The sex trade is one of the oldest crimes in the books, and it wasn’t long ago that you could find women walking the streets of downtown Billing selling sex.
“Montana, Minnesota Avenue…very notorious for being the rough part of town,” said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John. “Back then you could see it. You could see the prostitute on the street. You could see the pimp driving around, and you could see the cars and the Johns that were stopping to talk to the girls."
St. John has been with the Billings Police Department for over 30 years, and back in those days he was just a young patrol cop working the downtown streets.
He remembers public outcry about the illegal activity at the time.
“There was a concern and a hue and cry about that,” said St. John. “The police department really worked hard to eradicate some of that, (then) they moved indoors, and more recently they’re online and on computers."
FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter has worked on human trafficking cases for the last several years.
He said its websites like Backpage.com and app’s like Tinder that act as the new frontier for sex trafficking.
Backpage.com is a website modeled similarly to Craigslist.
Last year, the CEO of Backpage was arrested on multiple pimping charges, after a years long investigation concluded the site's “escort” section was for the sole purpose of buying and selling sex.
“I can log into Backpage and see the five girls that are going to be in Billings tonight,” said Walter. “Any given night there are at least five girls in Billings whose sexual services are for sale per night."
Walter said that number goes up exponentially when there is a big event like a concert in town.
Billings sees three times the amount of human trafficking activity than any other city in Montana.
He also said one reason for the high volume of women in the area is price.
You can make three times the money for a 30 minute session in Billings than you can in a bigger city like Seattle or Denver.
Tinder, on the other hand, is a dating application you can download on your cell phone.
Users can view photos and start private conversations with others based on their location.
“With Tinder, it would be a way to advertise a juvenile,” said Walter. “Law enforcement would never see the communication."
Walter said these types of websites and applications are not just a mode for selling services, they are a way traffickers are recruiting their victims.
“Our youth are splashing their vulnerabilities all over their social media and this is where the traffickers are looking for them,” said Georgia Cady, who heads the Human Trafficking program at Tumbleweed.
Tumbleweed is a non-profit organization that helps homeless and at-risk youth.
The organization received a grant in October 2015 to start a human trafficking program.
Initially, the grant was going to go mostly to public awareness campaigns, but since it went into effect, their focus has shifted to victim services with a unexpectedly high number of victims coming forward.
“We’ve seen just under 70 cases since December 2015,” said Cady. “These are young ladies and young men from Montana, from Billings, they’re your neighbors."
While many of the victims Cady has worked with were runaway or vulnerable youth, that has not been the case for all of the victims.
“Certainly some of the victims that we’ve worked with, their trafficking began while they still lived at home, still lead a normal life, were on the basketball team, the cheerleaders, good students,” said Cady. “So it’s happening in our high schools."
When the FBI identifies young victims - sometimes as young as 12 - being sold as a way to pay some sort of debt to a pimp, they define that as "survival sex."
Maybe more frightening is the 36 percent of victims who are trafficked by a direct family member, often for a similar reason.
“We do have those whose parents, grandparents, grandmothers and mothers would give them to the landlord to pay their rent every month," Cady said.
Experts say education is the most important way to combat the problem, and Special Agent Walter said it starts with how we think of the young girls and women involved.
“I have taken the word prostitute out of my vocabulary,” said Walter. “In my experience, what we’ve found is we’ve never come across a victim where that was the case, where she woke up one morning and decided, ‘What I’m going to do is I’m going to have sex with someone for money.’”
To learn more about the human trafficking problems facing our state, you can attend the free three-day seminar at MSU-B which starts on Monday.
For more information on the seminar, click here.
Watch Part II of the series Monday at 10.