While a global pandemic has interrupted every part of daily life, unfortunately, COVID-19 has actually accelerated the impact of human trafficking.
Across the U.S., including the Deep South, this illegitimate business is booming.
“There’s an uptick of human trafficking since COVID-19,” confirmed Richard Schoeberl, the U.S. Investigations team leader for Hope for Justice, a worldwide nonprofit that bases its American operations in Nashville, Tennessee. “We’ve rescued twice as many victims during the pandemic than in the six months before.”
Doing More Today profiled Hope for Justice in a 2019 investigation of human trafficking. Regions Bank was the first American bank to collaborate with Hope for Justice’s investigative team, which works with national, state and local law enforcement to rescue and restore the lives of girls and women who have been trafficked – while helping prosecute those who do them harm.
With trafficking producing an estimated $150 billion in illegal funds each year, financial institutions are uniquely equipped to recognize suspicious behavior and raise awareness of the crime.
Recently, Regions earmarked $50,000 for Hope for Justice’s rescue program. According to Schoeberl, the funds have helped his team solve several high-profile cases in Middle Tennessee alone. Among recent cases:
- In Nashville, a 23-year-old woman was rescued by Hope for Justice from a property where she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted and held against her will. She reached out to the Hope for Justice team, which located and rescued her. She’s now at home, with her parents, recovering.
- In another case, a 22-year-old woman had been trafficked and forced into prostitution at hotels in the Nashville area. Hope for Justice investigators arranged a rescue and placed her in a safe house.
- A 16-year-old female was found by Hope for Justice investigators just 48 hours after being reported missing. She had been taken to the home of a man 10 years older, who was a known felon. But now, she is safely back with her family.
- A woman trained by Hope for Justice to spot the signs of human trafficking came across a livestream on social media that she believed showed the sexual exploitation of a 15-year-old girl. As a result, the teen was rescued, and the man involved was charged with sexual assault, exploitation of a minor and child pornography.
- Six women were rescued from two Tennessee brothels disguised as massage parlors. Investigators worked with law enforcement to provide surveillance on the parlors, leading to a raid that shut down the businesses and arrests.
“Regions believes this relationship and support is important because of the unique, positive impact Hope for Justice has on victims, their families, and the broader community where our customers and associates live and work,” said Jim Phillips, compliance intelligence officer for Regions.
A longtime federal prosecutor, Phillips said Hope for Justice brings expertise, experience and commitment, which complement ongoing efforts to fight crime.
“The result is successful community partnerships with local, state and federal law enforcement,” Phillips said. “This saves victims, while the training and awareness initiatives they offer actively reduce human trafficking.”
Schoeberl said during the pandemic, criminal enterprises have been emboldened because they exploit those who are most economically challenged.
We’ve rescued twice as many victims during the pandemic than in the six months before.
Richard Schoeberl, U.S. Investigations team leader for Hope for Justice
“These enterprises are targeting the most vulnerable and grooming those who are spending more time online due to the pandemic restrictions,” he warned. “This is the perfect environment for human traffickers to flourish. Children are spending more and more time online, typically unsupervised, and the traffickers have the perfect recipe to groom and take advantage of those in isolation.”
As a result, Hope for Justice and law enforcement have seen increases in cyber-trafficking, sextortion, live-streaming abuse and grooming for sexual purposes.
The grant from Regions allows Hope for Justice to focus on rescuing more survivors. The crime may be more prevalent. But the resources to fight it are growing, too.
“Thanks to Regions, we can allocate more funds and expand investigative efforts,” Schoeberl said.