The Mississippi Department of Transportation has joined agencies across the state to combat human trafficking.
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and new numbers paint a startling picture of this growing crime in Mississippi. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), 5,748 cases of human trafficking across the country were reported in 2016.
Forty of those cases were reported in Mississippi. The number has increased since 2012 when 26 cases were reported.
Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes nationwide. According to the NHTRC, the average age for a trafficking victim is 12 years old.
"It's a terrible crime and it's under reported. We want to make sure our officers are trained to spot those tell tale signs we need to be aware of," said Chief Willie Huff, director of MDOT's Office of Enforcement.
Authorities said interstates are hot spots for smugglers, and truck stops are leading areas for sex trafficking.
"You cannot operate on a island-type environment and work on human trafficking. These people are mobile, they use vehicles to get out of an area where there is heat on them to one where there's not any heat," Huff said.
All MDOT enforcement officers go through training to learn how to identify and police human trafficking on state highways and at weigh stations. The most recent training session was this week.
"Mississippi is on the very verge of having a large problem with human trafficking," Huff said. "We want to be armed with information from agencies as well as treatment facilities for when these folks need help."
To report information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is staffed with agents 25 hours a day, seven days a week. Anonymous tips can be submitted at www.humantraffickinghotline.org.