In 2014, a woman was kidnapped off the street, injected with heroin, and forced to have sex with men for money out of a hotel in Salisbury, Maryland. According to a local affiliate of the USA Today Network, the woman managed to access the internet while her captors slept, and she wrote a message to her boyfriend through Facebook. From there, she was rescued by police, and the men who abducted her were arrested, uncovering a gruesome human trafficking operation.
Now, three years later, four different women who were held captive have filed a lawsuit against the hotel where they were trafficked. Though the ring apparently operated out of numerous hotels, the America's Best Value Inn was allegedly the primary location. The four victims have alleged that the hotel should have known what was happening, and that hotel staff should have done something to save the women.
According to the Polaris Project, the issue of human trafficking in American hotels is expansive. One fact sheet shows that, between 2007 and 2015, there were 1,434 documented incidents of hotel-based trafficking, finding that 92 percent of cases involved sex trafficking specifically. Ninety-four percent of the victims in their survey are almost all women, and nearly half were underaged. Polaris also recently reported that they have documented 22,191 cases of all forms of human trafficking in the last ten years.
In 2016, Polaris reported seeing a 8,042 incidents—a 35 percent increase in human trafficking cases since 2015. Though these statistics are not specifically hotel based, we know that hotels are frequently used as sites for human trafficking, and the victims are often forced into sex labor.
Carol Smolenski is the executive director of ECPAT, USA, an organization that aims to end human trafficking. She believes that hotels have a responsibility to be aware of the trafficking industry and to help end it. While Smolenski's organization is more specifically oriented toward child slavery, ECPAT's initiatives are useful in the fight against all forms of human trafficking in hotels. "We want companies to take responsibility for doing everything they can to prevent it if possible and to stop it when they see it," Smolenski says, adding that there are online trainings that can help hotel staff become informed.
According to Smolenski, in the early years of her work, hotels were hesitant to get involved with her work—but lately, she says, they have been more cooperative. "First of all, it's a good risk management tool, because pimps might be trying to use their properties," Smolenski explains. "it also makes their staff feel more comfortable working there and knowing that if they see something suspicious they're supposed to do something—and frankly, it makes the companies just feel like they are good citizens."
There are signs of trafficking within hotels. Smolenski says traffickers will sometimes "rent two rooms side by side," with the victim in one, and the trafficker in the other. "Sometimes they don't want the room to be cleaned for a couple of days, and afterwards there will be lots of condoms and paraphernalia like that," Smolenski says, adding to the list of warning signs.
Hotel staff can also be aware while checking in guests. If, for example, a young woman who looks unhealthy is checking in with "a man who does all the talking," this could be a warning sign, especially "if the woman appears disoriented, or [they] pay in cash."
The anonymity of hotels make them appealing to traffickers, Smolenski says—but part of the appeal is the assumption that the hotel employees are not aware of what's happening, or won't take action if they are. "We hope they do."