Virginia nonprofit uses Freedom Signal technology to rescue sex workers
WASHINGTON - Brand-new numbers on human trafficking in 2022 show there were more than 148,000 online ads for sex services places in a 50-mile radius of Reston, Virginia.
According to data provided by Fairfax County non-profit RESET180, that number is up from 19,873 in 2019, 92,883 in 2020, and 121,783 in 2021.
"I was stunned. I knew it was going to be more but to see 148,000 plus of these ads online of people sold for sexual services online, it was gut-wrenching," said Kim Luckabaugh, executive director of RESET180.
"We don’t think of it being in our own backyard, but it is very much a local issue."
Because of duplicates, Luckabaugh says that 148,000 is roughly 43,000 individual human trafficking victims.
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RESET180 uses a high-tech program called Freedom Signal to scrub the internet for sex trafficking ads in a specific area. RESET180 is the only group using it in Northern Virginia.
"Disrupting the demand is where this technology assists us," Luckabaugh explained. "We can actually go in and identify certain numbers within a certain mile radius of our office and reach out to them through this technology."
Cindy De Haan is one of the group’s many trained volunteers. She and others use data provided by Freedom Signal to directly text the women being advertised to provide sexual services. They offer help and resources in the form of basic needs, help with finding a job, therapy, and nearly anything else.
De Haan says that oftentimes people shut them down immediately in texts. Occasionally, they suspect they’ve reached the actual trafficker and not the victim. However, sometimes people are open to accepting help.
"Sometimes people will say sure, or some people will say ‘yes,’" De Haan said. "We try to meet those basic needs then if they say, 'yes I'm interested,' we say ‘great.’"
Three of De Haan’s text conversations have led to in-person meetings. In all three cases, she says the trafficking victims were very hesitant and anxious, but they all shared their personal stories. One of those victims accepted help and is out.
"These are women who are trapped in those businesses, Luckabaugh said. "Their passports and visas are being withheld. They can't leave, and they are being forced to provide these sexual services."
She also says many traffickers force their victims to work at illicit massage businesses. RESET180 identified dozens of them in Fairfax County. Specially trained volunteers like De Haan will go twice a month to these businesses to subtly approach people going inside and ask them if they know what is happening inside the doors.
"The hope was that we were at least interrupting the business there for an hour or more," De Haan said.
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Luckabaugh says there are tell-tale signs of an illicit massage business. Often the shades are drawn, and there’s a neon "open" sign and stock photos in the front window. She also says there will be a camera pointing at the door and then a second door with a doorbell.
RESET180 works with local police departments and the FBI to pass on tips and help them build cases.
The Washington Field Office of the FBI told FOX 5 in an email: "In the case of sex trafficking, we determine if the alleged commercial sex acts are being induced by force, fraud or coercion or if the person induced to perform the acts is under the age of 18. If either case is found to be true, the FBI will initiate a human trafficking investigation."
Luckabaugh says the D.C. area is a hot spot because it is a high-density transportation hub. Its position along Interstate 95 and the region’s three major airports all contribute.
Anyone who is a victim of trafficking can find help via the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text: 233733