TAMPA - The state of Florida will place billboards along streets, in malls and on bus shelters to raise awareness of human trafficking.
During a news conference Friday, Attorney General Pam Bondi announced a statewide program called "From Instant Message to Instant Nightmare," aimed at helping parents spot sexual exploitation of children online.
The billboards place an emphasis on social media and Internet use.
Bondi said parents and adults can download a tip sheet about Internet safety and a pledge for children to sign and print. The pledge instructs kids not to share inappropriate pictures, never accept friend requests from strangers on social media networks and not to share personal information.
The tip sheet urges parents to talk to children about sex trafficking and "friending" strangers online.
Bondi, who was joined at the conference by heads of several Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies, said that human traffickers often find their victims online. She and the other officials said parents and caretakers can help thwart human trafficking by being aware of what kids are doing on the Internet.
Officials gave examples of recent cases where young girls were lured into prostitution after talking to an older man online.
"It makes it easier for these predators to target young kids who are vulnerable," Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said.
According to the state Department of Children and Families, sex trafficking of young victims is among the most underreported offenses.
The agency started a statewide task force in 2009 because the majority of sex trafficking victims are foster youth.
Bondi said that in 2011, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center ranked the state third in the number of calls received by the center's hotline.
Florida lawmakers passed the Safe Harbor Act last year to ensure that child sex trafficking victims get help from child welfare professionals instead of being placed in juvenile delinquency.
Florida is particularly vulnerable spot for trafficking crimes because its geography and being a vacation destination make it an easy transit point for predators to transport victims.
"We need your help to put these horrible people out of business and send them to prison," Bondi said.