Human sex-trafficking victim shares her story

Human sex-trafficking is largely under-reported and one of the fastest growing crimes in the U.S.

Human Sex Trafficking

THOUSAND PALMS, Calif. - It is one of the most profitable and fastest growing crimes in the U.S.

"Our proximity to the borders and to the major highways and the rest of the country make us one of the key states for human trafficking," said Gerald Fineman, Riverside County Supervising Deputy District Attorney.

Human sex-trafficking is largely under-reported, mostly because identifying victims can be difficult and a sophisticated cyber-underground makes it possible for human trafficking to occur between pimps and buyers.

The Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force says websites such as Backpage, MyRedBook and hundreds of others are used to sell sex.

"These type of postings are everywhere in Riverside County which makes it largely undetected, unnoticed," said Deputy Daniel Engels," Riverside County anti-human trafficking taskforce.  

"And a lot of people don't think it's happening here," Engels continued.

12 is the average age of a sex trafficking victim, but that's not always the case.

Rachel Thomas was trafficked when she was a junior in college.

"He said I guarantee you that I'll get you your first gig within a month, and you know if I fail what have you lost because I'm investing all the start up costs," said Thomas.  "And if I succeed you can sign with my agency," Thomas continued.

Rachel says it all started when she was approached by a man in a business suit named "Mike," claiming to be a top-ranked modeling agent.

She says within weeks of meeting him, she was booked on music videos and photo shoots for magazines, but it soon turned into something else. 

Rachel says "Mike" told her to fill out a W-4 form to get paid for the work she was doing early on.

He never gave the form to any director.

Instead he kept it, using the personal information on it to exploit her.

"He said whoever you tell I will kill you and kill them, and if you try to escape I know where your parents live," said Thomas.

Rachel says "Mike" forced her to meet with clients including celebrities, lawyers, doctors even some in law enforcement.

"Some of the environments he took me to no one knew I was a victim," said Rachel.

"It was only if you had his number and you knew what he did as a pimp that they would know I was a victim," said Thomas.

Rachel lived the nightmare for nearly a year. 

"I went through a period of depression I went through a suicide attempt, " said Thomas.

The Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force works to identify and rescue victims locally.

Since forming in 2010, it's investigated 250 incidents where human trafficking was believed to be occurring.

20 of those incidents were in the Coachella Valley.

The task force has also rescued or identified 169 victims.

Operation SafeHouse is a non-profit organization that works in partnership with the task force.

The organization has two locations, one in Thousand Palms, the other in Riverside.

It offers direct services to human sex-trafficking victims. 

"Some have been on our case load for four years, for five years, because they are just not at a point to have a strong future yet without the support of our care," said Jennifer O'Farrell, anti-Human trafficking director at Operation SafeHouse. 

O'Farrell says pimps lure victims with false promises, gifts, or friendship. She says they typically target runaways and children in the foster care system.  

But it can happen to anyone, in any neighborhood as in Rachel's case.

"That why its such a public concern is that it's becoming a crime of opportunity its becoming more popular within criminal industry, and that's putting the safety of all at risk," said O'Farrell.

O'Farrell says pimps use violence and threats to keep them in the sex industry and are experts at breaking down a victim's identity.

She says prevention starts with awareness.

"A trafficker can be any ethnicity any age.  It's really just being observant, are we being an observant community," said O'Farrell.

Rachel survived her nightmare and started an organization called Sowers education.

"We have come up with a mind control resilience curriculum and we just piloted it with nine sex trafficking survivors at a local group home," said Thomas. 

Rachel says the program is taught throughout Southern California.

She says it's important for others to be aware of the red flags and for survivors to feel empowered.

"They sometimes feel bonded with their traffickers and with ending the game curriculum," said Thomas.  "We are trying to break some of those mental chains that have been formed," Thomas continued.

Rachel says she's not defined by her past and hopes other survivors can reclaim who they truly are.

"If you give these girls a chance everything they have endured has made them stronger and there is always redemption and survivors are a part of the solution," said Thomas.

Here are ways you can help to stop human trafficking:

Trust your gut instincts.

If something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. 

Call The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888 and report what you see.


Educate yourself and those you influence. Some helpful websites:




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