House bill targets money laundering by human traffickers

WASHINGTON — The government would take modest steps toward hindering money laundering by human traffickers under legislation approved Tuesday by the House as lawmakers found a widely popular cause to tackle in a mostly discordant election year.

The bipartisan bill would require an existing presidential task force to recommend how Congress can better thwart money laundering by traffickers. Another federal council would suggest improvements in how U.S. agencies train investigators to pursue such cases.

The State Department would also have to factor money laundering into its annual rating of how well countries combat human trafficking.

The House approved the bill, 408-2. It now goes to the Senate.

Estimates of human trafficking victims vary, but recent reports put the number at tens of millions of people globally. It generally includes coerced sexual exploitation, prostitution, military service, labor and even organ donation.

The House also approved a separate bill imposing harsher penalties on predators convicted of stalking children, including people who pursue them online. The bill would add five years to maximum federal prison terms for convicted stalkers of minors under age 18. Victims' advocates say 7.5 million people are stalked annually in the U.S., with federal figures showing that about 1 in 4 of them report online stalking.

The bill was approved 409-2 and now goes to the Senate. The strong bipartisan support for both bills is crucial for legislation to move through Congress in the months approaching the November midterm elections. Partisan divisions are likely to block approval of major measures on infrastructure, immigration, health care and other high-profile issues.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign related legislation this week making it easier for prosecutors and sex trafficking victims to take legal action against websites that list ads for prostitutes. Children's advocates say such advertising is one way minors are sexually exploited.

The measure sharpens current law by opening the door to criminal and civil action against sites that assist advertisers of sexual trafficking. That broadens current laws, which until now have made it a crime to participate directly in a sex trafficking enterprise.

Last week, federal authorities took down Backpage.com, a classified ad website whose listings include sexual services. Site founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and five others face federal charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering, according to an indictment unsealed Monday.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this story.

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