PHILADELPHIA (WTXF) - Experts say sex trafficking is now the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, second only to drug trafficking.
A task force has investigated over 60 sex trafficking cases in nine months. The victims are young, the sex traffickers are violent and the problem stretches all the way out to the suburbs. What looks like any other house on the corner of 51st Street and Warren in West Philadelphia was actually ground zero for a big sex trafficking ring.
"They sit in the living room naked," a former patron told Fox 29 Investigates. "You come in, you pick out your girl and go upstairs."
This guy knows all about the house and what went on there when it was known across the region as the headquarters for "The Passionate Touch", a sex for money operation with its own website and marketing plan. City and federal investigators say it was run by three men.
"They got charged with sex trafficking. That's what it was, that's what it should have been. That's what it is. That's what they were doing," he added.
According to a former patron, people would come from far and wide to the house.
"There's two guys that meet you. Either you pay on credit, cash [or] debit." he said. “It was $65 for half an hour, $100 for an hour," he claimed.
"It's supply and demand," said Special Victim’s Unit Detective Kate Gordon. "The demand is there, and as long as the demand is there the supply is going to keep coming."
While the money flowed, so did the sex, around the clock, especially on the weekends, when this former patron says the women were basically held hostage.
"The girls can't come out for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, working round the clock,” he told Fox 29.
"They’re seeking the people who are not strong. They're seeking the people who are not able to say no," Detective Gordon explained.
City and federal investigators say this is a prototypical sex trafficking operation. Young girls are lured in by the promise of a home, money and in some cases drugs.
Our former patron says the girls that worked at Passionate Touch were 18-,19-, 20- years-old. Detective Kate Gordon of Philadelphia’s Special Victim’s Unit says for some women caught up in sex trafficking operations the starting age can be as young as 12.
"Your child could be gone for a few hours and say they're going to a friend’s house when in reality that's not at all where they're going. They're actually at a hotel with four other people and this is occurring," according to Detective Gordon.
Detective Gordon and Officer Ashley Capaldi are among half a dozen SVU detectives and supervisors who have joined forces with Federal Homeland Security investigations, the FBI, the Salvation Army, the U.S. Attorney's office and the District Attorney on a new task force charged with cracking down on sex trafficking, thanks to a $1.3 million federal grant.
"Our number one goal is obviously to recover these girls and get them out of the situation. Also, to go after the people that are doing this to them," Officer Capaldi said.
"We've had cases where forced sex traffickers were convicted and sentenced to 25 to 30 to 40 years to even life in prison," said William Walker of Homeland Security investigations.
Investigators also say they work hard to get young women out of the sex trade and on a better path in life. The Salvation Army plays a vital role in helping women break the vicious cycle of sex trafficking.
"They cover everything from housing, basic needs, clothing, immediate care as well as long term therapy, treatment,” Officer Capaldi said.
Sex trafficking operations are not just confined to the inner city. They can pop up in neighborhoods like this one in the Northeast.
"Human trafficking is one of these types of crimes that is truly is hidden in plain sight," Agent Walker said.
"If you're seeing a lot of people coming and going, pay attention to your neighbors, pay attention to the cars that are coming and going,” Detective Gordon said.
Airline personnel are also being trained to spot young women traveling with men into the city for the purpose of trafficking in sex. Investigators watch hotels at the airport and motels up on the boulevard that are notorious for catering to prostitution. They also patrol Craigslist, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
"Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online, with mobile devices," Agent Walker added.
"Girls are being recruited at high school age by their peers," Officer Capaldi said.
They also had a warning for parents of young girls.
“[Be aware] if you see someone coming home with newer clothes, a brand new phone. Language that you were necessarily aware of before, that doesn't quite make sense," Det. Gordon said.
"Girls that are being recovered are coming from upper middle class homes in the suburbs, coming from families where the parents are loving and they have siblings," Officer Capaldi said.
Task force investigators say the public can help them track down sex traffickers. If you spot something suspicious, you can contact them anonymously at Police_svuhumantrafficking@Phila.gov.