San Francisco FBI reports 'concerning spike' in child exploitation cases across Bay Area

An FBI agent says the amount of time children spent online during the pandemic may have contributed to the spike in cases.

Stephanie Sierra Image
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Report details 'concerning spike' in trafficking during pandemic
A Bay Area anti-human trafficking center says the number of victims more than tripled during the coronavirus pandemic.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Human trafficking rescue organizations across the greater Bay Area are reporting a spike in demand in calls for service.

"We've seen a huge influx in human trafficking cases," said Debra Rush, a survivor. "It's scary."

Rush founded Fresno-based non-profit, Breaking the Chains, after being trafficked herself back in 1989. She was sold by her mother, a long-time heroin addict.

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"I was solicited for a large drug debt that my mother owed," Rush said. "I was trafficked violently for 10 months."

Rush was rescued in 1999 by police. Her story of survival doesn't stop there.

After her captivity, Rush dedicated her life to helping victims of human trafficking. Over the past 30 years, she's seen firsthand how much easier it is for victims to be lured in. In her eyes, the pandemic only magnified that vulnerability.

In the beginning of the pandemic, her organization received roughly two to three calls for help per week. By July 2021, calls for service have more than tripled to 15 to 20 calls per week.

"A lot of these clients are still highly brainwashed," Rush said. "They're not necessarily ready to deal with law enforcement."

VIDEO: DA charges Gilroy couple with human trafficking

A Gilroy husband and wife have been charged with human trafficking for locking a man in a liquor store, where he worked 15-hour shifts, seven days a week, slept in a storage room, bathed in a mop bucket, and was never paid.

FBI Special Agent Dan Costin oversees the San Francisco Violent Crimes against Children and Human Trafficking squad for the Bay Area.

"What changes have you noticed over the past year?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.

"We've seen an uptick in victimization of children," said Costin. "Very vulnerable to people grooming them online, they even find themselves being victims of extortion, being asked for additional images or to meet up."

Special Agent Costin says he believes the increase stems from impacts of the pandemic.

"The amount of time that kids have spent online this year and a half, constantly being in front of the screen and being in environments where they can be easily contacted," he said. "It's all through social media apps, video games, and phone applications."

RELATED: Oakland dental surgeon arrested for human trafficking, offering to buy children for $30,000

The Mayor's taskforce on Anti-Human Trafficking compiled a report in 2017 indicating there were at least 307 victims reported by more than a dozen agencies across San Francisco. Huckleberry Youth Program reported the most in 2017, a total of 79 victims. In 2020, that number dropped to 37.

Executive Director Doug Styles told the I-Team the decline isn't indicating there are fewer victims, but rather exposes the challenges to connect with them on the streets.

"The hard part is our initial numbers may have dropped, but we don't believe that means there's less people that need help," said Styles.

Several anti-human trafficking agencies in San Francisco are already reporting an uptick in calls for service - specifically concerned about the increased use of online applications like, Kik Messenger, which don't have parental controls.

RELATED: Facebook message leads to arrest warrant in years-old rape claim

"It's hard to pin point any specific app that's the worst," said Costin. "Predators are using them all, from social media to any popular game."

Rush told the I-Team she recently helped several victims lured by the popular gaming app, Fortnite.

"We had two male victims that were lured out of state over the game Fortnite," Rush said. "Basically what you had happened was a pedophile trafficker who built a relationship with these boys online and then lured them out."

One of the challenges the Mayor's taskforce highlighted is the lack of accountability for traffickers.

A report released several years ago disclosed there were 57 human trafficking cases investigated in San Francisco in 2017 -- less than half of those cases resulted in arrests. According to the taskforce, only two people were charged and three other people were convicted. The ABC7 I-Team requested updated figures from the San Francisco County District Attorney's office, but are still waiting to hear back.