Trafficking sting involving girls as young as 16 leads to dozens of men charged
Police make contact with more than 50 women, some as young as 16, involved in the sex trade
A London police detective says he's shocked by the volume of responses from men to a fake online ad offering sex for money. The ad was posted by undercover officers as a way to make contact with trafficked women and help them leave the sex trade.
"It was viewed over 9,000 times over the course of this project," said Det. David Ellyatt, who heads the London Police Service's Human Trafficking Unit.
Ellyatt made the comments at a news conference Friday announcing the results of a multi-force operation called Project Circuit. "We continue to receive text messages to the number that we used in this probe. It speaks to the volume and the demand that is fuelling the exploitation of women in our community."
More than two dozen men were charged in the sting that involved police forces in London, Woodstock, St. Thomas and Strathroy.
Throughout the six-week operation that began in October, police made contact with 56 women and girls, including some as young as 16 years old. Police were able to help two women leave the sex trade.
Ellyatt said that's a good result, given that there are women who are unable to leave on their own.
"Many of them are living in fear, and the control that goes along with this," he said. "What we're trying to do is build trust with them so that they know that they'll be heard and believed. We have work to do on that so that women who are being trafficked understand that there is help out there for them."
Between Oct. 16 and Nov. 23, a total of 25 men were arrested and charged with:
- Obtaining sexual services for consideration (22 charges).
- Trafficking a person under the age of 18 (1 charge).
- Dangerous driving (1 charge).
- Driving while disqualified (1 charge).
- Mislead police (1 charge).
The women that police made contact with range in age from 16 to 41 and include high-school and post-secondary students.
Most were from London (24), while others were from the Greater Toronto Area (11) and Quebec (seven). Two were from Hong Kong and eight others were from smaller Ontario cities.
'John stings' targeted men trying to buy sex
Police say the women were offered help through victim services and local women's support groups. They were also offered backpacks with clothing, toiletries and gift cards to help them get home.
Ellyatt said police plan to launch a phone hotline in the new year that will also help trafficked women leave the sex trade.
He said London continues to be a hub for sex trafficking.
"The operation was named Project Circuit because the region is part of a circuit that human traffickers use. The circuit is really the 401 Highway."
He said the women were recruited in a variety of ways, including the so-called 'Romeo' approach, where men initiate a relationship that starts romantically but so leads to women being force or coerced into sex work.
He said social media continues to play a role in how young women are recruited, and recommended that parents pay attention to who their kids are communicating with online.