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November 24, 2014

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Billboard campaign draws attention to plight of human-trafficking victims

A handful of Las Vegas billboards will be carrying messages aimed at helping victims of human trafficking, a crime authorities say often goes unreported.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto announced the initiative Tuesday, calling sex trafficking a “serious international and local problem” that demands more awareness.

“It is brutal, complex and widespread,” she said. “Children are used in commercial sex, and adults are targeted through force, fraud or coercion to engage in activities against their will.”

Cortez Masto’s office worked with Metro Police, Clear Channel Outdoor and the Polaris Project, which is an advocacy group fighting human trafficking, to launch the billboard campaign. Clear Channel Outdoor has donated billboard space for messages from the Polaris Project that include a hotline number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

The messages went live Monday on five billboards in these locations based on their proximity to tourist traffic and communities where sex trafficking is more common:

• intersection of Koval Lane and Harmon Avenue

• intersection of Harmon Avenue and Paradise Road

• intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street

• near Interstate 15 and Desert Inn Road

• near Interstate 15 and Silverado Ranch Boulevard

The campaign will expand to include seven billboards in January, officials said.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline (1-888-373-7888) received 20,650 calls last year, Cortez Masto said. Of those, 106 were from Las Vegas.

“I will tell you that is underreported,” she said. “We’re hoping with this awareness campaign we will reach more of those victims we know go unreported and do not have the assistance.”

Calls made to the hotline, which can be done anonymously, will result in intelligence forwarded to local law enforcement agencies or, if it’s an emergency situation, police dispatched to the scene. Victims or others who spot potential human trafficking can also text HELP to 233733.

Lt. Karen Hughes, who oversees Metro’s vice unit, said detectives have identified 132 child victims of sex trafficking so far this year. Many are from minority communities, she said.

“Prostitution is flourishing in so many venues where these girls are being trafficked,” Hughes said.

Similar ads will appear at McCarran International Airport and Las Vegas bus shelters as part of another initiative sponsored by the Nevadans for Common Good, Clark County Commissioner Chris Guinchigliani and the Regional Transportation Commission, Cortez Masto said.

The Nevada Legislature this year passed a bill sponsored by Cortez Masto that establishes the crime of sex trafficking of adults and children, makes victims eligible for state assistance and allows them to sue their traffickers. The law went into effect July 1.

The term human trafficking refers to both sex and labor trafficking, the latter of which is considered a smaller problem in Las Vegas, officials said.

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