Is Your Teen for Sale Online?

Online prostitution and sexual predators are more common than you think -- and these women want something done to stop it.
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A Danger on the Rise

On Craigslist, a mainstream Web site of classified ads, a few clicks of a mouse let you locate a nearby estate sale, find a plumber...or hire a teenager named Zoey to "play with you," as she says in her "erotic services" posting. Shocked? Well, such sordid new online services are now found across the nation. Zoey claims to have a "body made for sin" and asks potential clients to make a "suggested donation" of $180 for a half hour of her time. While she claims she's 18 -- "a fun-loving barely legal teen," one ad says -- she looks younger. Photos show her sitting on a bed, wearing red Hello Kitty panties and clutching a floppy-eared stuffed bunny.

The use of the Internet to exploit girls like Zoey is "a growing trend," says the FBI's John Gillies, recently chief of the bureau's violent crimes section. In this country as many as 200,000 youngsters annually are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation, according to a Department of Justice-sponsored study. The victims come from diverse backgrounds: Gillies points out that of some 900 cases reported between 2005 and 2006 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 42 percent involved white girls, 33 percent African Americans, 16 percent Hispanics, and 1 percent each Asians and Native Americans.

Girls snared by the Internet include some from middle-class families. Michelle Collins, director of NCMEC's Exploited Child Division, agrees, saying they're seeing "cases of everyday suburban girls going online where they're being enticed into relationships with predatory men."

"Technology has changed the prostitution business," explains Lois Lee, PhD, JD, director of Children of the Night, a nonprofit that helps juveniles caught up in this world. This is because the Internet makes it safer for pimps to operate. "It's hard to defend girls on the street where gang members can rape and rob them," says Dr. Lee. "But online pimps can advertise the girls and evade the brutality of the gangs. Business is booming." Exactly how much money is made from online prostitution is unknown, however, because the approach is new and the pimps so difficult to track.

Dr. Lee says most youngsters sold online by pimps are girls. (Most boys involved in this activity operate independently, she says.) Many of the girls share a psychological profile: lonely, vulnerable, and troubled. Some come from abusive families. Using personal computers, they visit online chat rooms and social networking sites in search of compassion and companionship. Instead they find themselves the targets of predators disguised as soul mates.

"Many of the girls suffer from low self-esteem," says Dr. Lee. "The pimp identifies them and tells them he'll take care of them." Once he establishes a relationship and gets the girl to meet him, the sweet talk is over. "Some pimps get girls hooked on drugs or rape them into submission," says Dr. Lee.

Concerned laypeople and professionals are working to safeguard teens from Internet-fueled sexual exploitation. The three women profiled here are committed to rescuing these children and stopping the predators.

Continued on page 2:  Minerva Shelton: FBI Special Agent


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