Is your teen at risk for human trafficking?

Experts discuss warning signs of human trafficking

Steve Anderson, a SVU detective for Modesto Police Department, and Debbie Johnson, of the Without Permission organization, discuss the red flags of human trafficking in a video made for parents.
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Steve Anderson, a SVU detective for Modesto Police Department, and Debbie Johnson, of the Without Permission organization, discuss the red flags of human trafficking in a video made for parents.

Watch out and slow down isn’t the only warning from law enforcement as kids return to classes for the start of the school year.

The Modesto Police Department also advises families to be alert to a different kind of “traffic” risk: human trafficking.

The department joined with the Modesto-based nonprofit organization Without Permission to produce a video that notes a rise in high school-age victims and provides parents with “tools and advice” to protect their children.

The video, posted on MPD’s Facebook page, comes on the heels of a presentation to Modesto City Schools junior high and high school teachers by Detective Steve Anderson of the department’s Special Victims Unit and Debbie Johnson, founder of Without Permission.

They talked at length with teachers about red flags to look for, said police spokeswoman Heather Graves, and the department believes it’s important to get that information to families, too.

In the video, Johnson goes over some of those red flags, noting that on its own, each might not signal a problem, but a combination of them is worth investigating. “They have an older boyfriend – you have a 14-year old girl with a 22-year-old boyfriend she’s bringing around or talking about,” she said of one indicator.

Others include a youth having a cell phone in addition to one provided by parents, or bruises or other injuries for which the teen doesn’t have a good explanation.

Tattoos or branding can be used to show ownership, they said. Common tattoos linked with trafficking are bar codes, dollar signs, horseshoes and the word “Daddy.”

A change in wardrobe toward sensual, seductive clothing also is worth noting, the experts said.

“It’s better to equip parents with information and let them know what to look for,” Graves said. “They see the kids clearly more often (than teachers) and will see their behaviors. If they’re coming home with handbags, clothing, nails and other things they can’t afford, it’s definitely a flag and is reason to dig a little deeper.”

In the video, Anderson talks about the importance of parents paying attention to their children’s social media accounts and Internet history. Two websites commonly used in prostitution/human trafficking, he said, are and

Backpage is a classified-advertising site that does have listings possibly related to prostitution. Among miscellaneous services offered in Modesto for example, is this one: “Seeking distinguished white business professionals who are willing and able to show generosity. I am a certified, self employed massage therapist, I am mobile, and have a professional portable massage table.” It’s accompanied by a selfie that does not suggest legitimate massage.

Night Shift is described on Google as a “platform to help you find, review and message with your city’s best escorts and massage providers.”

Anderson also warns of Kick, a texting app “that you cannot trace by looking at your cell phone bill.”

He and Johnson said trafficking in Modesto affects every race, every socioeconomic background, “every corner of this city.”

“Maybe your child is not involved in it, but the possibilities of them knowing someone who is are pretty good,” said Graves, pointing out that nearly every public high school in Modesto has had at least one student victimized. Victims may be lured into trafficking through relationships developed on social media, but those victims then may be used to recruit others on campus.

Trafficking affects even families where parents are very involved in their kids’ lives, Johnson and Anderson said. A child growing distant from family is a sign to watch for because traffickers will seek to separate their victims from their families and support systems.

“We know that it’s occurring here, but ... you may not hear about it or see it as much in Modesto because we’re not the Bay Area or one of the large cities where victims are being trafficked in,” Graves said. It’s not unusual that local victims are trafficked elsewhere, so the arrests occur elsewhere.

Last year or earlier this year, she said, a man was arrested in Nevada – the Sparks or Carson City area, she recalled – for human trafficking that included teenage victims from Modesto. Similar incidents occur in the Bay Area.

For a previous Bee article on human trafficking, go to

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327