Recent indictment highlights how sex traffickers use social media to recruit victims

For 25 years, Breaking Free has honored sex trafficking victims with an annual walk and ceremony. While the St. Paul-based nonprofit's mission of helping women escape prostitution and sex trafficking hasn't changed, the tactics being used to lure girls into the life have.

The recent indictment of GOP donor Anton Lazzaro on federal child sex trafficking charges highlights allegations of what Breaking Free's Flora Whitfield calls a growing problem.

She says traffickers are using social media more and more to target young victims.

"Traffickers and buyers can contact hundreds of women within the hour," said Whitfield.

Lazzaro's co-conspirator Gisella Medina has also been charged in connection, accused of recruiting minors to engage in commercial sex acts for money and gifts.

Allegations detail Medina found and reached out to teen girls on social media, a tool Whitfield says can be used for manipulation.

"If they see a person online, they assume that it is real, that they have these cars, that they have this money, that they live this fantastic life," said Whitfield.

While some social media sites may seem innocent, Whitfield urges parents to keep tabs on all their kid's online activities, especially gaming apps with messaging features.

"If you aren't checking your kid's stuff, they could be talking to anybody," said Whitfield.

The scars left behind by sex trafficking last forever, with many victims dying from addiction, suicide or violence. By increasing awareness and education, Whitfield hopes people will know the signs and eventually be able to stop the cycle before it starts. 

"Whether you've been in one week or five years, 10 years, it's a lifelong journey." 

Breaking Free serves approximately 250 sex trafficking victims each year. Over the last year, 13 of their clients have passed away.

Both Lazzaro and Medina have pleaded not guilty to multiple sex-trafficking charges.