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See Something – Say Something: Signs of Human Trafficking

  • July 6, 2018
  • KBA Attorneys
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Human trafficking is a major issue in our country and internationally. It’s important to know the signs of trafficking, and how to help.

As discussed on our practice page, Human trafficking is a major issue in our country and internationally. There are generally two kinds – sex trafficking and other forms of labor trafficking – and as we have blogged before, they are widespread. While trafficking sometimes happens as depicted in movies such as involving kidnapping, surprisingly, many victims are tricked or exploited into it.

The trafficker threatens family members or uses a past due debt, drug addiction, or false promises of a new job to coerce people into a years of slavery and abusive conditions. These people are trapped – physically and psychologically – but they walk among us. We should all be aware of and on the lookout for the signs of trafficking.

This is not a full list of all the signs, and Polaris has a good list on its website of signs of trafficking.

Common Work and Living Conditions

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
    • The individual is forcefully kept on premises through “security,” by threats, or punishment, such as loss of “privileges”
    • There are restrictions like curfews or monitors who accompany you.
    • This first one is usually found where there are high-security measures in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, cameras, etc.)
  • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
    • If the individual is engaged in sex in exchange for anything – money, bitcoin, rent, etc.
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp/manager
    • If someone else controls or benefits from you engaging in sex acts for some benefit, money or otherwise.
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
    • There are federal and state laws that require you to be paid a minimum wage. If you’re not getting that amount or it is being taken and used for things against your will like room, “shelter,” clothes, or food, about which you have no choice.
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
    • There are federal and state laws that limit how long you can work. If you are working more than eight hours a day, you should make sure you are being paid fairly (e.g., overtime). You should not have to work against your will.
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
    • People exploit shame and guilt to abuse people and take advantage of them. If you owe a debt and are being forced to do things to satisfy it, this may be a problem.
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • Lives with a group of individuals that are not family members
  • Broken promises of a better life.
    • Many times people are promised good money, working conditions, and a bright future only to be forced into sex with strangers, work camps, or other deplorable conditions.

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior (particularly if coupled with other signs here)

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
  • Avoids eye contact

Many of us experience these things in our daily life, but when they exist along with these other factors, it may be a sign of trafficking.

Poor Physical Health

  • Lacks health care
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control

  • Fearful of speaking or appearing in public
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • This may be a recent change or there may be a dramatic change in one’s life. They used to have these things, but there was a sudden, unexplained loss of them.
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • They may possess these things, but they have to get permission or “check with” others before they can make their own decisions
  • Similarly, is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
  • The individual’s behavior changed with respect to any decision-making and it is clear another person is involved in it now

Checking into hotels/motels with older males, and referring to those males as boyfriend or “daddy,” which is often street slang for pimp


  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
    • Or about one’s background
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
    • Usually coupled with frequent travel within explanation. An individual that travels a lot but has no job or source of income, for example.
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story (in terms of present situation or past)

If you have seen these signs in someone you know, alert law officials immediately. You can also report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888