Ron Hosko, the assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, tells NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday that the Internet has become a key tool for recruitment of child prostitutes and that cutbacks at the federal and local levels have made it harder to clamp down on the problem.
Hosko's remarks come a week after the FBI announced one of its largest-ever sex trafficking stings, in which some 105 children — mostly girls aged 13 to 17 — were rescued and 150 pimps arrested in 76 cities across the country.
The FBI had been monitoring Backpage.com, and other websites being used as an online marketplace for prostitution. Speaking to WESUN host Michel Martin, Hosko says in northern Virginia recently "we saw a group who were recruiting across Facebook, with simple compliments to young girls, saying 'you're pretty' [and] 'would you like to make some money?'" he says.
"The recruitment started just that innocuously, but [it] was effective," Hosko says. "They were effective in pulling in multiple victims [and tried to get] ... many, many more from some of the most affluent neighborhoods in our country – Fairfax county, Virginia.
But, he says, "if someone were to shut down Backpage, there's always the risk that exploiters would ... move into another dark corner of our world."
Hosko says that once the victims are rescued from pimps, they are placed in foster care, group homes and short-term shelters, but he acknowledges that those places can themselves become dangerous.
"I think that we can easily find examples where bad people will come in and try to recruit within those locations," he says, adding that it's difficult to police those locations in the current fiscal environment "where community services are being diminished, where law enforcement is being diminished".
The FBI, he says, has "finite resources", so much of the responsibility of cracking down on sex trafficking has to fall on the communities where it's happening.
He stresses "the importance of communities to find in their budgets, find it in their heart" to address the problem. "As they look at some engagement on the street not to just think, 'well, look at that girl selling herself', because that girl could be a minor."