WALWORTH — For human traffickers, the smartphone is the new shopping mall.
People once shopped and socialized at retail malls, and now they do all of that on their phones.
Human traffickers are also on social media, but they are shopping for people who are vulnerable and who can be exploited.
That is the message of Dawn Heath, who will discuss “Social Media and Human Trafficking” at 6 p.m. Sept. 9 at Walworth Memorial Library, 525 Kenosha St., Walworth.
The presentation is free and open to the public.
Heath is part of an educational nonprofit called Join the Movement, a coalition of concerned citizens, judges and law enforcement officers.
Heath is also the family and outreach ministry coordinator at Sugar Creek Lutheran Church.
Her presentation in Walworth was organized by the Fontana Public Library and it includes cooperation from the Lake Geneva Public Library and the Barrett Memorial Library in Williams Bay.
Sally Lee of the Fontana library staff said she came across the issue of human trafficking and decided that it would be of community interest. Lee said she was unaware that human trafficking is an issue in Walworth County.
“It’s an important issue,” she said. “There are people who don’t know about human trafficking.”
Human trafficking, which is generally defined as exploitation of another person for commercial gain, includes prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, migrant labor camps and other variations.
The problem has exploded into social consciousness in recent years as the internet has made it easier for traffickers to find and exploit more victims.
“The tech has just exploded,” Heath said.
Phone apps are designed for fun, to connect people with friends and family. But the technology also gives those involved in human trafficking an edge because they can hide their identities, acting like a sympathetic ear to troubled teens.
“They’re looking for alienated teens who say they hate their parents who don’t understand them. They can be whoever they want to be,” Heath said.
They also prey on people who are vulnerable because of immigration status, limited knowledge of English, economic hardship, emotional instability, or other causes, Heath said.
The predators are patient, taking months to groom their victims, Heath said. The reason is that a person caught in human trafficking can bring their “owner” up to $150,000 a year.
“For them, it’s worth the wait,” she said.
Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld said that Heath is well-trained on the issue of human trafficking and how to prevent it.
“I think that the presentations that Dawn is doing are really important,” Wiedenfeld said. “The district attorney’s office and law enforcement are very supportive of the education that Dawn and her team are doing to get the message out there.”
Wiedenfeld said that Walworth County saw between 20 and 30 arrests last year for prostitution.
“It’s hard to know the level it’s happening in Walworth County,” Wiedenfeld said. “But we know it’s there.”
Sheriff Kurt Picknell said it is important to to educate the public about the threat and prevent the problem from getting worse.
“It compels us to raise the stakes on prevention and education,” Picknell said.
Heath said it is important to get information out the public, especially teens.
“Teens are our best defense,” she said. “The kids see things that parents and teachers might miss.”