Residents express concern regarding social media stories of human trafficking

Monday, August 20, 2018

Throughout the past few weeks, social media has brought to light several stories — many unconfirmed — of women allegedly escaping human trafficking captivity. With every new story, the terrifying possibility of abduction fills the minds of women, parents and spouses everywhere.

“As a mom that often travels alone with my kids to doctor appointments in Columbia, it’s a very, very scary thing to think about,” said Marshall resident Shannon Arndt. “(Of course) ... you can carry and conceal, or call 911 ... but you can’t be 100 percent positive that you’re going to be OK, or act quick enough in those situations. It terrifies me to think about how close to home it’s happening and how one wrong move, like not locking your car door or checking your review mirror, could lead to such scary and crazy consequences.”

Human trafficking is no less than modern-day slavery, and it’s taking place right here in Missouri. According to humantraffickinghotline.org, since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received 2,309 phone calls, emails, and webforms that reference Missouri. Of the 2,309 total calls, there were 589 cases, 109 of which were sex trafficking cases, 113 were female and 84 were adults.

“It scares me. I run errands with just me and my kids quite often, and it makes me not want to do that anymore,” said Marshall resident Christy Schouten Norman. “I am looking into mace or a taser, but like someone else said, that’s not guaranteed to stop anything. I will be locking my doors as soon as I get in my vehicle from now on. It sucks that I can’t take my eyes off my kids for even a second while out with them.”

Cases like Christina Squires, of Lamonte — who was followed by two vehicles on U.S. Highway 127, before a passenger of one of the vehicles got out and unsuccessfully attempted to get into her vehicle — or 19-year-old Makenzie Kleist — who was on the way to move into her UMKC apartment when she saw a black truck with no license plates following her on Highway 36 — are filling social media news feeds, leaving people asking, “What do I do if it happens to me?’

“Call 911 or *55,” Saline County Sheriff Cindi Mullins said. “*55 will hook you up with the highway patrol, and 911 will hook you up with the closest 911 center.”

With these stories fresh in the minds of a lot of people, coupled with recent news of subjects impersonating officers on Interstate 70, Mullins said it’s important to trust your instincts.

“We’ve had some stops down on ... the Interstate 70 corridor, because it’s not just happening in our county,” she said. “We’ve had somebody impersonating an officer, who actually has emergency lights on their car. If you’re not comfortable with what’s going on, it’s quite OK to slow down and call 911 ...”

In the event that an individual thinks they are being followed, Marshall Police Department Public Information Officer Roger Gibson recommends taking the following steps:

1. Keep calm - If you see a potential stalker in the rearview mirror, don’t slam on the gas to rush away from them as a knee-jerk reaction. On the contrary, it’s better to slow down because it gives you time to think things through.

2. Pay attention - Don’t play on your phone while taking a stroll or zone out behind the wheel. Instead, keep an eye out for things that are out of place. Make note of pedestrians you pass, especially if someone pops up repeatedly. Look for cars making all the same turns you’re making.

3. Mix things up - If you sense someone’s following you, try a short detour. Turn away from your destination, and then double back. This works as well on foot as it does in the car. If a potential stalker mimics your maneuver, your suspicions may be warranted. If this happens, head to a public place or police station.

“If you think that you’re being followed, I would find a public place and pull in,” Mullins said. “A truck stop, restaurant, anywhere where there are other people.”

In most cases, according tolifeofpolly.com, it is middle-class women who are the primary target for human trafficking. But, there are several steps both women and men can take to avoid being the victim of human trafficking.

Some ways to prevent being abducted include staying aware of your surroundings, allowing a family member to track your phone via GPS so they know your whereabouts at all times, staying in contact with friends and family when you are out alone, keeping your car doors locked, having your keys out and ready — and staying off of cell phones — when walking in parking lots, and staying in tune with your intuition.

“Watch what’s going on around you,” Mullins said. “If you think something is going on, I always encourage people to contact law enforcement if they see something suspicious, or if they have a bad feeling about something, because we would much rather respond to something that ends up being nothing, than have something bad happen to someone.”

While following these steps can help ensure safety, it doesn’t guarantee it. So, Mullins said if you find yourself being followed, it’s important to get as many details about the perpetrator(s) and their vehicle(s).

“If you can get a description of the vehicle or a license plate number (or) give law enforcement an idea of how many people there is in the car, those kinds of things are always helpful,” she said.

While the most recent social media stories involve women being followed in their vehicles, it’s important to remember that traffickers can approach you anywhere — on social media, at school, in the mall, and even outside your house.

Some traffickers might try to befriend you or form a relationship with you so that you trust them enough.

Women can also be traffickers. Women are often used to lure victims because women seem more trusting than men.

If you need help or want to report a tip, you can also contact the human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888.

Contact Whitney Barnes at wbarnes@marshallnews.com

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