Convenience Retailers Are Fighting Back Against Human Trafficking

Greg Lindenberg, Editor, CSP

xavier sotomayor

CHICAGO -- Several petroleum and convenience-store companies and associations are making commitments to Convenience Stores Against Trafficking (CSAT), a program of national nonprofit In Our Backyard (IOB).

In addition to employee training on recognizing and safely reporting the signs of human trafficking, CSAT provides Freedom Stickers with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number to be posted in restroom stalls—often the only place a victim of human trafficking is alone and safe enough to reach out for help.

Sara, a survivor whose story is featured in the CSAT training video, shares how she visited c-stores sometimes multiple times a day while she was being trafficked. “I wish In Our Backyard Freedom Stickers had been in bathrooms when I was trafficked a decade ago—I could have gotten out a lot sooner,” she said.

“Human trafficking—commercial sex or labor induced through force, fraud or coercion—is the second-largest and fastest-growing crime in the world. Traffickers exploit the most vulnerable who live in and pass through our communities, whether adults, teens or children,” said IOB Program Director Juliana Williams.

Each year, an estimated 150,000 children are lured into sex trafficking, according to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. Children 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.

Here are some recent efforts by the c-store industry to help fight the human-trafficking problem. …

Photo courtesy of Xavier Sotomeyer. 

Stop and Go

nita belles

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 Redmond, Ore.-based In Our Backyard. 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 told CSP.

“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.

Clark Brands

human trafficking

Clark Brands LLC, Lisle, Ill., is pledging its commitment to help end human trafficking through a partnership with CSAT to provide education, lifesaving materials and awareness to more than 1,000 locations.

“Clark Brands believes that our locations can join law enforcement, elected officials and nonprofit leaders in the anti-trafficking movement and help disrupt human trafficking,” said Stacey Yimet, CEO of Clark Brands, which licenses the Clark and Crown gasoline brands and is a payment processing solution for more than 1,000 independent petroleum marketers and retailers. “In addition to training our staff, Clark Brands is supporting CSAT with a donation so that this lifesaving program can continue to grow.”

Clark Brands joins c-store industry leaders representing more than 12,000 locations across the United States and the addition of Clark and Crown locations expands CSAT into a total of 47 states.


GACS logo

The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS) is also partnering with IOB on the CSAT program.

“Convenience stores serve half the U.S. population every day, and as community hubs, we have the opportunity to be a part of the solution to end human trafficking by learning to recognize the red flags, especially as Atlanta will host the 2019 Super Bowl,” said Angela Holland, president of GACS.

Joining Holland at an Aug. 10 press conference at the state capitol in Atlanta were State Rep. Chuck Efstration (R); Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations; Belles of IOB; Mary Frances Bowley, executive director of Wellspring Living; Matt Clements, director of marketing for Savannah-based c-store chain Enmarket; and Haley Bower, director of the Clipper Petroleum Foundation and special projects manager for Flowery Branch-based c-store chain Clipper Petroleum.

Belles will be the keynote speaker for GACS’ Southern Convenience Store and Petroleum Show in the fall. An expert in the anti-human-trafficking movement and author of two books on the subject, she is working with law enforcement, nonprofits, faith-based groups and businesses in Atlanta for IOB’s 10th annual operation surrounding the Super Bowl. “Convenience stores have been very supportive of our work for the past several years, and we are so thankful to GACS and all the retailers in Georgia who are making a commitment to stand against the atrocity of human trafficking,” said Belles.

Georgia c-stores are also providing a safe place for a victim of human trafficking to reach out for help by posting the IOB Freedom Stickers with the National Human Trafficking Hotline in their restroom stalls.


CIOMA logo

The California Independent Oil Marketers Association (CIOMA) is partnering with IOB through the flagship CSAT program.

“CIOMA could not be more proud of this partnership and the commitment to eradicate trafficking from our communities for good,” said Ryan Hanretty, executive director of CIOMA. “These small, family- and minority-owned businesses are engrained in their communities and truly care about their neighbors. Our members are ready to lead the fight against the heinous crime of human trafficking.”

With more than 11,000 storefronts along California’s roads and highways, c-stores are in a unique position to stop trafficking on the front line, CIOMA said.

CSAT will bring the latest resources and in-depth employee training in identifying and reporting trafficking to CIOMA’s extensive network of retail operators. By providing real-world training and in-store resources for victims, CIOMA and CSAT hope to provide victims pathways and opportunities to freedom from their captors that would not otherwise exist.

“Awareness is the critical first step in ending trafficking, and now CIOMA joins our goal of engaging the entire convenience-store industry to promote safety and support for their communities by becoming members of CSAT,” said Belles of IOB.


blue campaign logo

NACS is partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Blue Campaign to help combat human trafficking.

The DHS Blue Campaign raises public awareness about human trafficking, leveraging partnerships to educate the public to recognize human trafficking and report suspected instances. It also offers training to law enforcement and others to increase detection and investigation of human trafficking, and to protect victims and bring suspected traffickers to justice.

Through the partnership, NACS will provide training and awareness materials including posters and handouts to members free of charge.

“Convenience stores serve 160 million customers a day in every community across the country,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for NACS, Alexandria, Va. “Our industry is well-equipped to share important messages with our customers so they can collectively create the equivalent of a neighborhood watch program in their communities.”


Convenience Stores Against Trafficking

human trafficking in our backyard

Watch In Our Backyard's Convenience Stores Against Trafficking video here.