Picture a frightened 13-year-old girl selling drugs on a street corner earning money to feed her siblings. She’s terrified that if she doesn’t her already crumbling family will be separated. One day a good-looking young man who buys drugs from her expresses concern for her safety. He says she can live with him and he’ll take care of her and protect her family. As you might have guessed, it turns out his offer is too good to be true.

Soon, the man she thought was her boyfriend and protector is selling her for sex to make money for his gang. She is stuck in “the game” for more than five years and spends more time in jail than the sex trafficker she lives with because she’s seen as a criminal instead of a victim. She’s so hardened and psychologically manipulated by her captor that it would be difficult to identify her as someone who needs and seeks help.

This is a true story, and it’s unfortunately not uncommon. Now, law enforcement agencies have started to recognize that most prostitutes are victims who were brought into a life of trading sex for money when they were young and impressionable, and they don’t know how to escape.

Prostitution is, as they say, the oldest profession. But now gangs are getting in on the action in a big way. Their already established tricks for luring lonely kids into their ranks are also extremely effective in recruiting girls as young as 12 for the sex trade.

Gangs have dabbled in prostitution for years. But it was more common for a pimp who was also a gang member or gang affiliate to operate on his own and use his gang ties to intimidate his prostitutes and protect his interests. Now entire sets of gangs are running larger prostitution rings to help fund their other illegal businesses, including sales of illicit drugs and firearms. And in at least one recent case in San Diego, gangs are working together to run large-scale operations in multiple cities across the country.

A Growing Trend

A recent study by the Urban Institute used data from 2007 to show the revenue generated by sex trafficking in eight major U.S. cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Miami, San Diego, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Mo. According to “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities,” sex trade revenue dwarfed the amount of money being made on drug and firearm sales, respectively, in those cities. The numbers were from seven years ago. But the study’s researchers also interviewed law enforcement officers about current trends in 2014, and gangs came up repeatedly as a new and growing concern in the world of sex trafficking.

“We were surprised to find that even in cities that are taking active strides to investigate and prosecute these crimes, law enforcement felt they were missing the resources, political will, and public understanding to fully attack the problem,” said study lead author, Meredith Dank. “Our talks with offenders confirmed this. They spoke of widespread pimping and sex trafficking taking place across the country, but said few get arrested, charged, or locked up for it.”

However, agencies across the country are working to change that. This past year the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, which had operated informally, received funding from the Department of Justice to operate formally for the next two years.