The lawsuit lays out a horrific story of alleged sexual exploitation.

At the age of 26, a New Hampshire woman was coerced into prostitution by the man she thought was her boyfriend, according to a lawsuit she filed this week in U.S. District Court in Concord. Preying on her vulnerability — she had been sexually abused as a child and has developmental disabilities — and her desire for connection, the man “made sure that she actually believed that they were in a romantic relationship as he pushed her into commercial sex,” the lawsuit says.

He would buy her small gifts, physically assault her and threaten to leave her if she disobeyed, according to the lawsuit, which does not identify him and identifies the woman only by her initials. He later passed her on to two other sex traffickers, who continued to physically and verbally abuse her, the lawsuit says.

From 2016 to 2018, according to the lawsuit, the men would bring her to hotel rooms in different parts of the state, including Concord, Gilford and Keene, where she was forced to perform sex acts on six to 10 strangers per day, on average. Her “trafficker would undress her and stand outside with her clothing while she serviced the buyer so that she could not escape,” the lawsuit says.

She was prohibited from talking to anyone, had bruises on her arms and bite marks on her neck, wore inadequate clothing and exhibited poor hygiene, according to the lawsuit, which says she often “would exit the hotel in view of the front desk crying while her trafficker yelled at her.”

The lawsuit — which accuses several major hotel brands of failing to take sufficient action to detect and prevent sex trafficking — casts light on a crime that often stays in the shadows.

And the woman’s story underscores another point. Human trafficking in the state, according to experts, rarely involves an international element. In nearly all cases, it is local residents being forced into sex work or other forms of servitude.

“A New Hampshire resident can be recruited into trafficking, coerced into trafficking, without knowing what they’re getting into,” said Linda Douglas, trauma informed services specialist for the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “And they can be trafficked right here in this state.”

An ‘insidious’ practice

Human trafficking is “the exploitation of a person through labor, services, or a commercial sex act by force, fraud, or coercion,” according to the N.H. Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force, a group that includes law enforcement agencies and social services providers.

Law enforcement agencies opened at least 29 human trafficking investigations in New Hampshire in 2018, according to the task force’s report for that year — 23 sex trafficking cases, five labor trafficking cases and one that allegedly involved both.

Becky Ayling, project director for the task force, said those numbers likely understate the problem.

“When you talk with some of the survivors who are helping with an investigation or who are receiving services, they talk about the other people who they left behind or who came through that trafficking,” she said. “So we know that they’re representative of … a much bigger group.”

Identifying, investigating and prosecuting such cases can be difficult, she said. Victims may be too fearful or traumatized to testify. Another challenge is figuring out when abusive behavior is accompanied by trafficking. “Historically, we stopped when we found child abuse or domestic violence and didn’t dig deeper or have a strong enough understanding of when it was both,” she said.

Traffickers use different methods of coercion, according to experts. Some victims are addicted to drugs and are forced into sex work or other labor after racking up a debt with a dealer, said Mike Posanka, resident agent in charge for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in Manchester.

“The drug dealer will tell them, ‘Well, you can either work this off, work off this drug debt, by engaging in commercial sex or by … making drug runs to Lawrence,’ ” he said.

Douglas said traffickers often home in on people they sense are vulnerable.

It’s relatively common, she said, to see cases where the trafficker enters someone’s life as a dating partner, then pushes them into prostitution through emotional manipulation, blackmail and other techniques. Traffickers also recruit strangers via social media and sham job offers like modeling.

“It’s very insidious how it gets done,” she said.

Red flags

Though they will vary from case to case, a range of warning signs can indicate someone is being trafficked, according to the Washington, D.C.-based anti-trafficking organization Polaris.

Victims might display fear, anxiety or marks of physical or sexual abuse. They might not be allowed to speak for themselves or come and go freely. Someone else might control their money and identification documents. They could be closely watched.

In hotels, rooms where many people come in and out or cleaning crews are not allowed in for several days can also point to possible trafficking, Douglas said.

According to the New Hampshire woman’s lawsuit, many of those signs were present when she was being trafficked in hotels.

She “repeatedly checked into the hotel or checked in for long periods of time without any luggage, often with different varied visitors who were all male, constantly avoiding all eye contact, and under the obvious control of one of her traffickers who treated her as a child and prohibited her from speaking and booked the rooms for her in cash or escorted her to a room for a short visit,” the lawsuit says.

The woman is suing four hotel brands — InterContinental Hotels Group, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Best Western International and Marriott International — under a federal law that allows victims to sue entities that profit from trafficking when they know, or should know, it’s occurring. It alleges the brands did not do enough to prevent trafficking at the franchises they oversee by requiring employee training and security measures.

The lawsuit says the woman’s traffickers took her to hotels that operate under those brands, including the Best Western Plus on Winchester Street in Keene and hotels in Concord, Tilton and Gilford.

The Best Western in Keene is owned by Vidhi Hospitality LLC, which is connected to Jamsan Hotel Management of Lexington, Mass. Neither company is named in the lawsuit. A representative of Vidhi Hospitality did not respond to an email requesting comment Thursday.

Samantha Breakstone of the New York-based firm Weitz & Luxenberg, who is one of the attorneys on the lawsuit, said the law gives hotels “an affirmative duty to check whether or not they are profiting from human trafficking.”

“Almost every victim I have ever worked with has been trafficked through a hotel,” said Breakstone, a former prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. “And every single, solitary one of them recalls it distinctly as being the first time that they were ignored, because that’s the first time you have contact with the outside world.”

Breakstone said that when independent franchise owners operate the hotels, the brands are still liable because they set the standards for those locations and have the power to enforce them.

The New Hampshire case is one of 20 such lawsuits Weitz & Luxenberg, along with partner firms, have filed across the country so far, according to Breakstone. The plan is to consolidate those cases before one federal judge to streamline pretrial litigation, she said.

In emailed statements, the major hotel brands declined to comment on the specifics of pending litigation but said they have taken steps to prevent trafficking.

“Marriott International is working to help combat the horrific crime of human trafficking in hotels,” a company spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “Marriott International developed training in partnership with leading human rights organizations to teach its hotel workers to recognize the signs of human trafficking and how to respond.”

Wyndham Hotels and Resorts said that it has “worked to enhance our policies condemning human trafficking while also providing training to help our team members, as well as the hotels we manage, identify and report trafficking activities. We also make training opportunities available for our franchised hotels, which are independently owned and operated.”

An IHG spokesman wrote that the company is “committed to working with hotel owners to fight human trafficking across our industry and in local communities. As part of this, we provide mandatory human trafficking prevention training for all IHG-branded hotels in the Americas, and have been rolling out the program to all IHG-branded hotels globally.”

A Best Western spokeswoman provided a statement touting the industry’s efforts to “raise awareness and fight against this inhumane and horrific crime.”

“While Best Western branded hotels are independently owned and operated, we require that each member hotel complies with all laws and treats all hotel guests consistent with our core values of integrity, honesty, and respect for others’ dignity,” the statement said. “We provide information and training resources to member hotels on this serious issue such that hotels can educate their staff about how to recognize and report instances of trafficking.”

In an interview, Mike Somers, president and CEO of the N.H. Lodging & Restaurant Association, said he has worked with the state’s anti-trafficking task force on training and distributing educational materials to hotel professionals.

“There’s a fair amount of awareness, and a lot of folks are doing a lot of work,” he said. “But … this is a very under-the-radar activity, and oftentimes very hard to detect. So it definitely creates operational challenges for hoteliers.”

Those affected by sexual violence can seek help by calling the statewide sexual-assault hotline at 1-800-277-5570 or, in the Monadnock Region, MCVP Crisis and Prevention Center at 603-352-3782 or 1-888-511-MCVP. You do not need to be in crisis to call.

The number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by Polaris, is 888-373-7888.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or Follow him on Twitter @PCunoBoothKS.