(Sorry for the tackiness of the headline above. This company, Rescue Forensics, has a pretty fascinating backstory.)
About a decade ago, Ryan Dalton was an 18-year-old who was helping a friend build a halfway house for women working in the red-light district in Reynosa, Mexico. One day, he witnessed a man who was a member of violent cartel hit a woman and yell at her to get back.
“I didn’t know to call that sex trafficking at that time, but I knew that it was wrong,” he said.
It was the beginning of what has been an entire career thus far. During law school, Dalton started an anti-trafficking department of nonprofit Operation Broken Silence, and testified in hearings to change 29 laws and amendments in Tennessee on trafficking. Those years of on-the-ground work gave him a keen familiarity with how women can get pulled into sex work against their will.
It’s almost never an abduction, Dalton explained. It’s not like that Liam Neeson movie, “Taken,” which is what a lot of people think, he said.
“It is an abuse of love or trust,” he said. “It’s this deep psychological manipulation that’s almost like Stockholm Syndrome. They don’t see it as exploitation, even if these men take their money or abuse them.”
Traffickers will go and seek out women with low self-esteem and then shower them with attention, money or care. It might start as a romantic relationship, like finding a new boyfriend.
“They look for children who live in poverty, runaway youth or kids in foster kids that don’t get the attention that they need from adults in their lives,” he said. “But at some point, the trafficker will do a bait and switch. They’ll groom this person over time until they become compliant and have sex in order to receive affection. A trauma bond is created.”
He also saw how trafficking was changing with the advent of the Internet, and that investigators would need a whole new set of tools to crack down on sex work involving underage women.
“Human trafficking is no longer on the streets where police can observe and monitor it,” he said. “It’s gone to the Internet.”
After finishing law school, he and co-founder Brandon Hamric started working part-time on tools that could filter, track and record escort listings for potentially suspicious behavior involving minors. They applied for Y Combinator and vowed that if they got in, they would quit their jobs and do this full-time as a company, calling it Rescue Forensics.
Basically, Rescue Forensics builds search software that helps law enforcement officials collect and document online evidence that could be used to prosecute traffickers in court. The company itself doesn’t make any judgments about what might constitute illegal trafficking behavior. That’s up to investigators to determine, as there are adult women who want to do sex work and aren’t being trafficked.
But Rescue Forensics does provide a way to document and manage listings that can quickly pop up and disappear on Craigslist or other listing sites across an entire region.
Dalton said that so far, nine victims have been rescued.
When he got a call about the very first one, he was in tears. She was a 16-year-old who was being moved around from Dallas to San Antonio and then Amarillo, Texas.
“Using Rescue Forensics, they were able to track her movement, plug in her phone, find her location, conduct a sting and rescue her,” he said.
Hamric and Dalton are offering the software for free. They now have a few hundred state and local agencies using it across the U.S. and Europe.
They envision building out premium features and then using their close relationships with local law enforcement workers to build out better and more effective software tools in other areas. So far, they’ve raised $80,000 in seed funding to pay for server costs and travel.
They plan to move back to Tennessee after finishing the winter Y Combinator program. It’s a different world here on the West Coast and their mission is serious.
Dalton said that he’ll go to dinner parties in San Francisco. “Everybody will be sipping their cocktails or their mojito. They’ll say something like they’re building an ad network,” Dalton said. “When I get asked, I usually say ‘web intelligence,’ hoping that they’ll leave me alone.”
“If they ask more questions, everyone’s buzz gets killed,” he quipped.