'Romeo pimps': Sex traffickers luring young women by posing as potential boyfriends, experts say

A teen girl who was trafficked for sex in a Toronto hotel room is warning other young women after she was exploited by a man claiming he wanted to date her.

'I thought that's what love was,' victim says after man posed as love interest, trafficked her

A teenage girl who was trafficked for sex in a Toronto hotel room is warning other teens after she was exploited by a man claiming he wanted to date her. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

A Kitchener girl who was trafficked for sex in a Toronto hotel room is warning other young women after she was tricked by a man claiming he wanted to date her.

It's a common way sex traffickers get access to young girls — posing as their boyfriends or love interests and then forcing them to have sex with strangers for money. They're called "Romeo pimps."

The Kitchener girl met her trafficker in 2016, when she was 14. He was in his 20s and pretended he was interested in dating her.

"When he said those words, 'I love you,' I just believed him," said the woman, now 18, whose name CBC is keeping confidential because she was a minor when the offences occurred.

"I thought that's what love was."

He bought her presents, including a new phone and posted photos of them as a couple on social media.

He painted a picture of their future life together, she said, telling her they would live in a big house together and that she would get to meet his parents.

"I didn't have anything, so obviously it's kind of nice when you get the attention," she said.

The switch to trafficking began when she ran away from her group home to be with him. They went to a hotel, where he and another man gave her alcohol. She was then forced her to have sex with strangers in hotel rooms over the course of several days.

When she refused, she said the men took her phone and ID. Then, he hit her.

"They put [their] hands on you.... You're scared, like you're terrified for your life," she said.

She was ultimately able to message friends on social media, using an old phone she had in the bottom of her luggage. She hadn't yet switched her contacts to the new iPhone her trafficker had given her and then taken away. 

Toronto police were alerted and showed up at the hotel room she was being trafficked out of.

The man posing as her boyfriend as well as a Cambridge, Ont. man were charged in relation to the incident. 

He pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking in persons and was sentenced to six years, while the other man pleaded guilty to one count of advertising sexual services and was sentenced to two years.

Now, the teen who was trafficked by the pair is encouraging others who are in harm's way to reach out for help.

"This is happening in every city in Ontario in Canada. Probably any hotel room or hotel chain you will see it," said Jeannette Eberhard, a King's University College professor who studied so-called Romeo pimps. 

Schemes like this are becoming more popular because, unlike guns or drugs, the same victim can be sold for sex over and over again, she said. 

And, she said, once pimps have gotten in their victims' heads, they feel it's a safe bet that their victims won't feel confident testifying against them in court.

Traffickers seek vulnerable victims

The first step for Romeo pimps is luring, when they seek out a vulnerable victim.

This can look different for everyone, said Nicky Carswell, anti-trafficking coordinator at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region.

"He could be at the food court watching a group of girls all buy food, and one girl cannot buy food," said Carswell.

"He could be scouring social media and he sees posts from a girl about, you know, feeling down about her parents' divorce."

The pimp will then approach her, whether online or in person, to make a connection.

The next stage is "grooming and gaming," Carswell said. He buys her things, takes her to parties and creates the illusion of a glamour.

Meanwhile, she said, he's getting information about his victim that he can later use against her.

Nicky Carswell says Romeo pimps will identify vulnerable potential victims, and reach out in person or through social media. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

'Entrapped with no exit'

Next, the Romeo pimp starts to manipulate and exploit his victim.

Often, this is done incrementally, said Eberhard.

He may come up with an urgent need for cash and suggest his victim sell sex — just a few times — to get him out of a tight spot.

The process could also be more aggressive, with the pimp saying that none of the previous gifts were free — and that she now owes him, said Carswell.

"These things happen step by little step, until she finds herself typically entrapped with no exit," said Eberhard.

The trafficker may have introduced her to drugs. Often, he will have isolated her from her social network and might have convinced her that her friends and family no longer care about her.

Sometimes he might directly threaten her as well as her friends or family, claiming he knows details about them that make the family vulnerable.

'Doesn't have to be your life'

Eberhard said she wants the public — and the judicial system — to know about Romeo pimps, so that they can better understand how girls are lured.

The Kitchener girl who was trafficked says she wants other teens to know this can happen to anyone, and that the most important thing is to get help. 

In the future, she said she wants to write a memoir about her experience, to study social work and foster kids who've grown up in care, or have been trafficked.

"These girls mean something to someone," she said. "I'm someone's kid, and it happened to me."

"If it does happen, you're not less ... anyone that thinks you're less is wrong."

For now, she said she wants girls who may be being trafficked to know that the experience doesn't have to define them — and that help is out there.

"This doesn't have to be your life," she said. "You're gonna be stronger from it, and you could make it out."

A survivor of human trafficking says she wants others who've been trafficked to know that the experience doesn't have to define them, and that help is available. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)