Anti-Trafficking Work at Your Doorstep
Living in a townhouse community, we are a ripe target for door-to-door solicitors, so it’s not uncommon to see groups roving the neighborhood on any given weekend. One Sunday, we were enjoying a lazy family afternoon when, lo, there was a knock at the door. I went to answer, only marginally disgruntled by the interruption since our youngest had thankfully already wakened from his nap.
When I opened the door, I was surprised to find a young teenager on my doorstep. She was holding a clipboard and immediately began pitching me an opportunity to buy a subscription to the Washington Times. I wasn’t interested in the paper, but I was interested in learning more about her work in our neighborhood.
I recently learned that trafficking victims can be used in this kind of solicitation scheme, so I proceeded carefully and tried to dig a little deeper with the conversation. The young woman told me that she was selling subscriptions to earn points toward a $1000 scholarship (the payer of which she couldn't name when I asked). The subscription form had a small image of the scholarship certificate and that image did not indicate a payer either. As I asked more questions, the girl on my porch called over a friend who was knocking on a house three doors down. When she approached, I told her I had some questions and began to ask her the same things we had already discussed, including how each of them got involved in this work.
Both girls told me they were fourteen. Neither girl had ever seen a kid get a scholarship check, though the more experienced of the two had seen someone get a certificate promising they would get a check. I asked if they were getting paid for their work and they told me they weren't being paid at all aside from the points. The experienced girl said that me her dad was their supervisor and he had a group of 24 kids he was dropping off to do these door-to-door calls. She offered to let me talk to him, but she couldn't reach him after two tries on her cell phone. Both girls were alone in my neighborhood, going door-to-door without any adult supervision except a guy who was several neighborhoods away and apparently unavailable by phone.
At this point, I asked them if they knew what trafficking was and I told them I was concerned for their safety. The whole time, they kept bringing up the sale. I told them I didn’t want to buy a subscription from any service that wasn’t paying its employees. I explained to them what trafficking is, and I told them if they needed help, they could talk to me about it. They were polite and thanked me for saying that. We talked a while longer but they wanted to move on and make sales so I told them to come back if she reached her dad or if either of them needed any help.
I went in to the house and phoned the Fairfax county police non-emergency line. I wasn’t sure this was a trafficking situation, but there was enough shade in the details for me to think at the very least, this operation might be a scam. While I was on the line, I was interrupted when speaking to a dispatcher when one of the girls came running up with her boss-dad on her cell phone. I talked to him for a few minutes and half of what he said was different from what the girls told me, though really none of it sounded better from a labor rights standpoint. I told him my concerns and he told me the marketing company they were working for but I couldn't find a solid lead on it Googling it right there on my smart phone. Just then a police officer pulled up and began asking the girls and me questions. I still had the supervisor on the line, but since it wasn’t my cell phone, I asked the supervisor if he would be okay with me handing his daughter’s phone to the police man. He said he was fine with that, so I did.
The girls looked understandably frightened. One of our neighbors had angrily threatened to call the cops on them after they visited his block. I can only assume by the fast response of the officer in front of me, my neighbor had phoned the police as well. I told the girls not to be afraid, that they weren't in trouble, but if they needed help to talk to the officer or tell me. I know from my own experience how intimidating law enforcement can be, and trafficking victims are often caught between a trafficker that compels them to commit unlawful acts and a system that punishes them for their “crimes.” My assurances, as sincere as they were, did little to comfort them, so I stayed nearby and kept checking in with them and talking to them. I wanted them to know I meant what I said about protecting them.
The cop asked the dad to come back to our neighborhood and he returned. He pulled up within a few minutes in a large, unmarked, white van. The officer spoke with the supervisor in our parking lot for ten to fifteen minutes, and during that time, the cop had the girls turn out their newspaper bags. He let the group leave together, with a stern warning that young girls shouldn’t be wandering a strange neighborhood and knocking on doors alone. Their operation may have been legit, but there were all kinds of red flags, so I’m glad I had the presence of mind to follow through with questions and reporting.
I'm not fully satisfied that shady sales like that go on without compensating kids for their work and I'm upset that this supervisor would just drop off a single pair of 14-year-olds to go door-to-door alone in strange neighborhoods, particularly when they are already being harassed and threatened in that neighborhood. Since the cop intervened and released them, I'm assuming what they were doing was either legal or at least brought the situation to police attention.
I know the next time someone comes knocking, our whole family will be wiser and equipped to observe and perhaps ask questions.
Several years back the Washington Post reported on a magazine sales scam that was rampant in our area. From the article:
“Not only are buyers being victimized but so are the young people recruited to do the selling, BBB chief executive Edward Johnson said. Many youngsters are transported long distances to sell the products and make little or no money, he said. The National Consumers League has ranked the jobs among the worst for youths. ‘That's not to say that everything that knocks on your door is a scam,’ Johnson said. ‘But many people probably don't realize the potentially vicious nature of this industry -- both from the standpoint of the purported products and the means by which the sales are accomplished.’”
I’ve also reported the incident to the Polaris project, just in case there are similar situations that arise in our area. Polaris has a great resource on identifying the signs of trafficking that can equip you to spot the warning signs when you see them. Most times it’s not safe to probe into a situation, and we should exercise restraint for victims’ sake as well as our own, when we’re tempted to charge in and save the day. But we can always observe and report if we see something suspicious.
Many solicitors are legitimate, but we may be able to identify the ones that aren’t if instead of hiding in our home, we take our time to show interest in the people standing on the other side of the door.
If you think there is possible human trafficking going on in your area, please call Polaris' National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or report a tip here.
Read more by Cayce Utley at Spice Tithers