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New coalition sets sights on reducing human trafficking: 'It can happen to anyone'

Leaders of the Coastal Region Human Trafficking Taskforce held the inaugural taskforce meeting in Murrells Inlet Monday. The coalition is nearly ten years in the making. (WPDE)

On Monday, Gina Carbino stood in front of a room filled with dozens of community advocates, state and law enforcement officials and led the first-ever human trafficking task force in our area.

"It can happen to anyone and that's what people need to understand," said Carbino, about human trafficking. "We think it doesn't happen here in the United States and certainly not in South Carolina."

But it does. Data from the Polaris Project suggests last year nearly 80 human trafficking cases were reported across the state. Locally, a Carnegie Mellon study claims from 2013 to 2015 on Memorial Day Weekend -- the same time as Bikefest -- Myrtle Beach had more hits on escort website ads that any other area nationally at the time.

Related - Bikers against human trafficking: How advocates say rally visitors can help fight crime

Officials say some of those ads are linked to human trafficking cases.

"A lot of our community might be shocked to hear some of these statistics," said Carbino.

Related - Police: Backpage.com ad led police to missing NC girl used in human trafficking case

Kelly O'Neill-Bagwell has been fighting trafficking in our area for nine years. Her main focus is educating through campaigns -- something she hopes will get stronger with the coalition.

"The traffickers are very adept at knowing how to pick out kids who are vulnerable and people who are vulnerable," said O'Neill-Bagwell.

Related- Local human trafficking survivor works to help victims

High numbers of trafficking locally make the bigger picture even darker. Advocates said the fight in our area starts with the coalition.

"When I first got involved in this it was a $7 to $9 billion dollar industry...couple years later, it was $32 billion. It's now over a $150 billion industry worldwide," she said.

If you'd like to get involved, email gina@scvan.org.

Carbino said the public is invited to a summit in January. The coalition will meet four times each year.

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