Some issues are easier to solve than others.
We have systems in place to deal, often immediately, with some tragic circumstances. Say you’re driving out of the Starbucks parking lot and another car slams into your passenger side door. There are clear steps to follow—exchange insurance information, call the police to get an accident report filled out, and let the system work out how to make the damages right. Within minutes, the problem is turning into a resolution.
But other problems in society, the most dangerous ones, happen in secret. Human trafficking—modern-day sex slavery—is a dehumanizing and pervasive crime that stains every part of the U.S. map, not to mention every country around the globe.
Yet it happens behind the scenes every day without a clear protocol the everyday person can follow to help solve the issue.
Human trafficking defined: what and who
The U.S. Department of State defines human trafficking as “a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” They also assert that when a person under the age of 18 is led to perform a commercial sex act, “it is a crime regardless of whether there is any force, fraud, or coercion.”
Under this definition, trafficking can range from back alley urban massage parlors to bustling airports to high-end escort services to anywhere in between. Sex trafficking is not limited to traditional trafficking rings, but occurs any time someone is manipulated, forced, pressured, or tricked into performing any sex act for money (or any commercial sex situation when the victim is under 18).
The trafficking industry victimizes all types of people—men and women and LGBTQ+ individuals, adults and children, U.S. citizens and non-citizens, etc. When thinking about trafficking, you might be tempted to picture the stereotypical young female dressed in clearly sexualized clothing on the nighttime streets of Vegas.
Resist that stereotype, though, because the pool of victims is much broader and more diverse than that.
Instead, pay attention to the “signs” of someone being trafficked, and don’t assume any type of person, geographical area, or scenario is off the table for possible exploitation.
Signs to look for in a victim
The National Human Trafficking Hotline has put together a comprehensive—but not exhaustive—list of common “signs” that a person might be in a trafficking situation. Check out the full list if you get a chance, but here are some examples.
Consider reporting a situation if the individual in question:
- Is not free to leave or come and go at will
- Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
- Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
- Works or lives in locations with high-security measures (e.g. opaque windows, security cameras, etc)
- Is living and working on the same site
- Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
- Shows signs of substance abuse or addiction
- Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
- Has few or no personal possessions
- Is not in control of his or her own money, bank account, or identification documents
- Is not allowed to speak for himself or herself (a third party takes the lead)
- Shows a lack of knowledge about where he or she is staying, what city it’s in
- Shares scripted, confusing, or inconsistent stories
And if you’d like some more examples of what to look for, the Michigan State Police put together this video that shows some common signs of human trafficking—can you spot them?
These are only some of the possible indicators—if something seems off for another reason, it’s a good idea to report it as well. And remember, these signs can appear anywhere in any context, whether it’s someone you’ve known for years or you just met.
How and where to report a suspicious situation
If you notice one of these signs or other suspicious activity, it’s important to report what you’ve seen to proper authorities.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by a nonprofit and funded in part by the U.S. State Department, is a 24/7 hotline that responds both to tips/reports of possible trafficking and victims themselves. You can call 1-888-373-7888 any time. You can also text 233733 at any time or chat live on their website. Advocates on the other end will coordinate with the best resources for the situation—local law enforcement if warranted, investigators, and service provider partners that help with victims’ needs.
It is important to note that you are not responsible for interpreting the situation completely—all you have to do is report what you see. The Hotline Advocates are professionals, trained to take it from there.
If you would rather, you can submit a tip online to the FBI. Note that this will lead to a slower response to the situation.
Don’t overthink it…report it
It’s easy to reason away what you saw or experienced, but you should trust your gut reaction. It’s better to report something that isn’t actually trafficking than to avoid reporting when it actually is.
This flight attendant could have convinced herself that she was just looking at a man and his granddaughter, but instead she took action that led to an inspirational rescue from trafficking.
Remember that you are the safe one in the scenario with the freedom to speak your mind. Trafficked victims are often dealing with emotional, psychological, and/or physical trauma—not to mention financial or social manipulation—so they aren’t in a place to “get out of the situation themselves.”
Plus, the effects of being trafficked can be severe and life-altering. Victims need help to get free and recover from the industry. And there is plenty of help out there in the form of government agencies and nonprofits. Your report can connect the dots between a victim and the help they need.
What you can do in your daily life
It isn’t only stand-alone suspicious activity reports that can make a difference. Be a friend to people you meet, and in the context of your friendships, consider speaking up in a kind way when you notice that they might be putting themselves at risk or becoming involved in potentially harmful situations. Friendship, awareness, and social support are some of the best preventative measures there are.
And of course, consider porn’s tight link to sex trafficking. Porn fuels trafficking around the globe and normalizes exploitation on a massive scale. Taking a stand against this industry is a powerful way to stand up for those facing trafficking right this second.
Consider sharing this article to spread awareness on trafficking and what we can do about it.