There is a $32 billion illegal worldwide human trafficking operation with branches functioning in Ventura County, local immigration and police officials maintain.

It could be happening in the next-door neighbor’s house or at the neighborhood massage establishment or at the local nail salon.

But throughout the county, money-strapped law enforcement agencies lack the resources to deploy anti-trafficking units. Human trafficking, the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, may be going virtually unnoticed. More than ever before, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police are relying on the public to serve as a watchdog for human trafficking, clandestine, by nature.

“We need the public’s help,” said David Wales, ICE resident agent in charge. Wales recently did an event on human trafficking at the Body Shop at the Pacific View Mall in Ventura. “This is potentially a huge problem here. We just haven’t received many leads concerning these issues.”

Sgt. James Fryhoff of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department echoed similar concerns about the issue.

“We’re not able to do anything proactive about it,” he said, “but we’re aware that it is an ongoing problem in the county.”

According to a recent United Nations study, the industry of human trafficking — the smuggling of human beings for purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor — is larger than drug smuggling and about even with illegal arms sales. Victims of human trafficking are smuggled into the United States — about 20,000 each year — from abroad, including from China, Vietnam, Guatemala and the Ukraine. Many are also children born in the U.S. and steered into this form of prostitution.

In 2007, Sergeant Tom Higgins of the Ventura Police Department was looking into specific trafficking problems within the city after several complaints about sexually oriented services in local massage establishments. In his investigation, Higgins learned that the Los Angeles Police Department was also conducting an investigation of a local massage establishment that had ties to other such businesses in L.A. The owner in question was subsequently arrested for pandering.

“During their (LAPD) time, here they learned there is definitely some human trafficking in Ventura,” recalled Higgins. “What gave them that idea was information about girls being moved around from Ventura to other nearby cities.”

Higgins has been working with code enforcement and the city treasury department, which oversees massage establishment licensing, to create a stricter operational policy for such businesses. From 2006 to 2008, Higgins said, there was a tremendous influx of massage establishments, but the number has since being curtailed. Working without a license, or violating code, yields a misdemeanor violation, a $500 fine and a six-month probation term that prohibits working in the city as a massage therapist.

Nationally, the federal Justice Department under President Barack Obama elevated human trafficking as a major civil rights issue. California responded by its recent adoption of Senate Bill 657. The bill, signed in September, says that courts can seize any property used to facilitate human trafficking. Beginning in January 2012, SB 657 will also require manufacturers and retailers in California to disclose their efforts to ensure that every link in their supply chains is free of slavery and forced labor.

What sets human trafficking apart from drug smuggling and arms trafficking is the difficulty of recognizing the crime.

The visual of transporting women, and sometimes men, is what should be the red flag, said Wales.

Wales confirmed that “seeing several at a time being moved from a van into a house and then not seeing them for a long time” is an indicator of which the public should be wary.

The lack of freedom to leave a house (or move about) is one of the biggest of the various factors that alarm ICE agents and alert them about the possibility of forced manual labor, which Wales said is essentially slavery.

He cited a case in an affluent Orange County neighborhood in which an Egyptian family brought Shyima, a 10-year-old girl from Egypt, and enslaved her for household manual labor.

“She was held captive in that house, a slave right there in that neighborhood,” Wales said. A neighbor noticed the girl’s lack of freedom and her perpetual labor about the house and notified local authorities. “That family’s house of cards came tumbling down.”

The biggest hurdle ICE agents face is the victim’s fear of deportation and the threat of violence by the captors to a victim’s family, should law enforcement be notified. Wales confirmed that immigrant victims of labor and sex trafficking can apply for a trafficking visa, a “T visa,” which allows them to stay in the country temporarily.

“There are many provisions that allow us to keep those folks in the country and, hopefully, dismantle these organizations,” Wales said.

ICE has more than 350-victim witness coordinators nationwide. Agents are specifically trained in dealing with them and establishing contacts with nongovernment organizations throughout the area that will provide care and stability for victims, Wales said.

The federal government has set up a national hotline, called the Polaris Project, that is run independent of law enforcement. The multi-lingual hotline number is 888-373-7888. To report suspicious activity to the ICE, call 866-DHS-2-ICE.