The Alameda County sheriffs Sexual Offenders Tracking Unit has been putting the heat on prostitutes in recent weeks in an effort to target pimps and women doing business in unincorporated communities.

As the unit attempts to crack down on the problem, it has come across a troubling trend: More than ever, detectives are finding teenage girls — some as young as 13 — on the streets selling their bodies for profit.

Some of the girls have been taken into custody while strolling along Mission Boulevard, while others are being pimped by men who advertise the girls services on popular Web sites such as craigslist.org.

I cant say that its totally new, because weve had juveniles (involved in prostitution) as far back as I can remember, said Sgt. Kurt VonSavoye, supervisor of the sheriffs Youth and Family Services Bureau. The increase is whats new — this sudden trend for more and more teens to become involved in this type of activity. Were really just touching the tip of the iceberg here.

While local authorities have not compiled statistical data on the increase in the number of young girls getting caught up in prostitution, a recent survey published last month by the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections found that about 650,000 teenagers nationwide have exchanged sex for money or drugs.

Its sad, said Lauren Tucker, a detective for the sheriffs Sexual Offenders Tracking Unit. I cant imagine girls at the age of 13 having sex. Its like, where are your parents?

Tucker said the problem was highlighted during two recent undercover operations in which four teenage girls were arrested on charges of prostitution.

The last operation we did in August, we had two under-age girls, both 17, Tucker said. And in the last three weeks, we got two more. The more operations we do, were finding more and more young girls out there.

A common thread appears to connect the young girls who have entered the dangerous world of prostitution: Most are runaways who are being taken advantage of by older men, Tucker said.

The pimps convince the girls that they love them, that theyre going to take care of them, said Tucker.

He said many times the young girls are physically and sexually assaulted by the men before being forced into prostitution.

These guys just prey on young girls, she said.

Unlike the older prostitutes, who tend to sell their bodies to support their drug addiction, the teenagers are into the game primarily for the money, investigators say.

For young kids, its the money and the influence of these pimps who are targeting kids who are easily swayed, VonSavoye said. Attitudes toward sexual activity as a whole have changed dramatically among these kids. Our youth, they just have less respect for themselves and less of a problem putting themselves into risky situations.

Authorities face a delicate dilemma: Do they toss the young girls into juvenile hall, or do they direct them toward programs that will help them deal with the personal problems that have caused them turn to prostitution?

Both Tucker and VonSavoye say investigators do what they can to place the teenage girls into the various programs provided by the county, because theyre more victims than criminals.

If these are relatively early offenders, we can divert them rather than sending them to probation or juvenile hall, VonSavoye said.

As for the men who lure the girls into prostitution, Tucker said, detectives do what they can to have the men prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

If we can find a way to do it, theyre going to jail, Tucker said. Most of the pimps are adults, and in these cases, they are sexually assaulting these kids theyre turning into prostitutes. The pimps are the ones who should do time.

Ricci Graham covers courts and law enforcement. He can be reached at (510) 293-2469 or rgraham@dailyreviewonline.com.