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Pasco Deputies Fighting Sex Trafficking With Intercept Bots

Pasco County Sheriff's Office/Facebook

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office says it’s the first law enforcement agency in Florida to partner with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking to use new software to catch people soliciting sex online -- particularly those looking for child victims.

The TraffickingFree Zone pilot program launched recently in Pasco and already other Tampa Bay area counties are expressing interest.

"So we would expect within maybe a few months the TraffickingFree Zone program will be an entire Tampa Bay initiative going on across at least all three counties,” said Jeff Rogers, CEO of the Tampa-based Institute.

Instead of setting up sting operations -- which are “a very valuable operations but intensive for manpower hours and the cost of it,” said Sheriff Chris Nocco -- deputies are placing fake ads on prominent sex trade websites to collect data about buyers. The source code behind the ads was created by Seattle Against Slavery.

The ads also direct potential buyers to intercept bots that engage them in conversation.

"If you're going to buy sex in Pasco, this is your buyer beware warning,” said Cpl. Alan Wilkett, who heads up Pasco's human trafficking task force. “Instead of engaging a victim and preying on their vulnerabilities. You might be talking to us."

In the past, investigators posed as children in chatrooms, messenger apps and social media platforms.

“The bot can talk to thousands of buyers at the same time and collect data on all of it and that really frees up a lot of time and money for the sheriff's office,” said TraffickingFree Zone Florida Regional Manager Stephanie Costolo.

Pasco County taxpayers are not paying for this initiative. It’s being funded by the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.

“So with this particular program we are privately funded by individuals and foundations across the country that want to stop sex trafficking,” Rogers said.

Research on Pasco’s sex trafficking business started months back. The program started by counting ads on two major websites that catered to clients specifically in Pasco County and the Tampa Bay area.

In just a two-month period, PCSO and the Institute counted more than 32,000 ads. Now the county is sifting through the data to better understand sex trafficking locally. 

Nocco said the bots will work on their behalf all day, every day.

“It is not entrapment,” Nocco said. “These people have taken several steps along the process to try to date or have sex with an underage child.”

“[The technology] now allows us to target who the people are that we should be going after. They're already committing crimes. Now we just work with the prosecutors and it's a much, much easier case for us.”

The Institute conservatively estimates that 100,000 children are trafficked for sex in the United States every year. Florida consistently ranks in the top three states in the nation for the number of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and the Tampa Bay region ranks fourth in the state.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.