TRAFFICKING: CONNECTING IN A CLICK - Internet opens a world of possibilities for pimps; law enforcement, too

Talking to seventh-graders in the small town of Scranton, N.D., this past November, Windie Lazenko told students that even they aren't immune from pimps.

Local, state and federal law enforcement agents conduct a sting operation Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, at a Bismarck hotel that targeted buyers of commercial sex with minors. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Talking to seventh-graders in the small town of Scranton, N.D., this past November, Windie Lazenko told students that even they aren’t immune from pimps.

They may not be in a big city and they may have safe, secure homes, but potential traffickers may be watching every time they log online, she warned.

“With the Internet, every single one of you kids is at risk,” said Lazenko, who herself was first prostituted when she was around their age.

Lazenko’s November visit to the school was part of her ongoing work in western North Dakota, fighting the increase in prostitution and trafficking brought on largely by the oil boom.

It’s an unlikely topic, one many of the kids in the town of fewer than 300 hadn’t heard about before Lazenko’s talk. But increasingly across western North Dakota, communities are opening their eyes -- or rather, being forced to see that commercial sex is all around them.


To many who remember history, the sex trade is no surprise: These are mining towns after all, used to a “work hard, play hard” approach to life and aware that companionship for hire is available.

But this time, the prostitution “track” isn’t a certain street corner or strip. It’s the Internet. Backpage and other more obscure sites host the ads that connect johns and women. It has put Backpage, the most well-known of the sites, at the center of a legal and political debate.

While many are quick to blame the Internet for helping prostitution flourish, others point out it’s a new tool for investigators to help crack down on the crime.

“With pimps advertising on the Internet, they out themselves and now they’re trackable,” said Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, a California-based nonprofit that rescues children from pimps.

In online stings, agents post ads, posing as pimps, and communicate with potential johns in increasingly common operations throughout western North Dakota.

They see incredible demand...

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Forum News Service takes on the issue of human trafficking and female exploitation in this seven-part in-depth reporting series. We explore the emerging crisis as it unfolds in the Oil Patch of western ND, as well as in Minnesota and South Dakota.

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