Human traffickers can look like anyone, and live anywhere. They prey on the vulnerable — and kids are especially vulnerable, since they aren’t always able to defend themselves or use the best judgment, and they depend on adults to keep them safe and their needs met. Even so, there’s no single profile that fits either human traffickers or their victims, no defining characteristics shared across the board. That makes it feel like we’re looking for a needle in a haystack, like it’s a huge, insurmountable problem.
But there are things we can all do — actionable steps we can take, right now — to help end human trafficking.
The first step is to familiarize ourselves with some facts and misconceptions.
Human trafficking doesn’t always involve kidnapping.
Our society has a collective vision of a shady character lurking in a van, ready to snatch an unsuspecting child off the street, never to be seen again — but the truth is, some trafficking victims are being trafficked literally in plain sight. They may continue to go to school, to participate in extracurricular activities. They may be runaways who have escaped a tumultuous home life and are living on the streets. So just because a person isn’t officially “missing” doesn’t mean they can’t be in danger. Many times, a trafficker will be “in a relationship” with their victim while manipulating and coercing them to elicit sex (or other services) for money.
Anyone can be a victim, but some kids are more vulnerable than others to being groomed by a trafficker.
Like Scott Jenkins’ daughter, whose potential trafficking “gateway” was a 15-year-old boy she was chatting with online, some trafficking victims are average kids from normally-functioning families. But kids from marginalized populations, especially those who have unstable home lives or live in poverty, are more likely to become victims. Runaway and homeless kids are often approached at public transit stations, parks, or shelters. Undocumented immigrants can be easy targets because of their lack of legal support, unfamiliarity with cultural customs, and potential language barriers. LGBTQ+ youth may be ostracized by their family and peers, making them receptive to anyone who seems more accepting than other adults in their lives. Children from abusive homes, or whose parents or caregivers have substance abuse issues (or who abuse drugs themselves), may either be eager to escape their toxic domestic situations or simply left largely unsupervised. Traffickers pounce on these vulnerabilities and convincingly lure their targets away with promises of a solution to their problem — be it money, acceptance, or whatever else they need.
In the U.S., reports consistently show that a large number of child sex trafficking victims were a part of the foster care system at some point in their lives. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the majority of minor children involved in sex trafficking were runaways, with 12-14 being the average age of entering the sex trade. That being said, though …
Not all trafficking involves sex.
It’s important to recognize all forms of trafficking. Sex trafficking has been gaining more attention lately — and rightfully so, because it’s horrific. And sex work is lucrative; human trafficking overall is a $150 billion a year industry, and $99 billion of that comes from commercial sexual exploitation.
But labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and actually more widespread than sex trafficking. The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 25 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, but only about 4.8 million of those victims are providing commercial sex acts (still, that’s 4.8 million too many). According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, victims of labor trafficking “perform labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” They may be forced to work in legal businesses, factories, or on farms, or to take part in illegal activities such as drug or firearm sales. Labor trafficking happens in places you’d never even consider — like carnivals and nursing homes. The Polaris Project, operators of the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, have a fascinating (if stomach-turning) report called “The Typology of Modern Slavery” that takes an in-depth look into all the places trafficking victims, both sex and labor, can be found: 25 distinct businesses in all.
Human trafficking does not only happen in big states, or big cities.
According to the Polaris Project’s 2019 statistics, California, Texas, Florida, and New York have the most trafficking cases — no surprise, considering these are densely-populated states bordering water. But Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, Washington, and Pennsylvania round out the top ten, which confirms that just because you don’t live in an obvious “hotspot” state doesn’t mean that trafficking isn’t a problem close to home.
So how do we recognize victims of human trafficking?
Because it’s so widespread, and varies so much, there is no surefire sign that someone is — without a doubt — being trafficked. However, there are some general indications, and if a person fits several of these criteria, the chances are good that they’re being victimized. They may:
- Be alone very rarely, frequently accompanied by another person who is possibly referred to as their boyfriend/girlfriend
- Not have access to, or control of, their identifying documents such as their birth certificate or passport
- Live with their employer
- Have unexplained amounts of money or expensive gifts that seem “out of sync” with what they would normally have
- Be in a relationship with someone significantly older
- Display signs of physical abuse: bruises, cuts, burns, etc.
- Look malnourished
- Wear ill-fitting clothing, the same few outfits all the time, or clothing that is unusually revealing or suggestive
- Act fearful or secretive, even in the presence of people who could help them — including police; not self-identify as victims
- Live in unsuitable or unsafe conditions, especially with a group of other people who aren’t family members
- Be restricted as to where they go and when
- Be unable to handle their own money, or always owe it to their employer or partner
- Appear to speak as though they’ve been “coached” on what to say or are rehearsing a scripted answer
- Have a recent tattoo, of someone’s name or a symbol — trafficking victims are sometimes literally branded by their captors
Of course, not all of these criteria are a positive indicator of a trafficking victim, but these are potential signs to be on the lookout for.
What if you think you’ve spotted a human trafficking victim?
The most important thing to do is to make sure you aren’t jeopardizing the suspected victim’s safety (or your own!) in any way — so the best course of action in most cases is to report it by phone. Call 911 or your local law enforcement if you believe them to be in immediate danger; otherwise, report your suspicion to federal law enforcement by calling 866-347-2423, or fill out an online report to U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888, or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733), or use the form on their website to report.
If you’re in an industry such as healthcare or education, where you may be treating the victim or otherwise have the opportunity to speak to them privately, wait to talk to the individual until you’re both in a safe location (the Human Trafficking Hotline has a comprehensive assessment and resource guide for situations such as this). If they’re with another person, try to separate them — but only if you’re absolutely certain you can do so safely and without suspicion. If the person is not a native English speaker, you can enlist a translator; however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that you should make sure the translator doesn’t know the person, in order to guarantee that they aren’t working for the trafficker.
How can we fight human trafficking?
Congratulations — just by reading this far, you’ve already taken the first step. Knowing what human trafficking is, and arming yourself with the knowledge of potential signs, is so important. Some other steps you can take:
- Keep your eyes open; now that you know where to look (in case you missed it earlier in this article, check out the Polaris Project’s breakdown of trafficking “businesses”) and what to look for, you can more easily spot trouble.
- Shop smarter — use the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of goods commonly produced worldwide by child labor or forced labor to determine whether the things you buy are ethically harvested/manufactured. Visit SlaveryFootprint.org, a website made in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, for an eye-opening look at how many of the things we use every day come from a supply chain fraught with forced labor.
- Volunteer locally. The Human Trafficking Hotline has an online Referral Directory where you can enter your location and find the anti-trafficking organizations and resources closest to you.
- Raise your voice for the voiceless: contact your elected officials (local, state and federal; find them all here) and ask them — relentlessly, if necessary — what they are doing to address the issue of human trafficking. Then offer suggestions!
- Spread the word. Be vocal, both in person and on social media, about this cause! The more people are made aware of the facts and ways to help, the more likely they are to recognize the signs — and help accordingly. The Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign has an online document library with printable cards, posters, pamphlets, and infographics to help raise awareness.
- Keep yourself informed. The U.S. Department of Justice’s press room has a constantly-updating database of the latest press releases pertaining to human trafficking. You can set up a Google alert to ping your email when a new article about human trafficking hits the web. You can also see breaking news on the Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) website’s news feed.
- Encourage your workplace to provide pertinent, specialized training. Anyone working in the healthcare industry (including social workers and behavioral health professionals) can take SOAR training. Those in law enforcement and criminal justice can access training through the Office for Victims of Crime Training & Technical Assistance Center (OVC TTAC).
- Encourage your child’s school to adopt protocols for anti-trafficking; your district can find a ton of resources, plus a sample protocol, via the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.
- Use your skills for a good cause. No matter what you do professionally, or what you’re talented at, there’s some way to use your strengths. Do you provide a service that you or your employer could donate “pro bono” to victims of trafficking? Are you involved with an organization that may be able to help raise funds or awareness? Can you create eye-catching art and designs to bring attention to local resources?
- Hold a virtual fundraiser and donate the proceeds to anti-trafficking organizations.
Human trafficking victimizes innocent men, women, and children in the worst ways possible, and since it’s such a covert operation, it’s all too easily swept under the rug. It’s time to start paying more attention, because every victim deserves a life that doesn’t belong to somebody else.