RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- January marks the start of Human Trafficking Awareness Month. It's a time when law enforcement agencies and advocacy organizations call attention to the dangers, both seen and hidden, of human trafficking.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina ranks in the top 10 in the United States for human trafficking. This is in large part because of the accessibility of interstates 40 and 95, and the military community in and around Fayetteville.
What makes human trafficking illegal is when the activity is forced, fraudulent, or an act of coercion.
Gone are the days of what some dub the "White Van Syndrome," a belief that criminal activity derives from a bad actor soliciting someone with a white cargo van.
Additionally, there's an outdated and inaccurate belief, according to U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina Michael Easley, that such behavior is limited to late-night kidnappers.
"It is one of the greatest misconceptions about human trafficking, which is really a form of modern-day slavery," said Easley, "is that a body snatcher comes in the dark of night and takes someone away."
Easley has prosecuted and helped sentence many individuals in and around the Triangle for human trafficking.
He said perpetrators often target their victims online.
"Be it Instagram, Facebook, Messenger, Snapchat, or even more offbeat avenues such as Discord, or Telegram, can be avenues for traffickers to try to recruit victims into into their enterprise," he said.
And their means of doing so, according to Easley, often involve the lure of alcohol, drugs, or cash.
"In fact, the way human trafficking really works is through a system of grooming where manipulative operators reach out affirmatively to young people online and groom them gradually working to drive a wedge between a young person and their family," said Easley.
That's where the work of advocacy organizations, such as One More Child, is crucial.
"There's still more work to be done. There's still survivors out there who do not understand that they're being victimized themselves," said trafficking advocate Shoni Sconyers with One More Child.
The Florida-based Christian nonprofit advocacy group has a Triangle footprint as well.
"You can remind people how dignified they are. How worthy they are. Remind people through the experiences that they've had, that another experience can be better," Sconyers said.
Her goal complements Easley's when survivors can help bring human traffickers to justice.
"And those can be incredibly emotional experiences. But to be able to get justice for somebody who was under someone's control and manipulation for so long is a really wonderful vindication," Easley said.
As part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, supporters are encouraged to wear blue on Thursday.