Michelle Furgiuele was just 15 years old when she was first lured into a sex trafficking ring. But after escaping her traffickers, she now works as a peer advocate supporting other survivors of human trafficking.
For Furgiuele, the trafficking began after her friends had met people on social media who seemed friendly at first. Soon after, they exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet up in real life.
“(The traffickers) simply offered to pick us up and drive us home from the mall one Friday night after school, and this just didn’t seem like a ‘stranger danger’-type of situation at all,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday. “They drove a nice car, they were well dressed and genuinely at 15 years old, I thought those they were safe enough people.”
Furgiuele felt that being around these people “fulfilled a gap” that was caused by her insecurities. But after two months of being wined and dined, the traffickers began to exploit Furgiuele, forcing her to enter into the sex trade.
According to Covenant House Toronto, the average age of sex trafficking victims is 17, but victims can be as young as 13 and as young as eight for Indigenous girls. Traffickers can make over $280,000 per year just from controlling one victim.
The exploitation continued for years, until Furgiuele came in contact with Walk With Me, a Toronto-based social service agency founded by Tímea Nagy, a fellow human trafficking survivor.
“Tímea Nagy — she is really who I have to thank for getting the out. She was the first person that was able to put a name to what I was going through. And her own lived experience helped me connect with someone and trust somebody,” she said, “I had no faith in the police. But thanks to her I was able to get connected with the great resources.”
SIGNS OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING THAT PARENTS SHOULD LOOK OUT FOR
For years, Furgiuele was trapped in a double life, being sexually exploited while appearing to live a seemingly normal life as a high school student.
“My trafficking happened while I lived in my family home, I can’t stress this enough. I went to my local high school and I lived in my family home, these red flags will happen right beneath your nose,” she said.
Furgiuele says there are several signs that parents should look out for, such as their child changing social groups at school, isolating themselves from the household, or any “dramatic change in behaviour.”
Other red flags that could indicate that a child is a victim of trafficking include having a second cell phone and spending lots of money on their appearance.
“If they’re getting their hair and their nails done, if they’re producing clothes and you’re not understanding where they’re getting the money to obtain these products — huge red flag,” Furgiuele said.
Furgiuele also says parents should keep a close eye out for any “oddball behaviour.” For example, while she was being exploited, Furgiuele’s traffickers had stolen $50,000 from her parents’ line of credit after she had given them their PIN and their card.
“We went to the police and the police wanted to implicate me in that and actually charged me, which my mother just thought was preposterous,” she said. “She knew I was a victim of some sort of crime, but she didn’t even have a name to it.”
“It took me years to build the trust. I’m very grateful for my family. I have a very, extremely supportive family. Without my family, I wouldn’t be here.”
How to find help if you or someone you know is being trafficked.