Alexandra Stevenson never imagined what she thought was a loving relationship would turn abusive — or that she would ultimately become a victim of human trafficking.
Stevenson, who was living in Oakville, Ont. at the time, recalls how her boyfriend suddenly used threats and violence to control her, at one point saying she had to sell her body to cover the cost of her drug habit.
"All of a sudden, overnight, it switched. He did become very violent with me ... there was no option for me to leave. And he made it very clear that, should I choose to leave, my life would be at stake," she told CBC News.
Stevenson, 35, is among thousands of British Columbians who have been coerced into sexual exploitation, with online apps and messaging services complicating the issue by providing more platforms on which predators can seek their targets.
Researchers now hope technology can help them fight back — by using artificial intelligence to identify those most at risk of being targeted.
Now based in Kamloops, B.C., Stevenson says it took her years to realize she was being trafficked, and would like to see a greater emphasis on educating young people about the issue.
Control through drug addiction
Stevenson was around 13 years old when she was first sexually abused by her best friend's uncle, she says. The abuse continued for years.
By the time she was 20, she was using heavy drugs to help mask the trauma of the abuse. That's when she met her boyfriend, who dealt drugs full-time, she says.
When she tried to break up with him after he started threatening her with violence, he showed her a news article about a woman who had been hurt "graphically" and said the last girl who broke up him experienced something similar.
"That's when his control over me started," Stevenson said.
She says she felt responsible to help cover the cost of her drug habit, and her boyfriend used that to control her.
"He said, 'You know, we really have to supplement our income … I'm not making money. You're doing too many of the drugs I'm supposed to sell. This is your fault. I need your help,'" she recalled.
Then he became physically abusive, she says.
She describes an incident at a strip club where he manhandled her onto the stage and made a deal with the club's owner, saying she couldn't leave until she "paid a deposit with [her] body."
'Canada's best-hidden crime'
Human trafficking is a "huge problem" in B.C., one that's "not often spoken about," said Brenda Lochhead, a community support worker in Vancouver.
Victims range from high-school students to youth living on the streets, she says.
"We have an overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth being victimized. A lot of youth that are being lured and brought into it, becoming victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking."
Experts say most of that luring happens online.
"Grooming happens online, individuals are bought and sold online, so it's very virtual and difficult to detect," said Tiana Sharifi, founder of Sexual Exploitation Education, and co-author of a new study out of Simon Fraser University's International CyberCrime Research Centre, which features the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
She describes human trafficking as "Canada's best-hidden crime" because it involves coercion.
"That's why this research is so important, to be able to develop a technology able to flag these things in real time," she said.
The study used algorithms to identify people whom researchers believe were potentially victims of human trafficking.
AI "web-crawlers" looked for certain red flags — including phrases such as "available 24-7," signs of control, or emojis like cherries, growing hearts or planes — frequently used in situations of trafficking.
Researchers concluded that of the 6,000 or so sex work advertisements they scanned in B.C., roughly 40 per cent of them were "indicative of human trafficking."
The study was supported by the Ministry of Public Safety and law enforcement.
'Our energy needs to go into prevention'
Stevenson says she believes the problem is growing in B.C. due to isolation during the pandemic.
"Now, you can reach out to 5,000 victims at one time with a quick 'hey' and just see who responds back. You're not having to expose yourself as a potential predator by lurking around a mall or a school or anything. You can do it from the safety of your home," she said.
Stevenson was not involved in the research but says she welcomes the study, adding that the ability to identify victims online can help with the essential work of protecting and caring for those being trafficked.
But she insists prevention is key.
"At the end of the day, survivor care exists because it failed ... Our focus, our funding and our energy needs to go into prevention."
Lochhead said the study suggests tools that may be helpful when it comes to prosecuting human trafficking cases, but questions whether or not it will help victims.
"They might not want to come forward. They might not even identify that they are at risk. And you have to meet victims where they are," said Lochhead.
Stevenson says a car accident in 2007 gave her the break she needed to finally escape her boyfriend.
She eventually went to post-secondary school and has since dedicated her career to advocating for victims and survivors of human trafficking through her platform, The Laughing Survivor, sharing her story at conferences and in schools.
"The sharing of the story is what gave me power back over it," she said.
"It stopped being his story of controlling me — and became my story of finding freedom."