BOISE -- Sex trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It makes $32 billion a year for traffickers, and it's happening right here in Southern Idaho.
We talked to a survivor about how a young woman, girl, or boy can be drawn into that life, and be victimized for years, because it happened to her.
Rebecca Bender lives in Oregon. She's a mother of four, who grew up in a middle class family in a small town.
I wouldn't have been considered an at-risk youth, she said.
But she was a victim of human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, for six years.
Rebecca's story, which she was gracious enough to share with KTVB, is all-too-common.
I moved off to college, and I met a guy who was pretending to be my boyfriend, Bender said. He dated me for about six months, and he turned out to be a trafficker.
Bender says that trafficker used two common tactics to victimize her: Fast-tracking their relationship, then moving her away from her family and friends.
It was hard to identify even what was going on, she said. I kind of lived in this fog.
Bender says her trafficker then used force, fraud, and coercion to keep her in that life. She tried to escape numerous times, but her trafficker would find her. She was beaten regularly, branded twice, her daughter was threatened, and she was sold to other traffickers.
I was brainwashed and threatened to keep my mouth shut, or I would have an extreme amount of harm done to me or my child, said Bender. There were times when I felt like there was no end. There was no way out. There were times I just wanted to die.
Bender says, trafficking is advertised online, so it's happening everywhere there's internet, including here in Boise, where she was once trafficked.
I was flown once by a buyer to Boise, and we stayed at the Grove Hotel.
But Boise Police say this is happening at every hotel in Boise.
That's a fact not lost on Stacey King.
There are a lot of people who are resistant to it, and almost really frustrated to hear about it, she said. It is happening here. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it's happening in the Treasure Valley. Unless we all come together to fight it, it will continue here.
King, along with Jennifer Angelos, is a co-founder of the Ivy Movement, a Boise non-profit working to educate people about the trafficking problem and provide long and short term care to victims.
King says she saw the need while on a trip to the Philippines.
Every man that was purchasing children in the Philippines was a white, middle-aged American man, she said. I knew that if they were traveling across the world to do it, there had to be men in my city that were doing it. Boise, even though it's smaller, has been deemed as one of the safest places to traffic a girl. Becaus, there is a lack of community awareness, there's a lack of funds for law enforcement, and there's a lack of people on the front lines providing services for victims.
Adding to that point, is the arrest and indictment of Taquarius Ford earlier this year in Portland. He's charged with sex trafficking at least three victims, including an 18-year-old woman he met at an Idaho mall. Prosecutors say they seized his memoir, and say it paints a picture of how he lured women in, and why towns in Southern Idaho were some of his targets.
Ford wrote I like playing small rural cities with small populations. I usually hit places like the mall, Walmart and fast food joints to knock a girl. Sometimes it's the clerk working behind the counter or sometimes it's the customer. Whatever the case, I generally let them know that they're so much better than the town they're currently in and how much potential I see in them. I give them my business card and then I show them a few pictures of me with my celebrity friends. I flash a wad of cash so big it could choke an elephant. I then come at them with some modeling or, 'You could be an actress' type (stuff). Within an hour, they're usually hooked.
Prosecutors say after flying the Idaho woman to celebrity parties in L.A., Ford coerced her into prostitution, raped her, and threatened her family if she didn't stay with him.
It's heart-breaking, King said. She also says that's a common strategy of a 'Romeo pimp.' She says, many of the victims in the Boise area are 11 to13-year-old girls who are targeted at a mall.
The victims that we've seen come from every part of the spectrum, added King.
What can be done about it? Both King and Bender say it starts with changing perceptions. Boise Police say they're already doing that, by focusing on busting sex traffickers, instead of arresting victims and charging them with prostitution.
But the whole community needs to be involved by first being aware of it.
It's crucial, Bender said. No one looks for something that they don't know exists.
Bender also says beyond the community identifying it, it's important that victims are recognizing it themselves.
It took me several years to even identify that I even was a victim of human trafficking, she said. I thought, 'I'm a prostitute, and my boyfriend is very abusive.' I believed that for years.
King says victims don't need to be afraid to come forward.
They don't need to be scared of law enforcement, and they don't need to be scared of testifying, because there are people who will stand with them, no matter what they share, she said.
Also crucial, are victims understanding that there is a life after being trafficked. Bender is proof of that. Six years into her ordeal, after an FBI raid, she was finally, truly free. Now, she's a successful author and nationally sought-after speaker.
I'm really thankful to God for restoring me, and giving me a new heart and a new mind. For me, that's where I have really found a lot of my healing, is through my local church, and a lot of counseling, and a lot of prayer, said Bender. If someone's listening tonight, and she feels like she's involved in sexual exploitation, whether that's pornography, stripping, or prostitution... If your boyfriend is forcing you to do that. If you say, 'No, I don't feel like it,' and he beats you, and says, 'It's not your choice.' That is human trafficking. We want to help you reach those dreams and promises that he's giving you, without him. You can do it on your own, and with the help of your family, friends, and community.
If you want more information on how to identify sex trafficking in your community, Rebecca Bender's website has numerous resources available.
You can also take a look at her book, detailing her incredible experiences. It's titled, 'Roadmap to Redemption.' Bender is part of the National Survivor Network.