GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The creepy white van you’ve taught your kids to avoid comes in a different form these days.

“The white van you speak of is actually (your child’s) cellphone. That’s the way you need to look at it,” said Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson.

News 8 reached out to Swanson in an effort to shine more light on human trafficking and how to fight it. Swanson, whose department heads up a team dedicated to busting child predators, said our kids’ digital devices pose the biggest risk when it comes to human trafficking.  

In three years, Swanson said his operation, known as G.H.O.S.T., has arrested 156 sex offenders in busts throughout Michigan, including Kalamazoo.

The Genesee Human Oppression Strike Team assisted the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office in an April sting that snagged three men, including a former Western Michigan University police officer.

All three men were charged with trying to use the internet to solicit sex from a ’15-year-old girl’ who was actually an undercover officer.

G.H.O.S.T has helped law enforcement agencies conduct online stings in 42 Michigan counties. It’s also shared its operational playbook, releasing 11 training modules to sheriff’s departments around the state.

If parents want to learn more, they can check out G.H.O.S.T.’s website, which features training videos, a study guide and a self-test.

“(Criminals) use the cellphone and the platforms that are on all of our phones as ways to open up the door and steal the innocence of (young people),” Swanson told News 8.

The sheriff cautioned he’s not suggesting stranger abductions never happen because they do. But he said children are much more likely to be victimized by predators who meet and groom them online.

“There are no boundaries. There are no demographics that are immune from a predator,” Swanson said.

“They will post … and send direct messages using very popular apps, TikTok, Snapchat, and they’ll use that app to take (the kids) to a different app or a text conversation … and that’s where it starts with the talking and the grooming,” he continued, noting the cultivation process can take three hours or three weeks. “Some (criminals) are so patient, it can happen over a period of three to four to five weeks, which we’ve seen before in some cases.”

Swanson said predators look at our kids’ profiles, where they live, how old they are, what kind of emojis they use — happy or sad — and whether they have families. Then the criminals use that information to build a relationship.

In one of the team’s cases, a mother had taken her 13-year-old son’s phone away to punish him for bad behavior.

“When she plugged the phone in to charge it, an instant message popped up. She tracked it back. For the last 90 days, Simon Royal, which was not his real name, had been grooming her 13-year-old son, asking about how (the teen’s) girlfriend is, saying, ‘Would you like me to teach you how to handle your girlfriend physically? I can teach you intimacy. You’re amazing. Whatever you do, don’t tell your mom. This is our secret,'” Swanson quoted the man as writing.

G.H.O.S.T. was able to identify the offender and pose as the 13-year-old boy to continue the conversation.

“Within one day, he showed up to the house. We had him arrested,” recalled Swanson, who said the suspect turned out to be a convicted sex offender.

In another case, Swanson said a West Palm Beach, Florida, man sent a direct message to a 12-year-old Flint girl and spent three weeks grooming her before he flew into Detroit Metro Airport.

“He went to go pick up the victim at midnight that night. She jumped out of her house window, met him in a parking lot. (He) took her to a hotel, recorded the whole thing. Still photos of all the acts. Sold those photos,” he said.

The girl’s parents found out what had happened and took her to a hospital, which contacted the sheriff’s department.

“We identified him within six days,” Swanson said. “Our investigation showed, not only did he do it in Flint, Michigan, but he also flew to Washington state and assaulted a 16-year-old girl and then went to Oregon and assaulted a 14-year-old.”

G.H.O.S.T. ultimately flew to Florida and arrested Peter Pajic, 22.

The Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, told News 8 Michigan ranks 10th in the nation based on the number of inquiries the hotline receives.

“As of 2020, Michigan ranked as the state with the 10th highest volume of contacts made to the Hotline, which is the number of calls, texts, chats, emails, and online reports received. Please note that the Trafficking Hotline’s statistics speak only to situations that have been reported to the Hotline and are not a measure of prevalence of trafficking, as not every situation of trafficking in each state is reported to us,” wrote Polaris Project communications manager Ayan Ahmed in an email to News 8.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1.888.373.7888.