BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Several times a week, we share a story about a missing child, some whom may be runaways. Those posts get thousands of shares and many times the child is found safe. But even if the child is found, it doesn’t mean they weren’t harmed.

Of the more than 23,500 runaways or missing children reported to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children in 2018, one in seven were likely victims of child sex trafficking.

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If you watched WJZ’s investigation this week on sex trafficking, you may have learned how the criminal enterprise is hidden in plain sight and how it’s happening right here in Baltimore — in our neighborhoods.


Children who are missing, and particularly runaways, are vulnerable and a prime target for sex traffickers. Whether the child lives in a group home, with foster parents, relatives or their biological parents — when runaways leave — they leave for a reason.

Angela Aufmuth, the Director of the Case Analysis Division of NCMEC, said the child could be leaving because of a tough home situation.

“They are looking for something that’s missing in their life,” Aufmuth said.

Traffickers look for anything that’s missing in that child’s life and will try to fill that need. The trafficker will fill emotional needs as well as give the child a place to stay, clothes on their back and food to win their trust.

Aufmuth said it’s complicated situation for the child who may not even believe they are a victim.

“You have someone who’s playing on their vulnerabilities and then the situation becomes complicated,” she said. “If a child has run out of a situation that’s pretty tough, they are still depending on that trafficker.”

She said the kids don’t see themselves as victims but instead believe they are in a relationship with someone — girlfriend or boyfriend — who’s really the sex trafficker.

Moreover, when the child is located, it’s tough for law enforcement to learn about what took place to build a case.

“We hear a lot from law enforcement or social services — a child was victimized for quite some time and then they finally disclose [what happened],” said Aufmuth.

She said for authorities it’s about asking the right questions and looking for physical differences, like did the child come back with cash or with a new cell phone or are their hair and nails done?

But sex traffickers are not only targeting runaways. They will recruit at places like bus stations and malls in addition to online.

Sex traffickers use social media like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat and apps like Kik to reach out to children too. Since kids are super active on their phones, those sex traffickers can start grooming your child from the safety of your home.

So what should parents look out for?

Aufmuth said the key is communication.

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Parents should be as involved as possible with what their children are doing online.

“If they see something from someone they don’t know, ask questions about who they are communicating with and hanging out with,” she said. “Really openly communicate with a child.”

A sign that something might be off: if your child was open with you about their life and suddenly they are more secretive.

Also if they are hanging out someone a bit older and don’t tell you details about how they met.

Teens and young adults feel like they have to be active online and have a presence. But it’s more than just posting, Aufmuth said — it’s about having a sense of validation from the likes and comments they get on a post.

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Social media and apps aren’t only a tool to recruit, they are actually being used for trafficking children.

Shockingly, Aufmuth said kids are being sold on apps like Letgo: ‘it’s not your standard online ad providers.”

Instagram and Facebook are also used for trafficking.

Recently, NCMEC has also seen trends of gangs shifting from selling weapons and drugs to selling kids.

“You can only sell a weapon or drugs one time,” Aufmuth said. “You can sell a person over and over and over again, multiple times a day.”

Aufmuth said if you believe a child is being trafficked, call local law enforcement.

“It’s up to us around to pay attention, talk to the child and ask are you OK?” she added.

Victims should tell someone “I need help,” or “someone is hurting me,” or “I need to go to the hospital.”

If you’re in danger and cannot make a call, you can also text “Help” to 233733.

To report sex trafficking, go to or call 1800-The-Lost 24 hours, 7 days a week.

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For more resources on sex trafficking, go to