In November 2022, 44-year-old Carney Turner was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty earlier that year to multiple sex trafficking charges stemming from an underage prostitution ring he operated. According to his federal criminal complaint, Turner recruited one of his victims on social media.
In a more high-profile federal case, Matthew Isaac Wolfe pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to commit sex trafficking charge in July 2022. He admitted that he coerced 15 young women into filming adult videos for his pornographic website, the now-defunct GirlsDoPorn, under false pretenses.
These cases reveal how sex trafficking has evolved in the 21st century. Social media and mobile applications give pimps and commercial sex purveyors the ability to recruit more potential victims and operate larger criminal networks engaging in sex work, experts say.
“It is a byproduct of our connectedness in the digital age,” says University of South Florida criminology associate professor Joan Reid tells A&E True Crime. “It is much easier for traffickers to get access to vulnerable people.”
[Stream episodes of The First 48 in the A&E App.]
In Turner’s case, during a 2020 criminal investigation, law enforcement authorities turned up disturbing messages on the Facebook account of an underage girl in Omaha, Nebraska, according to a federal criminal complaint. In a sworn statement, the minor told investigators that Turner, transported her to various economy hotels in Omaha, where she engaged in commercial sex acts with men and gave him her earnings.
In their Facebook conversations, Turner referred to himself as “daddy,” discussed how much the girl would charge johns and that “she needed to realize he was in charge,” the complaint states. Investigators also discovered ads on sex work websites for the underage girl that included nude photos of her and phrases like, “I’ll rock your world.”
Two women, Julisha Biggs and Sidney Marker, also pleaded guilty for their roles in recruiting and advertising minor females as part of Turner’s sex trafficking conspiracy. Biggs received a seven-year prison term and Marker was sentenced to 15 years.
Reid, who heads a human trafficking research lab, says nowadays sex traffickers stalk potential victims on social media platforms. They typically hunt for teens and young adults seeking attention, in need of financial assistance or at risk of running away from home.
“I have been researching human trafficking since 2007,” Reid says. “The problems we had then have gotten worse. Sex trafficking is not decreasing despite our best efforts.”
Sex Trafficking Is on the Rise
In fact, Reid says, sex trafficking is becoming more prevalent across the globe.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Labor Organization (ILO), the U.N.’s social and economic justice agency, have released reports in recent years showing an upward trajectory in sex trafficking, as well as in prosecutions and convictions against individuals who perpetuate the crimes.
Between 2016 and 2021, the number of victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation worldwide grew almost 24 percent to 6.3 million, according to the International Labor Organization’s forced labor report released in September 2022.
The United Nation’s drug and crime office compiles human trafficking statistics from law enforcement agencies in more than 100 countries. According to the office’s 2020 North America report, the most recent available, the number of victims and individuals criminally charged for sex trafficking rose considerably between 2015 and 2018.
In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, 526 individuals were convicted for federal sex trafficking crimes in the U.S., an 8 percent jump compared to the two previous fiscal years. There was also a dramatic increase in the number of victims from 3,800 in 2016 to 8,913 victims two years later.
Sex Trafficking In the Digital Age
The Internet is populated with websites advertising sex work, making it easier for sex workers and potential customers to connect anonymously and set up dates, John Rode, a private investigator and retired police detective based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida tells A&E True Crime. Rode runs a non profit organization that tracks down runaway teens and young adults who have been forced into sex work.
“You click on the ads and you will get pages and pages of almost and fully naked women, what they are willing to do, where they are from, their measurements and phone numbers,” he says. “You text them, and within 10 to 15 minutes they will respond. They tell you how much for their services and how soon they are available to meet up.”
Financial mobile applications like Zelle, Venmo and CashApp allow sex workers to charge customers booking fees to guarantee they are not wasting their time, as well as weed out any undercover law enforcement officials, Rode says. “Cops are not going to be sending $20, $50, or $100 to set up a prostitution sting,” he says. “These applications are like a security system.”
In order to avoid using their own personal bank accounts, undercover investigators would need to set up new ones under fake names and with funds provided by their law enforcement agencies, a tactic that most police departments are reluctant to do, Rode adds.
Rode’s pro-bono detective work has led him to sex trafficking victims working in five-star hotels, economy inns and storefronts disguised as medical offices, spas and salons in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“In one case, there were a bunch of girls working out of an office in a six-story building,” Rode says. “It went on for six months until I showed the property owner video evidence, and he evicted the business. About a week later, the same group had set up down the street in a fake nail salon.”
Sex traffickers will often use mobile applications that mask their true identities or they have other people book hotel rooms, Rode says. “They are diamond club members because they are spending 25 days out of the month booking hotel rooms,” he says. “They are earning free upgrades. But no one knows who is really responsible for renting the rooms these girls are working out of.”
A recent South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation revealed that regulators in the Sunshine State have issued more than 14,000 citations to 6,669 hotels and inns for violating a state law aimed at cracking down on sex trafficking in lodging establishments. But not a single business has been issued a fine.
By becoming adept at using modern technology to cover their tracks, sex traffickers can easily evade law enforcement, Reid says.
“There is no way that law enforcement can connect the chain to the person who is the true trafficker,” Reid says. “The traffickers understand forensics and analyze all the ways they could possibly get caught. So they always have a front person who takes the fall.”
Why Did It Take So Long for R. Kelly to Be Held Accountable for Sex Crimes?
How Do Sex Traffickers Entrap American Youth?
How Did Ghislaine Maxwell Manipulate Her Victims?
How Lawrence V. Ray Was Able to Form a Sex Cult at Sarah Lawrence College