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Convenience Stores Tackle Human Trafficking

How retailers can be a vital lifeline for victims

BEND, Ore. -- Video games, makeup and soccer: These are all normal diversions for a 12-year-old child. But there’s a group of kids out there who don’t experience any of this. They are the children who are held against their will for sex or labor purposes.

Each year, an estimated 150,000 children are lured into sex trafficking, according to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. Children aren’t the only ones who are trafficked, though they do make up about half of victims, according to the U.S. Department of State. Nationwide, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are victims of trafficking. About 80% are female. In 2017, 8,524 human-trafficking cases were reported—more than double the number of cases reported in 2012 And the crime is happening in nearly every community in the United States.

Kent Couch, owner of Stop and Go in Bend, Ore., was skeptical that human trafficking was happening in his community.

Then three years ago, he met Nita Belles, founder and executive director of In Our Backyard, a 10-year-old nonprofit that fights against human trafficking by educating communities about the issue. She asked him to display a sticker in his store’s bathroom that offers victims a toll-free number to call and a number to text to get help.

Couch put the sticker up and covered it with a frame so that it wouldn’t attract graffiti. “I was just doing it to keep her happy, because we have a nice working-class store here,” he says. Stop and Go is in what many would consider “a nice neighborhood” and serves about 3,000 customers per day.

What happened next was eye-opening.

“A week later, the frame was ripped off the wall and thrown in the garbage and the sticker taken,” he says. “I hung up a new one, and the frame was again broken and the number scratched out. So that was a heads-up to me that in fact we do have human trafficking here.”

In the 36 months since Couch put the first framed sticker on the wall, he has replaced it about six times.

Fear Factor

Human trafficking is defined as holding people by force, fraud or coercion, and forcing them to perform sex acts for money or work against their will. It is tied with arms dealing as the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world—and it is the fastest-growing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s horrific that this is happening,” says Juliana Williams, program director for In Our Backyard, Redmond, Ore. She says traffickers prey on vulnerable people, including those who have been in the foster system, addicted to drugs, victims of abuse, have low self-esteem or even were just in a fight with their parents. Then traffickers build relationships with their victims, telling them what they want to hear and offering to take care of them.

“They sell it as a party, a good time—but their intentions are very different,” she says.

Once the traffickers have gained their victims’ trust, they start isolating them from their families or support systems and make promises of a great life to come. “There’s some sort of relationship, though it’s not healthy, and there’s often physical abuse,” Williams says.

Traffickers will often minimize the requests they make of victims. “ ‘You’re just going to pose for these few pictures,’ or ‘You’re just going to dance in a club; it’s just this one time,’ ” she says.

Working in the sex trade or in forced labor has pay attached to it; however, traffickers typically take the pay from their victims “to look after it” and keep their victims dependent on them.

Convenience stores, with their network of nearly 155,000 locations in the United States, are a valuable partner in addressing the issue.

“They are part of the solution,” says Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for NACS, Alexandria, Va. “We see 160 million people per day—half the population—so how can convenience-store employees spot something amiss and change someone’s life forever?”

NACS is working closely with In Our Backyard and its program, Convenience Stores Against Trafficking (CSAT), which launched last year.

“If we work with people who are experts in these areas, we can help,” Lenard says. “Trafficking is one of those issues people don’t know about.” NACS is educating its members via its website, magazine and annual conference.

C-stores are ideally situated to observe and detect human trafficking, Williams says.

“They’re a microcosm of a community, and people of all walks of life go there,” she says. “And they’re open 24 hours and may see traffickers more in the late hours.”

The C-Store Industry's Role

“Convenience stores play an integral role in this,” says Mick McKeown, executive director of the Blue Campaign. “There are certain people who know what’s going on in our neighborhoods: the mail carrier, the UPS driver and the clerk in the c-store.” Because of this, he says, c-store employees need to learn the indicators of trafficking:

  1. Trust your gut. You know when something isn’t right.
  2. Does this potential victim have access to his/her identity? “This is the most integral part of this issue,” McKeown says. “Who would give their driver’s license or ID papers to another adult?”
  3. Look for signs in the potential victim. “If you ask them how their day is and they look away or look to someone else, that’s an indicator,” McKeown says.

Convenience-store employees need to listen to and observe their customers, he says. “Ninety-nine percent of your conversations involve the weather, or a local sports team, or a pothole in the road,” he says. “But look out for weird conversations or weird things. Do you see the same truck every Tuesday with different people getting out of it?”

Through the Blue Campaign’s website, convenience stores can print indicator cards showing what to look for in a trafficker, general information on trafficking, numbers to call for help, informational videos, details on training, and statistics to let employees know how endemic this problem is.

That said, the industry’s high turnover can make training employees challenging, says Kevin Brittain, Stop and Go’s general manager. To stay on top of the issue, he reviews signs of trafficking with employees every six months. He talks to new employees about the issue and provides more information at their 90-day review.

Employees are instructed to alert him if they’ve seen anything suspicious. “I tell them to always speak up, write down the date and time and where in the store, so I can go back on the camera and see if it’s something I should report,” he says.

Brittain also encourages employees to call the CSAT hotline, “even if they’re not sure,” he says. “It can make a difference.”

In the store, small tentlike cards sit atop cash registers. In the back of the store and the break area, CSAT flyers explain how to recognize signs of trafficking and report suspected incidents.

Brittain can vouch firsthand for the value of the training. Recently, a woman came into the store with black-and-blue eyes, making no eye contact and with her hood up. “We called 911 right away and gave [her] license-plate numbers,” he says.

“My employees have got to the point where they’re not afraid to ask people whether they want help,” Brittain says. “It’s very awkward, but I would rather hurt someone’s feelings than have [trafficking] be ignored.”


Sex vs. Labor Trafficking: What’s the Difference?

Sex trafficking is easier to spot and identify than labor trafficking, says Mick McKeown of the Blue Campaign.

“Anecdotally, I think sex trafficking is more recognizable,” he says. “But I think you’ll see the trend go to more labor trafficking and domestic servitude.”

Labor trafficking, he says, occurs everywhere. Prevailing industries are restaurants, construction work, domestic work, agriculture and manufacturing. Labor-trafficking victims are usually immigrants, Williams says. A strong indicator for any type of trafficking involving labor is access to identification: Do the victims have control of their own driver’s license, passport or visa papers?

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