PASCO COUNTY, Fla. –- The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has become the first agency in the state to utilize an innovative program program that uses tech to target sex buyers online.

  • Pasco first in the state to use program
  • Targets people trying to buy sex online
  • Florida ranks one of the highest in the country for human trafficking
  • Tampa Bay ranks fourth in the state with highest rates

The Sheriff's Office has partnered with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking on the Trafficking Free Zone program, which uses intercept "bots" and other tools.

"Instead of engaging a victim and preying upon their vulnerabilities, you might be talking to us," Sheriff's Cpl. Alan Wilkett said.

Ads offering sex for money have been posted on local web sites. Anyone who texts the phone number listed will think they're talking to someone setting up the exchange. 

In reality, it will be a "bot" working to find out as much information about the person as possible, including their name, address and where they work.

"These bots are something that's being launched in Florida for the first time to really get a hold of 'What does this landscape look like in Pasco County?' " Trafficking Free Zone Florida Regional Manager Stephanie Costolo said.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida ranks third nationwide in reported human trafficking, with sex trafficking being the most common. Sheriff Chris Nocco said Tampa Bay ranks fourth for trafficking reports in the state.

Costolo said two months of monitoring two sites filtered specifically to Pasco and Tampa Bay found more than 32,000 ads aimed at appealing to people looking to buy sex. She said that showed the demand is there, and that's what this program aims to take away.

"They're not standing out on the street corner – they're using technology," Nocco said. "All we're doing is we're catching up to the technology. We're catching up to what criminals are doing."

Capable of talking to thousands of potential buyers at a time, the bots are also expected to save the Sheriff's Office on both time and manpower.

The program will also include a social media campaign that targets profiles of potential sex buyers. Those ads will send people to a deterrence website that lays out the consequences of taking part in human trafficking and connects them to resources to get help.

There will also be outreach to possible victims. Numbers listed on actual ads selling sex will be used to put together a list of people possibly in danger. Authorities can reach out directly to connect them with services.

The program will go after people looking for both adult and child victims. USAIHT CEO Geoff Rogers said human trafficking is a big problem, but just like other social issues, it’s important to keep taking steps to solve it.

"Maybe we're not going to be able to end every one of them, but we do believe that we, collectively, should be able to end the mass organized rape of our nation's children for profit."

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