Human trafficking survivor tells her story at Jefferson Community College

Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 3:22 PM EST
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - She spent more than half a decade being bought and sold by human traffickers. Now a survivor, Rebecca Bender is making it her mission to educate and fight, and tell you it can happen anywhere.

“I was trafficked in Las Vegas. I was bought and sold between three different traffickers. Two of them tattoed their names on my back,” she said.

It was six years of Bender’s life that started out innocently. Leaving her small town, and headed to college.

“When I got off to college campus, I met a young man who pretended to be my boyfriend, took an interest in me, got to know my hopes and dreams. He was actually a trafficker,” she said.

At an event hosted by the Victims Assistance Center and Jefferson Community College, Bender told her story Tuesday at Sturtz Theater.

To an audience filled with students, young adults, social workers, and law enforcement, Bender educated the community about red flags and manipulation. She said traffickers take a victims’ vulnerabilities and exploit them to gain trust.

Bender also told the audience rural areas are prime targets, not only because people are unsuspecting, but because those from small towns are often excited about new opportunities traffickers’ tell them they can provide.

“One of the questions people often ask, ‘Is human trafficking an issue here in Watertown?’ Because it’s a small town, many people don’t think it is an issue. But really, it is,” said Margaret Taylor, the Director of Student Activities and Inclusion at Jefferson Community College.

After six years, a federal raid paved the way for Bender to escape.

“December 31st, 2007 is when I ran. I’ll never forget the ball dropping in the airport on the TV. That’s what I remember,” Bender said.

But Bender said the effects of being brainwashed and trafficked stick with victims, admitting returning to normal life isn’t easy.

She said vulnerabilities that get victims trafficked in the first place often come back. Many victims don’t have places to live, or support systems to turn to.

“I was terrified I would never do anything with my life. I was terrified my criminal record would stop me from pursuing my goals. Sometimes it felt scarier than doing something that was familiar,” she said.

A survivor, author, and an activist, Bender is now helping the FBI, Homeland Security, and other agencies as an expert on human trafficking. She also launched Elevate Academy in 2014, an online school for survivors of human trafficking.

Click here to learn more about Bender’s mission.