BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Police in Howard County say there has been an increase in human sex trafficking activity that seems to be expanding nationwide.
In an effort to get ahead of the crime, the county is finding new ways to tackle the problem at its source.
From funding, to new laws, Howard County officials say they are using every resource at their disposal to warn criminals that human trafficking will not be tolerated.
It’s not just undercover ads being posted online, police say they are blatantly posting messages warning criminals to stay out of the county, like officers handing out pamphlets at massage parlors alerting them of the crackdown on human trafficking.
Since the start of 2017, there have been seven human trafficking arrests in Howard County.
Just this past month, authorities arrested two suspects accused of forcing a 16-year-old into prostitution.
Friday, police announced the two suspects have now been formally charged, and police also revealed a third arrest in the case.
“It’s not that unusual, sadly, for us to see someone this young who’s been targeted by traffickers,” said Howard County Police Department spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.
Police say the exploited women’s ages in Howard County range from 34, to just 14 years old.
Victims are often coerced into using drugs, leading to addictions that criminals can use to fuel the illegal sexual activity.
It’s a problem that also appears to be growing throughout Maryland and the country.
In 2015, Howard County police investigated 14 cases, with 17 just last year, and so far this year, 15 cases are under investigation.
Police say they are seeing more cases because they are investing more resources into finding and targeting trafficking on the streets and on the web. Setting up undercover operations on Backpage, a site police say has been linked to prostitution.
“We’re digging deeper to determine if the people involved are being victimized,” Llewellyn said.
Police are also taking a closer look at massage parlors.
This last legislative session, lawmakers made it easier for authorities to investigate suspected businesses.
“They can actually go into anywhere the public is allowed into, those facilities, to make sure what’s going on there,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.
Aside from more policing resources, Howard County has also created a dedicated account to fund victims’ services.
All in an effort to end human trafficking and send a message to anyone taking part in the wrongdoing.
“If you come to Howard County, prepare to go jail,” Kittleman said.