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Northern Virginia is a hotspot for sex trafficking and for the safety of their own children, Fairfax County residents need to be able to recognize it and report it, according to area officials who participated in a town hall meeting called ‘Human Trafficking in our Backyard’ May 3 in McLean.

The forum was hosted by state Delegates Barbara Comstock (R-Springfield) and Tim Hugo (R-Centreville) and addressed how to identify local trafficking and how to increase awareness about its continuing threat to Northern Virginia communities.

“My office has been briefed by local law enforcement officials about trends they are seeing in the recruitment of unsuspecting minors,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA 10th District).

“Facebook features prominently, as do more traditional teenage hangouts including the malls — like Tysons Corner just up the street.”

According to officials, traffickers, including increasingly local gangs, will target unsuspecting, and typically insecure teenage girls as young as 13 or 14 who are seeking attention and affection.

“These guys are very savvy in coercion and brainwashing,” said William Woolf, a gang detective with the Fairfax County Police Department. “They don’t want to use violence. Their means of power is to get these girls to fall in love with them because then they can get them to do anything they want.”

According to Wolf, the girls then find themselves “ensnared in the web of human trafficking — mere commodities in the hands of criminal enterprises concerned only with the bottom-line.”

According to officials, many organized gangs treat sex trafficking like a legitimate business and run it with financial acumen, using well-established accounting principles that they apply to their trade.

“M.S. 13 ... is probably the worst gang we’ve got in Virginia,” said Wolf. “They have done a cost-benefit analysis and found that sex trafficking of minors is lower risk for higher money than pushing drugs. The attorney general has noted that it’s not just immigrants and illegal residents being trafficked. [Gangs] are dabbling in the people who are born here and grew up here as well.”

According to detective Woolf, a disturbing Northern Virginia trend is that traffickers themselves seem to be getting into the business at a younger age. “We are even seeing juveniles,” he said.

Comstock told those at the forum one such tale, where the boyfriend of a local high school girl wanted her to have sex with other people, but the girl — not feeling right about it — wound up telling her mother.

“That led police to a sex trafficking ring right here in a local high school,” she said.

“Robinson High School a year or so ago, affluent neighborhoods, affluent kids, it was happening there,” Hugo later added.

Fairfax County detectives and the FBI recently uncovered a gang-controlled sex trafficking ring in which teenage girls were victimized and sexually exploited for financial gain by the “Underground Gangster Crips” gang. The investigation showed that over a six year period, inside local high schools and via social media networks, gang members and associates attempted to recruit more than 800 teenage girls to work as prostitutes. The gang lured at least eight juvenile girls and several adult women into prostitution, gave them drugs and alcohol to keep them numb and compliant, and controlled them through violent intimidation including chokings, beatings and rape.

In March of 2012, five gang members and associates were arrested and charged with sex trafficking of minors. Each defendant was convicted of this offense and sentenced to between 10 and 40 years in prison.

“It is important to understand who these girls are, and who they are not,” said Frank Wolf. “… many of the victims in this case were girls from good homes in good neighborhoods. The girls recruited were girls who lived at home with their parents, not always runaways.”

A Virginia bill sponsored by Hugo and co-sponsored by Comstock, has been enacted into law and will now take effect on July 1, making solicitation of a minor for sex a felony. Currently, the offense is only a misdemeanor.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com