January is Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month -- law enforcement and advocacy groups are using it to fight the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world.

It is estimated that 25 million people, nationwide, are victims of sex and labor trafficking. However, some experts think those estimates may be low.

"There is a misconception that Michigan is a hub or it is very high ranking on the national scale of human trafficking, but the fact is that statistics about human trafficking are not readily available because victims don't report," said Tessa Hessmiller, assistant US attorney for the U.S. Attorney's Office Western District of Michigan. "It is very hard to detect. It is very hard to investigate. It is hard to get victims into court. We know, that we don't know the extent of the problem."

Hessmiller says the realities of human trafficking are rarely the way people see it dramatized on television and in the movies.

"It is portrayed as kidnapping and snatching kids," she said. "Really the way human trafficking works is about targeting vulnerable young people and manipulating them and controlling them."

Some things that make young people vulnerable to becoming targets of human trafficking include poverty, living in or running away from dysfunctional homes, low self-esteem and drug addiction.

So, it is not so much a matter of protecting kids from being snatched at stores or out of their bedrooms. But, it is really a matter of looking out for kids and young people who have those vulnerabilities and intervening and making sure they have safe alternatives and know the dangers of traffickers and manipulative tools traffickers use," says Hessmiller.

"Another thing parents can do is make sure they know what kids are doing online," says Alisha Meneely, director of outreach, for Michigan Child Protection Registry. "A lot of traffickers, and other predators, like going to Facebook now to find their victims. That is how they start. That is how they meet their victims. That is how they start grooming them for months."

Meneely and Hessmiller will lead the discussion and training during the Human Trafficking and Internet Safety Awareness Event. It will be held Tuesday, Jan. 9, from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. at the Kent ISD. That is located at 2930 Knapp NE in Grand Rapids.

Hessmiller says, in the past four years, her office has prosecuted 10 defendants for human trafficking. Roughly 30 victims were associated with those cases. There ages range between the ages of about 14 and 30. All of them from born and raised in Michigan.

The Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force has a list of red flags and action steps on its website to help parents keep their children safe.

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