HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- The Acting Supervisory Special Agent (ASSA) in charge of investigating human trafficking for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Richmond Field Office said they have seen an increase in the number of tips and cases.
"We don't know if it's just that the community has knowledge and now they're reporting these crimes to law enforcement, or we actually have an increase in cases," said ASSA Melvin Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said the majority of the cases they see are around the Interstate 95 corridor and other major highways, and in places where there are numerous hotels.
"I would say most of our cases are sex trafficking. But we do see some labor trafficking cases," added Gonzalez, who said most victims of sex trafficking are citizens of the United States and victims of labor trafficking are not.
In a recent example of the latter, a Midlothian family was convicted in May of forcing a Pakistani woman to do domestic labor at their home for the past 12 years.
"Labor trafficking, it could definitely happen anywhere. It can happen in a hotel or it can happen someone's residence, right," said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said tackling the issue is one the FBI does not do on its own.
"We work with our local partners every day with law enforcement from local, state jurisdictions, other federal agencies. We also work with local non-profit organizations to provide services to our victims," said Gonzalez. "And that's why we have these task forces here in the Richmond division. We have our Richmond Regional Human Trafficking Task Force and it's a great way to engage with the community with engage to engage with other law enforcement agencies."
Gonzalez also encouraged the public to know the signs of human trafficking and call law enforcement if they suspect someone is a victim.
"If someone is not allowed to freely move from a specific job or if someone is observed working at the same location, long hours, extensive hours a week, seven days a week — those are red flags that people should be looking for and should be calling in tips or probably approach that person and ask 'Are you okay, do you need help?'" said Gonzalez. "The thing that we encourage our citizens, for example, if they are working in the hotel industry, they should be looking for signs…individuals that visit rooms that receive multiple guests per day. Maybe, the individuals that are staying at the hotel are not requesting services. Those are the types of red flags that hotel employees should be looking for and reporting these potential illegal activities to law enforcement."
Meanwhile — on the legislative side of things — Virginia lawmakers passed several pieces of legislation aimed at combating human trafficking in Virginia.
This past June, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R - Virginia) held a ceremonial signing for the legislation which includes training for law enforcement and hotel workers to spot the signs of human trafficking and provide support for survivors.
The sponsor of the hotel worker bill, Del. Shelly Simonds (D - 94th District), is also working with students from Christopher Newport University to study what other states have done to combat human trafficking, and determine any of it could be introduced in the 2023 General Assembly session.
At the same June event, members of the governor's new Commission on Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support were sworn into their roles. The commission will make recommendations on how to combat human trafficking and will submit an interim report to the governor in the fall.
If you are a human trafficking victim or have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733.
If you believe a child is involved in a trafficking situation, submit a tip through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s online tipline or call 1-800-THE-LOST.