Victims, survivors and others wishing to connect with the national human trafficking hotline can send a text to "BeFree" or 233733.Rescuing a victim of human trafficking may come down to a text message.
Polaris Project, a non-profit group that runs the national human trafficking hotline, begins accepting text messages Thursday in an effort to expand its reach. Victims, survivors and others wishing to connect with the group's staff can send a text to "BeFree" or 233733.
"Victims of trafficking are often heavily controlled, and in this kind of environment being able to send a silent text message could be their primary access to getting help," said Sarah Jakiel, deputy director of Polaris Project.
Human trafficking is a fast-growing industry defined by the State Department as the recruitment, transportation or harboring of people by means of deception or coercion. Victims, often mentally and physically abused, can be forced into prostitution, unfair working conditions or other exploitative situations.
In many cases, victims communicate with exploiters, clients and even family members and friends via text messages but are unable to make phone calls because of privacy issues or cost, Jakiel said.
About a year ago, Polaris started talking about how to reach more clients through their phones.
The system is simple. A person sends a text to 233733 and the message pops up on a computer screen at Polaris Project. An employee can talk with the person to determine his or her needs, point out resources and in some cases notify law enforcement officials.
Polaris Project has received more than 70,303 calls and 5,600 e-mails since December 2007. It's received more than 2,000 Web form submissions since January 2011. Adding text messaging to the hotline will "dramatically expand the way we are able to interface with victims," Jakiel said.
In a survey of 60 child survivors of sex trafficking by Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, 73% of children said they had a cellphone while they were being exploited and 69% said they used texts to communicate with trafficking clients.
"Technology is playing an increasingly prominent role in the sexual solicitation of children, whether it's children being sold online or child pornography," said Julie Cordua, executive director of Thorn.
Bridgette Carr is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and director of the school's human trafficking clinic, where law students provide legal assistance to victims. She knows first hand the impact Polaris' texting effort might have.
"I can definitely think of clients who eventually made the call for help but if they had the option to text would have done it sooner," she said, adding that at least one woman had to wait for her traffickers to leave the home where she was held captive as a domestic servant before calling for help.
Key to the new texting effort will be making sure victims are aware the hotline exists, that texting is an option and that more technological solutions will come, Carr said.
"Traffickers are way out ahead of us on using technology to exploit people," she said. "We have a lot of catching up to do."
(Polaris Project's national trafficking hotline number: 1-888-373-7888, e-mail address: email@example.com, online form: polarisproject.org/report-a-tip)