More retailers are becoming a safe harbor for victims of this vastly unreported crime.
By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
Convenience stores are realizing the power they have in joining forces to fight human trafficking.
“The business community, like government and churches, has only recently started to take on the effort. It’s wonderful from a comprehensive standpoint because we need all eyes and ears possible,” said Bill Cronin, commissioner at the Pasco County Commission on Human Trafficking in Florida.
Cronin noted traffickers and victims often frequent c-stores. Red flags might include someone repeatedly buying large orders of first-aid kits, tampons or food orders, or a big group of women who come in to eat daily, but don’t talk.
Selling single cigarettes, drug paraphernalia or single cold beers can inspire traffickers to set up shop near your store and use it for food and supplies, Cronin said. “The trafficking industry is very transient. They will go where it’s easiest to make money and has the least amount of obstacles.”
If it’s harder to find the items/environment they need, the activity will be displaced. “If somebody has to drive a little further, they might not go to rape a girl today. The more obstacles we create, the bigger net we create. You can do that through surveillance, sharing information. C-store video feeds can be the missing puzzle piece for many cases law enforcement are working,” Cronin said.
IN OUR BACKYARD
Clipper Petroleum, based in Flowery Branch, Ga., has partnered with the national anti-human-trafficking non-profit, In Our Backyard, which has developed the program Convenience Stores Against Trafficking (CSAT). The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores and the National Association of Convenience Stores, among others, have also partnered with the organization.
“The partnership is free for any retailer in the country. They send free stickers and signage to put in restroom stalls,” said Haley Bower, director of the Clipper Petroleum Foundation, the chain’s non-profit arm. That’s because the only time trafficking victims are often alone is in a stall, so it’s a key place to provide information for help.
In Our Backyard also provided a training video for employees on what to watch for, and what to do if trafficking is suspected. Clipper is also placing posters in the windows and providing flyers to start conversations with customers. The chain is ramping up efforts ahead of the Super Bowl in Atlanta in 2019.
Bower and Cronin both noted the taboo around talking about human trafficking is lifting.
“One-hundred girls are already sold a night in Atlanta. When big events like conventions or the Super Bowl happen, trafficking goes up by 20%,” Bower said. “They’re not only exploiting children, they’re exploiting our convenience stores.
The transportation industry and NATSO—which represents America’s travel plazas and truck stops—have been fighting human trafficking for many years. Moreover, the Department of Transportation’s ‘Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking,’ includes all areas of transportation—from buses and taxis to airlines and truck stops.
NATSO offers online training and resources to teach the industry about human trafficking and what to do if trafficking is suspected.
“The goal is to be a partner in helping the entire transportation sector prevent human trafficking that happens along the interstate highway system,” said Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman, vice president of public affairs for NATSO.
States have different requirements for businesses on whether posters on trafficking with hotline numbers are required by law and what information is mandatory to include.
Through a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, NATSO has co-branded posters that meet state requirements.
This October, NATSO also introduced a tool kit to help members implement an anti-trafficking program at their locations.
“As part of that tool kit, there is a 50-state chart detailing each state law regarding whether or not you must hang a poster in your business, what you’re required to post and the penalties for non-compliance,” Neuman said.
“I would challenge the convenience store industry, to come together in a multi-state approach (much like the transportation industry has) to share information, and put systems in place so we can make the net a little bigger,” Cronin said.
Gulfcoast Software Solutions’ non-profit arm, Gulfcoast Children’s Charitable Foundation, is offering plug and play data-mining software free to any c-store for the exclusive purpose of tracking purchase behaviors that often point to human trafficking. Email Tim Lindblom for information [email protected].