Human sex trafficking is among the fastest growing crimes in the world. Because of this, everyone should be on the lookout for tell-tale signs suggesting someone is a victim of a trafficking organization.
Noticing these red flags isn’t as simple as looking for sex workers, as these people are in a totally different situations from someone who’s in the throes of human trafficking. Sex workers have autonomy, their own money, and work as independent contractors; someone who’s being trafficked does not.
Keeping an eye out for signs of human trafficking is equally simple and tricky. Human traffickers conduct business on the low, so indicators are often oblique and vary greatly depending on the situation. However, if you're able to correctly identify someone who needs help, you could potentially save their life.
Huge sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics draw massive crowds to whatever town they settle into, and this deluge of people is a cash cow for sex traffickers.
State and local police are aware of the black market these sporting events create, and they keep a lookout for specific kinds of activity. However, the signs of trafficking at a temporary public venue aren't the same as when trafficking occurs in a permanent location, so they have to keep an eye on very specific actions.
For large events like the Super Bowl, or even the consumer electronics event E3, authorities trove online ads. Offers used to be centrally located at Backpage and Craigslist, but they've since moved to more far-flung areas of the internet, making it harder for authorities to keep tabs on suspects.
If you're trying to determine whether someone is a victim of sex trafficking, it's important to keep the context of the situation in mind. You have to take in the entire scene before determining whether someone is in trouble, as signs change from situation to situation.
For instance, the indicators you're looking for while visiting a European brothel aren't the same as when you're on a plane. And neither of those situations will have the same red flags as a sex trafficking victim who's hanging around a motel.
It's important to remember there is a vast difference between sex workers and people who are victims of trafficking. A sex worker is someone who willingly takes part in a paid sexual encounter. Trafficking victims have been forced into a lifestyle where they operate under threat of violence.
Is the person you're worried about living where they work? Are they allowed to speak for themselves? Are they being guarded or are they constantly yanked away from the person they're with? All things to keep in mind while looking for signs of sex trafficking.
When you think of people who've been forced into sexual slavery, you might envision something akin to the plot of Taken. While people today can still be abducted from everyday life, sex traffickers also employ high tech, manipulative methods.
Sex traffickers use social media to contact children, groom them, and earn their trust. Erin Williamson from the anti-trafficking organization told the NY Post, "The internet has made every child online susceptible and accessible to traffickers… so a lot of youth are being recruited right from their own home."
Williamson explained traffickers use a kind of social media pyramid scheme to snag children:
It can be an individual who is on Facebook and is friend-requesting all of the students who say they attend a certain middle school. And then when one or two accept, they friend-request all of their friends and so on. … By the time they’re friend-requesting a vulnerable youth, they have 30 mutual friends, and they seem that they’re legitimate.
Someone who's being trafficked has zero personal autonomy. They're told where to go and when they can go there. In many cases a victim of sex trafficking will live and work in the same place, keeping them locked in a cycle of abuse.
In this scenario, the only people the victims see are their captors and the patrons who they're forced to have sex with. It's hard to judge whether or not someone is staying in the brothel, motel, or apartment where they're working, but if the windows are covered with plywood or bars that's a sign no one's allowed to leave.
Heightened security means the people running the operation know everything's not on the up and up, and they don't want to get busted.