this is due to a concerted effort by law enforcement, as well as in the business community, to crack down on sex trafficking. But the industry is still prominent in the United States, and perpetrators are updating their tactics for the digital age.
A study by the University of Toledo found that traffickers are turning to social media platforms, such as Facebook and Tinder, to lure women into the industry. By preying on vulnerable women and grooming them with compliments, traffickers develop a rapport with their victims. They then kidnap the women and pimp them out, often operating out of hotel rooms. Given these digital developments, the use of Uber to lure victims wouldn’t seem beyond the pale for traffickers.
However, this isn’t quite the case. In fact, Uber drivers in Atlanta are being educated on potential warning signs for human trafficking in advance of Super Bowl Sunday. Atlanta is the No. 1 city for human trafficking in the United States, with $290 million being spent on it in 2018. Major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup, and NBA All-Star Weekend only increase trafficking activity. Warnings have been issued on transport rails in the Atlanta airport, and law enforcement officials are cracking down on potential activity. For many, these sporting events signify the culmination of a season of hard fought games or matches, but they mean a potential hotbed of activity and violence for the victims of human trafficking.
Turning back to Massachusetts, the decrease in trafficking from 2017 to 2018 is a positive sign. However, this reduction is the result of increased focus by law enforcement and the greater Boston community. The new year brings new focus as well as new challenges, meaning past efforts cannot falter. For numbers to continue declining in Massachusetts, officials and citizens both need to continue to pay attention to this issue. For every non-connection, like with Olivia Ambrose, there’s a potential ring that hasn’t yet been broken up.
Women, in particular, should be wary of ads for jobs that seem too good to be true or grooming behavior that can lead to precarious and violent trafficking situations. Both men and women alike can get involved with groups like Polaris Project, which seek to report and prevent further human trafficking. It’s disheartening to know that this form of slavery still exists in America in 2019, but with proper vigilance and passion to the cause, justice can be served and liberation brought to those still in chains.