Someone who wants to pay for sex could drive to dicey areas in the Twin Cities, or pull over at a truck stop on a remote stretch of interstate.

But increasingly, the business of prostitution is conducted on smartphones, iPads and computers, according to the head of a new Washington County major crime unit whose mission includes combatting the burgeoning flesh trade.

Sex trafficking, which often includes underage prostitution, has become more efficient and widespread, thanks to the efficacy and anonymity of smartphones and the Internet.

“At your fingertips, you can access a female or male anytime,” Assistant County Attorney Imran Ali said. “And that makes it a huge problem.”

Ali said the major crime unit has at least 25 open cases, most of which involve sex trafficking or child pornography.

Technology is a double-edged sword, of course. Smartphones and computers also store potentially incriminating data.

“You can prove a case solely on forensic evidence through a phone,” Ali said. “But sometimes the data is so overwhelming that people don’t focus on it.”

That’s about to change. The major crime unit has used a $125,000 state grant to create the position of criminal analyst. Brooke Throngard, a legal assistant with the county, officially begins her role as criminal analyst Jan. 1, but she’s already mining data provided by law enforcement.

“They do all the ‘NCIS’ stuff,” Ali said. “She gets the CD. She puts the CD in her computer and spends hours and hours going through photos, texts and call logs.”

Voluminous data

When it comes to a digital gumshoeing, the devil is in the details, Throngard said. Or rather, in their sheer volume.

One case for example, involves a single 128-gigabyte iPhone that yielded 57,000 pages of data.

Her task is to find the needles in this haystack. In addition to photos, she’s looking for text messages, GPS data, call logs and contact lists.

“Law enforcement does not have the time or resources to go through tens of thousands of pictures,” she said.

Ali stressed that the harvesting of evidence from smartphones and computers is a joint effort between local police and the county.

“Law enforcement plays a vital role in the collection and interpretation of evidence,” he said. “Brooke would filter through all the relevant information and provide the relevant information we would need for a successful prosecution.”

Sex trafficking can be hard to spot. According to a 2009 report by the FBI, child prostitutes often look older than they are and carry false identification. Their pimps move them frequently across state lines to avoid detection.

“They could be in Woodbury today, they could be in South Dakota next week and Michigan the next,” Throngard said. “They’re moved to where the demand is.”

She will also monitor sites such as Craigslist and Backpage, where pimps and predators often place ads to buy or sell sex.

Law enforcement agencies around the country have used these and other sites to conduct stings by posing as underage prostitutes.

The major crime unit is part of a coalition against sex trafficking that was announced last month by County Attorney Pete Orput. By working with multiple law enforcement agencies, they plan to streamline the process by which police arrest and courts convict perpetrators who take advantage of children for prostitution.

Cases growing

Business, unfortunately, is brisk.

More than a dozen men were charged in September in Washington County District Court with hiring or engagement in the prostitution of a minor. The felony charges came from a series of sting operations at the Red Roof Inn in Woodbury.

In October, Cottage Grove police arrested a man who allegedly arranged to meet an underage Cottage Grove girl for sex. The girl, 16, had posted an ad on Backpage soliciting sex in August because she said she was in desperate need of money. When the man was arrested, police found the trunk of the car he was driving lined with a tarp. There also was a large empty suitcase and rubber gloves, according to court records.

Weeks later, police arrested a California woman who traveled by bus to have sex with a 15-year-old St. Paul Park girl who had run away from home. The woman allegedly sent the girl sexually graphic videos, photos and text messages.

Throngard said she isn’t repulsed by the things she encounters.

“I don’t take it home with me,” she said.

Another member of the major crime unit is Christine VonDeLinde. As victim/witness coordinator, it’s her job to provide victims with the services they need. Some may be runaways with nowhere to go. She helps to arrange counseling, temporary housing or help with out-of-pocket expenses.

Law enforcement has flipped the script on sex trafficking, she said. Prostitutes used to be treated as criminals and jailed, while their pimps remained at large.

But in 2011, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Safe Harbors for Sexually Exploited Youth law. It increases penalties for buyers and recognizes sexually exploited children as victims rather than criminals.

“You want to save the victims,” VonDeLinde said. “Sex trafficking can have long-term consequences” on the psyche of victims.

In addition to the Washington County Attorney’s Office, the anti-sex trafficking coalition members include: the Washington County Sheriff’s Office; police departments from Bayport, Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, Newport, Oak Park Heights, Oakdale, St. Paul Park, Stillwater and Woodbury; the Minnesota State Patrol; the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Washington County’s Community Services and Community Corrections departments; Tubman (family crisis and support services); and other health care and social service providers.