Dubuque experts say they have seen an increase in human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly business conducted over the internet while people shelter at home.

They tie the rise to social distancing and economic disruption, which has left victims vulnerable to exploitation and with fewer chances to report their predicament as social service agencies and schools have operated remotely.

“It is sort of a crime that is perfect for a pandemic,” said Suzie Wright, executive director of anti-trafficking organization Set Free Dubuque. “(Potential victims) are sitting at home, looking at the internet, and they are feeling more and more isolated.”

The federal government has designated January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, with the intention of increasing awareness of the crime.

Traffickers use coercion, force or fraud to compel others to engage in labor or commercial sex acts. Trafficking does not require transportation, smuggling, physical force or restraint of victims, an aspect of the crime brought into focus by the pandemic.

Brittany Naylor is an anti-human trafficking specialist with Friends of the Family, which works with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She has engaged with more trafficking victims in Dubuque County following the pandemic’s start — an increase from about 20 cases to about 35.

Both Naylor and Wright observed an increase in online trafficking, which Wright linked to business shutdowns and subsequent loss of employment among vulnerable populations. Desperation drove some people to seek clandestine employment online at risk of nonpayment.

“Out of a sense of economic fear and uncertainty comes a vulnerability to accept a job that pays them under the table and, therefore, does not afford them the rights that a normal employment opportunity would provide for them,” Wright said. “When that situation becomes exploitive, it moves to human trafficking.”

Dubuque Police Department spokesman Ted McClimon said the department has not observed a change in trafficking during the pandemic, but advocates say the crime regularly goes unreported to authorities.

In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 98 reports of cases of sex and labor trafficking in Iowa, 267 in Illinois and 94 in Wisconsin. The data are compiled by Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

A spokesperson said the organization will not release state-specific data from 2020 for several months.

However, Polaris provided national figures that compared pre-COVID-19 data to that collected early in the pandemic, which indicated that the number of crisis trafficking situations reported to the organization increased more than 40% nationally — from about 60 contacts in April 2019 to 90 in April 2020.

Likewise, situations in which people required emergency shelter almost doubled, from 29 to 54 during the same period.

Wright said the pandemic also reduced her opportunities to learn of trafficking situations as events were canceled. She ceased to participate in the 20 to 30 speaking engagements she normally would attend, where she could disseminate information and advertise resources.

Previously, attendees approached her after her talks to share their concerns about potential cases. Now, Wright often encounters victims after their circumstances have worsened, such as after a physical assault.

“I think (the pandemic) has created a void that would not normally be there,” she said.