PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – As children log on to the computer each morning for virtual learning, they’re also entering a world filled with the preying eyes of human traffickers.

FBI special agents say the cases of human trafficking keep rising. In the last year alone, the FBI initiated 664 human trafficking investigations, arresting 473 perpetrators. Those numbers are national, but here in the Pittsburgh area, more than 450 people called in tips to the FBI to report suspicious activity and attempts to lure young children last year.

For young women like Karleigh Maide, a tough home life can easily melt into a scary situation.

“For me it sometimes was better because I felt like I had a choice. I grew up with a lot of sexual abuse from when I was in diapers all the way up to 14 years old,” said Maide.

So when her now-convicted trafficker offered her a place to stay and emotional security, the crime came camouflaged as a choice.

“In those situations, I didn’t feel in control. I didn’t have the choice to say ‘yes, I want to involve myself in sexual interactions,’ so I kind of took that choice over my own body.”

Victim specialist Bridget Simunovic said it’s that simple.

“They look for that vulnerability, they look for that isolation. I think that loneliness. We had somebody tell us one time that they walked down the mall and gave a victim a compliment, and if they turned around and say ‘thanks,’ that’s something they look for,” said Simunovic.

Simunovic sees local kids getting coerced into a lifestyle of prostitution and sold to other people. She works with victims every day at the Pittsburgh FBI office.

“That’s exactly what it is — it’s kids in our own communities. It’s happening right under our noses. It’s not what people think in the movies,” Simunovic said.

And it’s ramping up. As of just a few months ago, more than 1,800 pending human trafficking cases are under investigation.

“With children in general, one of the big difficulties is getting them to realize that they have been trafficked,” said Simunovic.

Special agent Leonard Piccini Jr. said it could start with a meal, then a fancy gift and soon develop into more.

“If somebody is offering you something, nothing is free. Nobody is gonna pay for things for you without you doing something for them at some point,” said Piccini.

Karleigh escaped human trafficking thanks to an FBI bust.

“Had we not gotten arrested, I probably wouldn’t have left the situation until something bad had happened to me. I didn’t have the strength to leave,” she said.

But she found her strength now, working with the non-profit Gwen’s Girls to educate young girls on what she wishes someone had told her.

“I didn’t have any life goals at 15. I was just living day to day and seeing where I end up. Now I have a lot. I have a lot of motivation and life goals. Eventually I want to move on and open up a safe haven for young ladies that are being victimized in human trafficking,” she said.

“But Karleigh and children like Karleigh are the single most reason we get up every day, come to work and continue to do this work,” Simunovic said.

The FBI said it doesn’t necessarily think virtual learning during the pandemic is causing an increase in children getting trafficked, but when a child is spending more time in a vulnerable space – like online – the risk increases.

Meghan Schiller