CLEARWATER — The billboard, at first glance, looks harmless enough: A portly man wearing a gold wedding band adjusts his suit jacket, presumably preparing to tackle some important business deal.
A message accompanying the image confirms that a transaction is indeed under way. However, it's of a more sinister nature.
"This man," the billboard says, "wants to rent your daughter."
Then it provides a website address where viewers can learn more about the illegal sex trafficking of young girls.
Just as Tampa Bay is trying to put on its best face for the Republican National Convention, nine of these provocative billboards will be unveiled Monday in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Some local experts say the timing is right because they believe child prostitution and human trafficking cases will spike during the convention — not because of the political party, but because of the opportunity sex traffickers see in the presence of tens of thousands of visitors in one place.
Law enforcement already is watching for an increase in sex trade advertising tied to the convention.
The Zonta Club of Pinellas County is paying the $25,000 cost of erecting the billboards. Donna Lancaster, the Zonta chapter's secretary, said the billboards aren't a hit on Republicans. Rather, the chapter is launching an educational project to mark the club's 50th anniversary. Zonta International is a global organization that works to improve the status of women and opposes violence against women.
The Pinellas Zonta chapter works closely with the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.
"It was just fortuitous that the RNC was coming at the same time" as Zonta's billboard campaign, Lancaster said. The club hopes that "some of the (RNC) participants would see it and think about it and go back to their homes and perhaps spread the word. It would also be a positive thing that could lead to more awareness across the country."
Most of the money for the billboards was provided by an anonymous donor who sympathized with law enforcement's struggle for funding to train officers to recognize human trafficking and who also wanted to raise awareness about sex trafficking.
"It's a hidden problem in many ways, because it's not the sort of thing that people like to talk about or that people even realize is going on," Lancaster said. "We want parents and kids to be alert to the problem and know what to look for."
Some 50,000 delegates, dignitaries, journalists, party staffers, corporate executives, lobbyists and others are expected to descend on Tampa for the Republican convention from Aug. 27 to 30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Tourism officials are working to showcase the Tampa Bay area as a great place to visit, live and do business.
The billboards will be an in-your-face reminder of another type of tourism: Florida is commonly cited, along with California, Texas and New York, as one of the top four destinations for sex trafficking and domestic labor trafficking.
After uncovering local cases of "modern-day slavery," the Clearwater Police Department in 2006 won a U.S. Department of Justice grant to create the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking. Members include area law enforcement agencies, social service groups and individual community members who help each other identify and rescue victims; investigate and prosecute traffickers; offer victims social, legal and immigration services; and give speeches to raise awareness.
As of January 2011, the most recent data available, the task force's investigations resulted in 104 arrests with 37 convictions. The task force says it has recovered 62 child sex victims since 2009.
Former Clearwater police Lt. George Koder, who was a leader in the task force's work, said in a recent television interview that he anticipated a 50 percent jump in human trafficking activity during the convention, though he didn't say how he arrived at that number.
Koder, who retired last week and could not be reached by the Times, also said that local, state and federal law enforcement officers are already monitoring online ads, planning reverse stings and taking other steps to ferret out sex traffickers during the convention.
Maj. Donald Hall, who replaced Koder and oversees trafficking detectives, said this week he thinks Koder's estimate was too high. Hall declined to supply his own estimate, but said historical trends do indicate that "any time you have large, major events like the Super Bowl with a large number of people, there's always the possibility of other elements moving into the area."
However, Tampa Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said her department has no intelligence indicating there will be an increase in sex trafficking crimes during the convention.
"In fact, during the last Super Bowl in 2009, we didn't see any increase in prostitution or sex trafficking cases," she said. "There is some stereotype that goes along with these big events, but that was not the reality."
Hall said human trafficking cases in the Tampa Bay region are evenly split between domestic servitude cases and sex cases. On the labor side, many victims are Hispanic immigrants, often lured here with the promise of agricultural work. They are grossly underpaid or not at all, and are sometimes forced to live in deplorable conditions.
In the sex trafficking cases, teen foster children, abuse victims and runaways are especially vulnerable to being wooed by a predator, who might approach them at the mall and play on their desire for love and acceptance or their need for food and shelter.
Sex traffickers use print and electronic media, including alternative magazines and a craigslist-like website to market their victims to customers.
The artwork for the Zonta billboard campaign was supplied by Shared Hope International, a nonprofit spearheaded in 1998 by Republican congresswoman Linda Smith that works to prevent and eradicate sex trafficking and slavery of women and children worldwide. Its artwork has appeared on billboards in other parts of the Unites States since December.
The billboards deliver a blunt message about the buyers and traffickers who feed the demand for sex with children.
"We wanted to bring attention to the fact that the men aren't slinking around. They're NFL stars, they're leading businessmen, they're pastors — they really could be anyone in the community," said Shared Hope spokeswoman Taryn Mastrean. "The (rescued) girls say many of the men are married and have children of their own. So we went with a man with a wedding ring who looks like a normal man."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.