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Investigation Finds Women and Children Being Branded, Sold for Sex Around Tampa

Officials in the Tampa Bay area report that human trafficking victims are being branded and sold for sex.

According to Corporal Alan Wilkett, who leads Pasco County’s human trafficking task force, “It’s like branding cattle. It’s an ownership mark. Branding is when somebody — a pimp or a trafficker — will put his mark or his symbol or his sign on his victims through some sort of tattoo.”

He adds that deputies know how to find the red flags of someone who is being sold for sex.

Wilkett explains, “Some of the things we’re seeing are pictures — maybe a lion’s head or it may be the street name of the pimp who’s running a street track. “It could be numbers. Using certain numbers, like 16 because ‘P’ is the 16th letter of the alphabet — it means I’m being pimped.”

In some trafficking cases, the tattoo could actually be a barcode and, “These barcodes are written in such a way by these tattoos and tattoo artists, that if you scan that with your smart phone it’ll tell you she’s $25 or she’s $30. The one that I saw was $30,” he adds.

Wilkett said he saw one such tattoo on a victim in her early 20’s who was staying in a safehouse. She told him, “That’s what I’m worth. I am worth $30,” Wilkett says.

Natasha Nascimento, who is the founding executive director of Redefining Refuge, a local non-profit working with victims of child sex trafficking, said the majority of branding tattoos are done professionally.

“The youngest child I’ve seen — I believe she was probably somewhere around 11-years-old — she had dollar signs… tattooed onto both of her eyelids,” says Nascimento.

She suggests, “If somebody is coming in there with a child and telling you what tattoo the child is going to get, if it’s a barcode, money symbols, names, things like ‘Daddy,’ I would probably call in an abuse report, is what I would do.”

Her organization is working with the Tampa Bay area tattoo artist community in order to help cover up tattoos for child sex trafficking survivors to help the recovery and healing process.

If you believe you are a victim of Human Trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline, or call them at (888) 373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 96-ABUSE.