Durham sheriff investigators want people to think twice before using the internet to buy sex at local hotels or anywhere else.
To disrupt that trade, they set a trap early this month. Undercover investigators posed as local sex vendors online, posting fake ads on websites to draw buyers in.
After men fell for the scheme, investigators arranged to meet each of them in a Durham hotel, where 18 men were arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution on Feb. 7.
That was a record number of such arrests in one day in Durham and one of many online operations intended to deter human trafficking and prostitution statewide.
“We’re using all the resources that we can to look into these issues and figure out a way to stop them or slow them down,” said Capt. Jimmy Butler of the Durham County Sheriff Office’s criminal investigations division.
After responding to online advertisements posted by undercover agents, suspects made arrangements to meet in a room at hotel investigators declined to name. The men expected to pay for sex but undercover investigators arrested them instead, said AnnMarie Breen, the sheriff’s public information officer.
The ages of the men ranged from 21 to 64 years old. One third were from Durham, with the rest from elsewhere in the Triangle or beyond. Suspects were given a court date and released.
Butler said there are no concerns of entrapment in these operations because investigators do not recruit people to do something they would not have done on their own. Instead, undercover officers wait for people to reach out.
The partly virtual raid was coordinated between the local sheriff’s office and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking unit. This was the first investigation of its kind for the Durham sheriff’s office.
Such operations against sex trafficking can take two approaches: demand reduction, such as the Durham action, and outreach to people trafficked into prostitution, said Carl Wall, special agent in charge of the SBI unit.
In a demand-reduction operations, undercover agents pose online as sex sellers to arrest people attempting to solicit prostitution.
In outreach operations, undercover agents pose as sex buyers. The goal is to rescue people, usually women, from sex traffickers who coerce them to work as prostitutes.
Investigators are placed outside a meeting place to look for traffickers to arrest. Social service professionals go inside to meet the sex workers to offer help. Services may include temporary housing or assistance in returning to their families, Butler said.
Throughout his 26-year career in law enforcement, Wall has never seen a more manipulative crime than human trafficking, he said.
“Until this assignment, I had never seen the violence, both physical and mental, the sickness and the controlling that a trafficker has over a victim,” Wall testified before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security in 2019.
Wall is the only full time SBI agent who focuses on human trafficking. The SBI has 14 agents trained in investigating human trafficking assigned throughout the state. However, that is their secondary duty, meaning that each officer has a different primary responsibility, whether that be on narcotics or homicide teams, that is their main area of investigation.
One of these agents is assigned to Durham County, with a primary focus on drug investigations. With that agent’s interest and relationship with the local sheriff’s office, the two agencies decided to conduct an investigation together, Wall said.
The tactic of using online websites and advertisements to catch traffickers is something that has been used in previous cases throughout the state.
“In our society, everything’s online. So we utilize that for us to do our types of investigations. We’ll go online, whether we’re posting ads, as a decoy, undercover female, attracting the males, or as the males, you know, reaching out to the girls,” said Wall.
Another tactic to fight human trafficking is through advertisements in liquor stores and other locations across the state. Posters feature a hotline number, 888-373-7888, where people can ask for help or share a tip.
“We would rather have 100 false tips than one missed tip,” Breen said.
Unrelated to these operations work, Polaris, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking, ranks states based on their criminal-record relief for trafficking survivors. North Carolina ranked 21 out of 40 states assessed.
North Carolina has stricter laws that other states relating to the level of evidence people have to provide in court to show that they were victims of human trafficking, for example, Polaris found. The state also does not protect a victim’s confidentiality in court.
Under existing state law, if a woman was charged as a prostitute, it is hard to expunge this criminal record, according to Wall. In North Carolina, one specialized court — in Cumberland County — focuses on human trafficking cases.
However, Breen has noticed a cultural shift in the way law enforcement the court system and the public think about women working in the illegal sex trade in recent years. Rather than viewing them as criminals, people recognize many as victims
“That has that has really opened up the lines of communication and when people see things like the things that they are suspicious of, they’re more open to calling us now because the stigma has been lessened,” said Breen.
Correction: This story was modified to say undercover investigators posted fake ads, not websites, to pose as sex vendors online.