Sheila Roemeling, director of Fresh Start Healing Heart, speaks during the Jan. 13 meeting of the Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force. Roemeling is chair of the task force. SCREENSHOT

Hundreds of thousands of people are already working in one of the three most lucrative businesses in the world, one that conducts daily job interviews, with promising positions available, especially for women and children.

The business is human trafficking, the third largest crime industry – behind drugs and guns – which rakes in $1.5 billion dollars each year.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are being trafficked for sex as well as work, and we think about half of them are children,” said Duffie Stone, 14th Circuit Court solicitor at the Jan. 13 meeting of the Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force. The meeting was held at Faith Walterboro in Colleton County and streamed live.

“We meet each year, and every year it’s shocking to me how little we know about trafficking,” Stone said. “We don’t know a lot of things but I think we know about the tip of the iceberg.”

The meeting was hosted by Task Force chair Sheila Roemeling, founder and executive director of Fresh Start Healing Heart, a nonprofit that provides safe housing, immediate needs and restorative services for emotional, spiritual, physical, educational and financial healing, according to its website.

Roemeling opened the meeting speaking to those in attendance from law enforcement, faith organizations, and legal groups, interested community members, and those watching as the presentation was live-streamed on Facebook.

“In our plans for 2021, we will focus on doing more training for each other and in local areas as well as pulling in a lot more members for our committees for collaborating with the state,” she said.

Part of that training includes recognizing those who have been trafficked or are vulnerable.

“Get involved in your community, get to know the people where you eat, where you shop,” she said. “Talk to them.”

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose, including forced labor or sexual exploitation.

Stone said the industry is almost entirely run by organized crime. Many former drug cartels have turned to trafficking because it is more profitable.

In meeting with members of the New York Attorney General’s Office, Stone learned that almost all of the current half dozen to a dozen human trafficking cases were a street gang-organized trafficking operation.

“We’ve seen videos in which gang members have posted really professional-looking videos in which they are showing drugs, guns, young girls, and they’re posting those on YouTube video,” Stone said. “They’re not just advertising. They’re recruiting, and they’re not recruiting just anybody but they’re recruiting our children.”

Stone frequently confers with professionals around the country, seeking the latest tools and methodology to make his own investigations successful.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who is also chairman of the state task force, offered some recent statistics on current cases and known attributes with data from the Polaris Project, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“In the 2020 annual report, 10 different defendants were charged with 13 counts of human trafficking, and eight of those cases were closed in the state court,” said Wilson. “As of the 2021 report, 75 cases are pending in state courts.”

He said Polaris was one of many national partners, one that enables users to track trends using data gleaned from the tips called in. “Not every tip is human trafficking. It might be some other criminal activity, but it is instructive and helpful identifying problem areas,” said Wilson.

A number of factors place certain counties at the top of different categories, but that does not indicate that is where the trouble is.

“Just because a county makes a ‘top five’ doesn’t mean that’s where the human trafficking is taking place. That’s the top five counties from where the tips were given,” Wilson said. “With 46 counties in South Carolina, there could be an ample human trafficking problem going unrecognized yet. According to Polaris, there have been 139 cases reported since the last report, down from 156. There have been 179 victims since last report in 2020.”

Wilson highlighted the following categories related to human trafficking, in order:

• Top five counties: Horry, Charleston, Greenville, Richland, Anderson.

• Top five sex trafficking venues: Illicit massage and spa businesses; hotel and motel-based; resident-based businesses, like a brothel; pornography; escort delivery services.

• Top five labor venues: Hospitality; construction; travel and sales cruises; agriculture; restaurant and food service.

• Top five trafficker relationships to victims: Employee; intimate partner; family member; recruiter; drug dealer or illicit substance provider.

• Top eight methods of recruiting: Job offers and advertising; familial relationship; intimate partner posing as a benefactor; false promise or fraud; abduction; coercion; smuggling-related.

Wilson noted the presence of a local task force is paramount in fighting the trafficking crime.

“The one thing you have to understand is we can’t beat human trafficking from Columbia. The state task force is a tool that we have that allows us to go in multiple counties,” he said. “We can do our parts but we can only do our parts if all of you engage in a task force like this one.”

One of the issues caused by the pandemic was the closing of courts across the state, delaying many cases until such time it is determined that it is safe to reopen for trial.

Stone said there are numerous cases pending on the docket, including a number of trafficking cases. Most of those defendants are being held in their detention centers.

“As a general rule, if they are a violent offender, if they’re involved in something like this, they are still in the detention center,” he said. “While I realize there is a public safety risk with people in small confined areas in the detention center, there is another public safety risk you have got to also prepare for, which is having these same violent criminals out on the streets.” Stone added they aren’t going anywhere until courts reopen.

In response to a question about possible penalties, Wilson was definitive in his answer.

“Penalties for human trafficking on my end are 30 years for the first offense and 45 for the second. That will give you an idea how serious we take it,” he said.

For more information about the South Carolina Lowcountry Human Trafficking Task Force, visit sclchttf.wixsite.com.

If you or someone you know needs assistance or has information about trafficking situations, call 888-373-7888 for the National Human Trafficking Hotline; message SMS: 233733 (text “HELP” or “INFO”). The system is open 24/7 and operates in English, Spanish and 200 more languages. For more information, visit humantraffickinghotline.org.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.