Some recruit women by promising to turn them into models only to make them to work at strip clubs and prostitution dens. Others smuggle children into the U.S. with the lure of an education or romance, then force them into the sex trade or to work as unpaid slaves.
The U.S. attorney's office held a daylong summit Monday that focused on the growing human trafficking problem that spurred federal authorities to designate Atlanta as a focal point. It highlighted the tactics used by pimps and smugglers to help prosecutors, community activists and police officers root them out.
"It's a distinction Atlanta no longer wants and no longer deserves," Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said. "We will not tolerate this kind of crime in our midst."
Experts at the summit made clear that the criminal activity goes far beyond the human traffickers and pimps.
Hotel operators collect special "visitation fees" to look the other way. Taxi drivers took a cut of the business to shuttle prostitutes and clients often didn't seem to care girls were underage or there against their will. Neighbors didn't alert police to strange activity, and even some officers aren't properly trained to detect the telltale signs of forced servitude.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has made cracking down on the abuse of children one of its top priorities, and the U.S. attorney's office has several prosecutors focused on human traffickers.
They have more legal tools now, too. Once, prosecutors had to rely on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges to root out human traffickers, but lawmakers adopted a new law this year that's among the nation's strongest.
One of the most telling examples of Atlanta's challenge is the case of Jimmie Lee Jones, an Atlanta man who would stalk women at video shoots and nightclubs and convince them to sign "casting contracts." Then, prosecutors said, he would use violence, threats and intimidation to compel them to work as prostitutes. He'd often threaten to send videos of them dancing nude to parents and friends if they didn't cooperate.
He pleaded guilty to sex trafficking charges in January 2008 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Kay, a victim who only gave her first name, said she met Jones at a subway stop in downtown Atlanta and reluctantly agreed to go to dinner and a movie with him. Instead, she was taken to his condo, raped and held captive for three days, she said. When he finally let her go, he dropped her off at a bus stop with only $3 to get home to the suburbs.
"He suggested he could make my dreams and visions of being a model come true," she said. "But really he turned those dreams into a nightmare."
Amador Cortes-Meza had a different tactic. He and his relatives lured impoverished young Mexican women to the Atlanta area and then forced them to work as prostitutes, authorities said. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison in March after state and federal authorities uncovered his plot.
Sara, one of his victims, said through an interpreter that she was confined in Cortes-Meza's home and abused if she disagreed with his plans. She was only allowed to leave the house to hop in taxis that would take her to a long list of clients, she said.
"Perhaps you're asking yourself why didn't I leave, why didn't I call police," she said. "I didn't have any money, I didn't have any friends, I didn't know my neighbors, and I couldn't even come to the door."
Not all the schemes involve sex. Bidemi Bello was convicted of human trafficking and forced servitude charges in June after prosecutors said she traveled to her native Nigeria and convinced impoverished families to give up two teenage children for the promise of a better life in America.
Instead, she turned them into modern-day household slaves, prosecutors said. She fed them spoilt food, beat them repeatedly and forced them to cut the lawn outside her stately north Georgia house with scissors, said Susan Coppedge, a federal prosecutor who focuses on human trafficking cases.
Coppedge urged the dozens of law enforcement officers at the summit to investigate complaints that may just seem like domestic violence.
"You need to listen to the stories and delve a little deeper," she said. "And I know that's hard during a time of limited resources. But it's the only way."