Human trafficking victims can be hiding in plain sight, even in small and rural communities like those in Southwest Michigan. That was the message Thursday from survivor and advocate Theresa Flores in three presentations in the area.

Flores spoke first at the Michiana Christian Embassy church in Niles, then at Southwestern Michigan College and finally at the First Church of God in St. Joseph. Her presentations were sponsored by the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.

“How big a problem is it?” Flores asked those gathered in Niles. “It’s the second leading crime in the United States behind drug trafficking. A lot of drug traffickers do human trafficking, too. There’s less chance of getting caught and less penalties associated with human trafficking.”

She noted that human trafficking victims are primarily female, most often young, of any racial background and of any socioeconomic background.

“Any kid is vulnerable, whether they are runaways, in foster care, have a single parent or even a rich kid with no support network,” she said.

Flores said the human trafficking problem has only gotten worse with the rise of the internet.

“Sextortion occurs primarily online with nonphysical coercion and blackmail,” she said. “There was a 90 percent rise in reports in 2014-15 and a 150 percent rise in reports in the first half of 2016. Older boys and men convince girls to send them nude pictures and then blackmail them. … Only 15 percent of teens haven’t received sexually oriented texts.”

One misconception people have is that victims are taken overseas, and that’s usually not the case.

“People think human trafficking victims are kidnapped and taken overseas, but only three percent are kidnapped,” she said. “Thirty-five percent are victimized by family and friends and 62 percent are tricked by someone.”

“When family and friends do it, victims have the hardest time healing because they have no support system,” she added. “I was speaking at a high school in a small town in southeast Michigan and a ninth grader told me that her mom sold her to the landlord in exchange for the rent. We find that in rural areas where children are sold for rent or drugs.”

Flores said people don’t realize that human trafficking can happen in plain sight.

“It happens wherever kids are,” she said. “One big area people don’t think of is the public library. Computers are there and most libraries don’t police the computers. Other areas where it can happen include malls, truck stops, stores, schools, hotels, movie theaters and even ethnic restaurants.”

She believes much more needs to be done to stop the demand.

“Prostitution is illegal but 90 percent of the arrests are female,” she said. “We need to start arresting the man and making the penalty larger fines and even a felony. The only way to stop it is to go after the buyer.”

She related the story of a 31-year-old former soldier in Texas a few years ago who had sex with a 14-year-old girl and forced her into prostitution. He was charged with more serious crimes but ended up being pled down to just getting a deferred probation.

“He could have it wiped off his record after 10 years while the victim will need help for the rest of her life,” she said.

Flores spends much of her time talking to a variety of audiences ranging from high school students to law enforcement personnel to health care providers and educating them about the subject. She also holds retreats for survivors to make them feel like a person again.

One of the concerns she has now is the push to decriminalize prostitution which she says is what traffickers and abusers want.

“It does a horrible disservice to teens by calling it teen prostitution when they are human trafficking victims,” she said. “In the U.S., we believe that prostitutes do it by choice but it’s not like ‘Pretty Woman.’”

Now a social worker living in Ohio, Flores has authored two books and created the nonprofit SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution). She also has spearheaded legislation in Michigan and Ohio. The Michigan Theresa Flores Act ups the statute of limitations from six years to 25 for human trafficking. The National Trafficking Hotline is 888-3737-888.