MILWAUKEE - In the midst of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a silent epidemic rages -- human trafficking. It's a $150 billion global industry, and southeast Wisconsin is a major hub. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport features signage that asks the public to "spot the signs and break the chains," reminding that "human trafficking can happen anywhere."
"We have seen an increase in human trafficking, especially online," Melissa Hoppmeyer said.
With children now spending more time on computers and devices, taking part in virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic, concerns are growing.
"When we are looking at the sex trafficking of minors, 76% of transactions for online sex with minor females starts online, so those are factors we need to be looking at, especially with the virtual world we are all now living in because of the pandemic," Kathryn Marsh said.
Hoppmeyer and Marsh, career prosecutors, say kids ages 11-14 are highly recruited — even boys.
"Abusers are looking for people they can manipulate," said Marsh. "They are looking for those who are most vulnerable, and they are smart. They know how to identify ones in a chatroom. I tell parents, online gaming is a huge one for boys."
Hoppmeyer and Marsh also educate about labor and exploitation.
"It's a sharing of a picture, and now, the abuser is blackmailing the child for more sexually explicit content, or come out and meet them outside of their home," Marsh said.
With the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children seeing an increase in tips, Hoppmeyer suggests parents help decrease the chances for potential danger.
"Having an open and honest conversation with your children -- that they can come to you with any issues that come up," she said. "You want to make sure you kids are just communicating with people they actually know."
Marsh says statistics show about 1 in 6 child runaways in the U.S. end up in the sex trafficking industry, so it's important to be aware of truancy, unexplained absences or withdrawn behavior.
If you would like to report suspected trafficking, call 866-347-2423.