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Illuminating child sex trafficking on the dark web

In an exclusive report last November, WGXA uncovered the circuit of cities for sex trafficking in Georgia. Macon was right in the middle.

MACON, Ga. -- In an exclusive report last November, WGXA uncovered the circuit of cities for sex trafficking in Georgia. Macon was right in the middle.

From Savannah to Augusta, Columbus and Atlanta, children are transported, exploited and sold for sex.

Last October, the GBI cracked down on a major operation where more than 10 children were rescued and dozens of perpetrators were arrested for crimes including pimping, criminal attempt child molestation, prostitution and solicitation. The FBI and the GBI busted 71 people in that sting operation last October.

While many of them were from parts of Georgia, some came from as far as New York and St. Louis.

The GBI says the worst parts of the internet give people from all over access to children, so they can lure them in and sell them for sex.

Brian Johnston, assistant special agent with the GBI's Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit, has a stiff warning for traffickers.

"Woe unto you if you are so inclined to buy sex in Georgia," he said. "Because you never know when it may be one of us working in an undercover capacity behind the scenes."

Johnston says his team had worked since 2011 on the case to take down dozens of people in Georgia who were selling children for sex on the internet.

"We were able to target some of those who are willing and wanting to purchase sex with children in exchange for money," he said.

Johnston says there are a couple ways traffickers target their victims.

"Number one, they're children already. Number two, they're vulnerable," he said. "They're essentially homeless at this point, so a trafficker doesn't have to do a whole lot to step up and start that cycle of manipulation."

The manipulation can start with a conversation on one of the many chat rooms and websites frequented by traffickers.

The GBI has over 100 websites on their radar, and they skim sites like Backpage.com, Chatstep.com, Craigslist.com and surprisingly the dating website Plenty of Fish to find some of the 'johns.'

One local organization, Traffick Jam, teaches high school students how to spot the signs of traffickers before they approach them.

Taylor Bashuk with Traffick Jam says teens definitely need to be aware that not everyone online is who they say they are.

"There's people who just pull pictures from the internet and that's who they say they are," Bashuk said. "And they'll message you and it seems really innocent, but they're just earning your trust."

Some teens make it easy for traffickers to gain access to them online by not making their social media accounts private.

"Anybody can message them or look at them and it's really easy to see what a person does or what they're about online," Bashuk said.

The GBI is already getting ahead of traffickers searching the web to capitalize on Georgia's next big event -- Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta next year.

Johnston says anytime we have a major event that comes in town, it's a huge economic impact to the community.

"At the end of the day, a lot of the sex trafficking stuff is about making money," he said. "That's what drives the traffickers to do what they do."

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