Sex traffickers are preparing to cash in on the Super Bowl. Sharmila Wijeyakumar is on a mission to stop them.
The 47-year-old executive is the co-founder of Rahab’s Daughters, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking. The charity is partnering with Canadian businesses to run a cross-border operation to rescue survivors and disrupt sexual exploitation linked to this year’s big game in Las Vegas.
For most people, the Super Bowl is just a celebration of American football – a championship game featuring glitzy commercials and a musical halftime show – that regularly attracts more than 100-million viewers on television.
But the Super Bowl is also a hot spot for sex trafficking, according to financial-crime experts. Not only do large numbers of tourists and temporary workers travel to the host city each year, but for some fans, carousing and illicit sex parties are part of the hoopla surrounding the game.
Ms. Wijeyakumar has experienced the dark side of that football fever. She was trafficked at the Super Bowl during her teens and early 20s.
“You just feel like a piece of property,” Ms. Wijeyakumar said. “Being sold at Super Bowl parties was something that happened to me for four years in a row.”
Ms. Wijeyakumar became ensnared in sex trafficking for the first time as a runaway youth. Her experience echoes that of other survivors because she was coerced after accepting what she believed was a legitimate job offer.
“At 16, I ended up getting a job in what I thought was a nightclub. Turns out it was a brothel,” she recounted. “At the end of the first night, they said to me there was something wrong with the take on the till. ‘Could I come upstairs so we could fix it?’ And then I got locked in a room.”
Ms. Wijeyakumar eventually escaped her traffickers and turned her life around. Now she is helping other survivors to do the same. But stopping sexual slavery requires the business community’s help.
As I’ve previously written, sex trafficking is often viewed narrowly as a law-enforcement problem. But it is a business issue, too, because it creates operational, regulatory, legal and reputational risks for companies in banking, telecommunications, technology, transportation, logistics, hospitality, health care and other industries.
Canadian businesses have new obligations this year to root out forced labour from their supply chains. But they must also do more to combat another form of human trafficking: the sexual exploitation of women and children.
Corporate Canada, this is a call to action.
It’s time for some hard truths. Sex trafficking won’t be limited to parties in Sin City – or even the United States. It will happen in Canada, too.
“Wherever you have a diaspora of football fans, you’re going to end up with that level of Super Bowl parties,” said Ms. Wijeyakumar.
“There’s a problem with the border crossings because the drinking age is lower here,” she added.
Rahab’s Daughters has set up an operations centre in Niagara Falls, Ont., in advance of Sunday’s game. A team there will work in concert with volunteers in Las Vegas to extract survivors from their traffickers.
Locating survivors involves sleuthing. The charity’s anti-money-laundering specialists, who are located in Canada and the U.S., are using technology to collect and analyze data from websites that advertise illicit sexual services in Las Vegas.
Investigators assess factors such as the number of providers, the types of services and certain keywords. They also look for common phone numbers, locations and names. Ultimately, they create a map of the illicit establishments.
“We will see if they are actually a syndicate. If they are, those are the ones we prioritize for our team,” said financial crime investigator Jinisha Bhatt, who is volunteering as part of the charity’s Super Bowl project.
Although rescuing survivors is their ultimate goal, volunteers also hand out care packages and roses that contain a hotline number.
Additionally, the investigators prepare intelligence packets for police about illicit massage parlours using satellite maps and closed-circuit television footage, including from security cameras at the establishments.
“A lot of these illicit places will have rear entrances and we’re confirming that they are doing shady stuff via images,” Ms. Bhatt added.
The charity’s 2023 Super Bowl mission near Phoenix helped 35 survivors, including 25 women and 10 children. To do so, its investigators scraped data from more than 15,000 illicit online ads. Volunteers also visited 208 illicit massage businesses.
Police need all the help they can get because the selling of human beings is an underreported crime. U.S. Homeland Security Investigations assisted six victims of human trafficking at last year’s Super Bowl.
For this year’s mission in Las Vegas, Rahab’s Daughters is receiving help from Bill Gosling Outsourcing, which offers services such as call centre support, and other organizations.
But the charity still needs donations including office space, WiFi service, tablets with security software and supplies for survivors staying at its safe house in Niagara Falls.
It’s not too late to help – the charity’s busiest time will be the week following the Super Bowl, because that’s when traffickers abandon women and girls who fail to meet their quotas, Ms. Wijeyakumar said.
Donations aside, businesses can also help by training their staff to spot the signs of sex trafficking.
“They can learn what human trafficking looks like in their industry,” said Ms. Wijeyakumar.
Some businesses and labour groups are already taking action. Earlier this month, the Association of Flight Attendants sent out a Super Bowl human trafficking alert.
North of the border, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce sent staff a memo with the heading “Our role in preventing human trafficking.”
Thomson Reuters Corp., meanwhile, has a new partnership with the City of Houston – which has expertise managing trafficking at sporting events – to launch a new global online resource centre to combat the crime.
It includes a large-scale public events tool kit that is available to municipalities. The kit covers topics such as vetting volunteers and engaging businesses such as restaurants and transport companies to help spot victims.
Meanwhile, suspicious activity reports relating to human trafficking filed by financial institutions in the U.S. increased by nearly 40 per cent in 2023, according to a Thomson Reuters Institute analysis.
(Woodbridge Co. Ltd., the Thomson family holding company and controlling shareholder of Thomson Reuters, also owns The Globe and Mail.)
Companies that need help getting started can also contact a non-profit called The Knoble, which is running a Super Bowl campaign again this year.
“Every year we try to make a big deal about the Super Bowl,” said founder Ian Mitchell. “You get a gathering of people and it creates the opportunity for exploitation.”
Last year, 28 financial institutions participated in its Super Bowl campaign, resulting in 43 referrals to law enforcement, he said.
The Knoble has also held anti-trafficking campaigns around the World Games and the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Mr. Mitchell says the non-profit is open to doing the same for a Canadian event such as the Montreal Grand Prix.
“It would just make logical sense to do this in Canada because there’s such a high level of Canadian banks involved in what we do every day,” said Mr. Mitchell.
All The Knoble requires is two months’ notice and a corporate sponsor to make it happen, he adds.
Rahab’s Daughters, meanwhile, is looking for businesses to support its upcoming anti-trafficking initiative at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The charity, which is named after a prostitute turned heroine in the Bible, is also calling on banks to help survivors repair their finances. Many lack the necessary identity documents to open bank accounts or have damaged credit histories. Some also have criminal records because their traffickers forced them to steal credit cards or launder funds.
“I personally have one count of wire fraud and four counts of prostitution on my rap sheet, and it impacts my life on a daily basis,” said Ms. Wijeyakumar, adding she served five months in a U.S. prison for those crimes.
Twenty years later, she is urging banks and other companies to help give other survivors a clean slate. Business leaders on Bay Street and beyond should answer her call for help.