Human trafficking is the business of stealing freedom for profit.
What is Human Trafficking?
Human trafficking is the business of stealing freedom for profit. In some cases, traffickers trick, defraud or physically force victims into providing commercial sex. In others, victims are lied to, assaulted, threatened or manipulated into working under inhumane, illegal or otherwise unacceptable conditions. It is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 24.9 million people around the world. Please scroll down to learn more about what constitutes the crime of trafficking. We hope this information is useful to you. Please note that the staff of the National Hotline is focused on assisting victims and survivors and is not available to answer more general questions about their work or about human trafficking generally for research or other purposes.
Force, fraud, or coercion
U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor or services against his or her will. The one exception involves minors and commercial sex. Inducing a minor into commercial sex is considered human trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud or coercion.
The Action-Means-Purpose (AMP) Model can be helpful in understanding the federal law. Human trafficking occurs when a perpetrator, often referred to as a trafficker, takes an Action, and then employs the Means of force, fraud or coercion for the Purpose of compelling the victim to provide commercial sex acts or labor or services. At a minimum, one element from each column must be present to establish a potential situation of human trafficking.
Recognizing the Signs
Human trafficking can happen to anyone but some people are more vulnerable than others. Significant risk factors include recent migration or relocation, substance use, mental health concerns, involvement with the children welfare system and being a runaway or homeless youth. Often, traffickers identify and leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities in order to create dependency.
Who are the traffickers?
Perpetrators of human trafficking span all racial, ethnic, and gender demographics and are as diverse as survivors. Some use their privilege, wealth, and power as a means of control while others experience the same socio-economic oppression as their victims. They include individuals, business owners, members of a gang or network, parents or family members of victims, intimate partners, owners of farms or restaurants, and powerful corporate executives and government representatives.
How do traffickers control victims?
Traffickers employ a variety of control tactics, the most common include physical and emotional abuse and threats, isolation from friends and family, and economic abuse. They make promises aimed at addressing the needs of their target in order to impose control. As a result, victims become trapped and fear leaving for myriad reasons, including psychological trauma, shame, emotional attachment, or physical threats to themselves or their family.
Who are the survivors?
Victims and survivors of human trafficking represent every race and ethnicity but some forms of trafficking are more likely to affect specific ethnic groups.
Recognizing the Signs
Are you or someone you know being trafficked? Is human trafficking happening in your community? Recognizing potential red flags and knowing the indicators of human trafficking is a key step in identifying more victims and helping them find the assistance they need.
Bear in mind that not all indicators will be present in all situations. The type of trafficking and the content or environment are all important to take into account.
Common Work and Living Conditions: The individual(s) in question
Is not free to leave or come and go at will
Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager
Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
Is living and working on site
Experiences verbal or physical abuse by their supervisor
Is not given proper safety equipment
Is not paid directly
Is forced to meet daily quotas
Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior
Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
Shows signs of substance use or addiction
Poor Physical Health
Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue
Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
Lack of Control
Has few or no personal possessions
Is frequently monitored
Is not in control of their own money, financial records, or bank account
Is not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where they are staying/address
Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
Appear to have lost sense of time
Shares scripted, confusing, or inconsistent stories
Protects the person who may be hurting them or minimizes abuse
This list is not exhaustive and represents only a selection of possible indicators. The red flags in this list may not be present in all trafficking cases. Each individual indicator should be taken in context, not be considered in isolation, nor should be taken as “proof” that human trafficking is occurring. Additionally, cultural differences should also be considered.
Note: According to federal law, any minor under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion.
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or may have information about a potential trafficking situation, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.
Myths & Facts
Myth: It’s always or usually a violent crime
Reality: By far the most pervasive myth about human trafficking is that it always – or often – involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.
Myth: All human trafficking involves commercial sex
Reality: Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or commercial sex. Worldwide, experts believe there are more situations of labor trafficking than of sex trafficking. However, there is much wider awareness of sex trafficking in the United States than of labor trafficking.
Myth: Only undocumented foreign nationals get trafficked in the United States
Reality: Polaris has worked on thousands of cases of trafficking involving foreign national survivors who are legally living and/or working in the United States. These include survivors of both sex and labor trafficking.
Myth: Human trafficking only happens in illegal or underground industries
Reality: Human trafficking cases have been reported and prosecuted in industries including restaurants, cleaning services, construction, factories and more.
Myth: Only women and girls can be victims and survivors of sex trafficking
Reality: One study estimates that as many as half of sex trafficking victims and survivors are male. Advocates believe that percentage may be even higher but that male victims are far less likely to be identified. LGBTQ boys and young men are seen as particularly vulnerable to trafficking.
Myth: Human trafficking involves moving, traveling or transporting a person across state or national borders
Reality: Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which involves illegal border crossings. In fact, the crime of human trafficking does not require any movement whatsoever. Survivors can be recruited and trafficked in their own home towns, even their own homes.
Myth: All commercial sex is human trafficking
Reality: All commercial sex involving a minor is legally considered human trafficking. Commercial sex involving an adult is human trafficking if the person providing commercial sex is doing so against his or her will as a result of force, fraud or coercion.
Myth: If the trafficked person consented to be in their initial situation, then it cannot be human trafficking or against their will because they “knew better”
- Reality: Initial consent to commercial sex or a labor setting prior to acts of force, fraud, or coercion (or if the victim is a minor in a sex trafficking situation) is not relevant to the crime, nor is payment.
Myth: People being trafficked are physically unable to leave their situations/locked in/held against their will
Reality: That is sometimes the case. More often, however, people in trafficking situations stay for reasons that are more complicated. Some lack the basic necessities to physically get out – such as transportation or a safe place to live. Some are afraid for their safety. Some have been so effectively manipulated that they do not identify at that point as being under the control of another person.
Myth: Labor trafficking is only or primarily a problem in developing countries
Reality: Labor trafficking occurs in the United States and in other developed countries but is reported at lower rates than sex trafficking.
Myth: Traffickers target victims they don’t know
Reality: Many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents.