Traffic signals: Cues and clues indicating human trafficking operations

Human trafficking is fast becoming one of the world’s most lucrative criminal enterprises and as such, both patrol officers and investigators should know some of the indicators.

Human trafficking cases, unless specifically reported, don’t exactly jump out and bite us. These types of cases may be hard to detect unless we’re looking. I have provided four indicators to help officers or investigators determine if they have a suspected trafficking case.

To begin, allow me to provide a little background information on human trafficking.

Human trafficking has two primary prongs: forced labor or servitude and forced prostitution, often referred to as “sex trafficking.”

According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000):

• Human trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or other services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery. • Sex trafficking includes the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the victim is under 18 years of age.

Many victims are immigrants that succumb to fraudulent recruitment practices involving false promises of a “better life” including well-paid employment, desirable housing or more. Human traffickers also prey upon domestic victims as well. Teenage runaways and vulnerable women are prime, easily enticed, targets.

Naturally, these falsehoods come with “a catch.”

Traffickers may charge a victim a sizable fee or provide them a significant loan in order to facilitate the victim “living the dream.” These fees or loans are often structured in a way that makes it nearly impossible to repay.

Once this debt is established the framework for “debt bondage” or involuntary servitude has been set.

Misled by their recruiters, victims may then find themselves forced to work extremely long hours or prostitute themselves for little or no pay with only meager provisions of food and shelter. Traffickers often assess fees for the victim’s meager accommodations in order to assure continued indebtedness.

Victims of human trafficking are unable to leave these oppressive and often abusive situations for variety of reasons. Traffickers use mental abuse, the threat of or actual physical violence, sexual abuse, drug dependency, the threat of arrest or even deportation as a means to control their victims and establish/maintain a psychological dependency.

Another method used by traffickers to detain their victims is to seize their identification documents, travel papers such as, passports or visas, any credit card or bankcards and their cell phones.

Traffickers, if they don’t do it themselves, will assign someone to watch over the victim. This person, often a more senior or trusted victim, will help to curtail a victim’s freedom of movement or communications outside the inner sanctum of the trafficker until further trust is earned.

Many people assume that human trafficking is an international problem…one that has not yet infiltrated the United States…but it has. The United States government established human trafficking laws nearly twelve years ago and the number of cases investigated has grown significantly each year. It is here and law enforcement should be on the look out for it.

Human trafficking does not appear to favor a particular city, town, or state: it can occur anywhere. Unfortunately, certain websites also exploit victims of human trafficking. So, geographically speaking, human trafficking cases may be found as far as the internet can reach. The job of law enforcement is to find it.

Officers are likely to find human trafficking cases hidden in plain sight. Trafficking cases are often masked by the calls for service officers regularly and routinely respond to.

Officers get accustomed to handling calls like labor disputes, check-on-location calls, check-on-subject calls, domestic calls, prostitution calls and injured subject calls at face value. Yet, these are the very types of calls where indicators of human trafficking can and will be found.

Here are some indicators to look for.

Security This is an important is to pay attention to. As officers come upon a variety of businesses, restaurants, or residences, they should be sure to examine the level of security present.

They should ask themselves, “Does this level of security seem appropriate for this type of property or dwelling?”

For instance:

• Are there bars on the doors and windows? • Is this appropriate considering the level of crime in the neighborhood? • Is there an unusual amount of surveillance equipment on exterior, interior, or both? • Is there barbed wire present and does it seem out of place? • Does it appear that the level of security is intended to keep people out or, of great concern to police, keep people in?

Businesses/Residences Businesses also serve as fronts for traffickers to exploit their victims. Restaurants, bars and strip clubs, nail salons, kiosks, massage parlors, truck stops, cleaning services, construction businesses, farms and even people’s homes are but a few places officers might encounter human trafficking victims. One important indicator for officers to take note of is a business where the employees both live and work.

Is this a dead give away?


But, the living arrangements may be unusually crowded and the accommodations scant. In some instances only bare mattresses may be present on the floor, in others maybe not even that much may be provided to victims.

One skilled investigator once offered me this tip: “Whenever I enter a home or business suspected of human trafficking, I ask to wash my hands. Once permission is obtained, I look for the farthest bathroom I can find. Along the way, I’m able to see into rooms and make observations.”

Observing what’s there is just as important as observing what’s not. A room with only a stained mattress, condoms and a roll of paper towels might be a clue just as bathrooms with no doors, or little or no clothing, cell phone or other personal effects present in bedrooms where these things would otherwise normally exist, ought to raise officer suspicions.

Victims’ Behaviors Suspected victims, presuming officers have an opportunity to observe them, also provide officers possible indicators of human trafficking via the means used to detain them. Naturally, visible physical injuries on any victim ought to raise red flags but so should employees who appear overly fatigued, poorly nourished, physically unkempt, or who appear unusually frightened or intimidated by your presence.

Some victims may appear to physically “shrink” or even disappear in the face of police authority. Victims may be reluctant to make eye contact and/or be unwilling to speak with officers.

And, although, there might be rational explanations for some of these behaviors, the totality of the circumstances should be considered, as these might be reasons for further inquiry.

In many cases, visible injuries or victim fatigue may not be apparent. So, when given an opportunity, officers should try to ask some key questions.

I have to emphasize though that victims may not feel at ease to speak in the presence of their traffickers or handlers. Officers should try their best to speak to suspected victims in as private a setting as circumstances allow.

As I mentioned earlier, traffickers will often seize a victim’s personal documents. One thing officers do as a matter of routine, and should do in a suspected trafficking case, is ask a suspected victim for any form of identification they can provide. If the victim is unable to produce identification officers should inquire why they don’t have it or why they’re unable to easily obtain it. This may provide officers another benchmark while piecing together the framework of a human trafficking case.

Some other helpful questions to ask are:

• Does the victim know where they are, meaning what city or town they’re in? • Asking the victim to explain how they got there, can they recall the route or provide directions? • Can they provide the address where they’re staying? • Even a simple question about the community may be revealing like, “Where’s a good place to eat lunch around here?”

In some cases, traffickers frequently move their victims. Surreptitiously moving a victim from town-to-town, state-to-state or even in and out of the country helps to minimize or complicate the suspicions of law enforcement. It also limits a victim’s ability to establish contacts or build trusting relationships with anyone other than their traffickers or handlers.

Keeping victims in a state of uncertainty also furthers victim dependency upon their traffickers. And, in cases of sex trafficking, regular movement or rotation of victims offers customers a sense of variety, giving them different women to choose from.

Once again, a lack of identification or forgetting directions is not a “smoking gun.” Officers need to thoughtfully examine all the information they are able to observe and gather, but purposeful questions such as these hold relevance because the frequent movement and other limitations experienced by victims may make it difficult for them to find answers.

This void of reasonable explanations or “simple” answers might stir an officer’s interest to dig further.

Third Party “Helpers” Another indicator of human trafficking is someone else intervening to answer your questions on behalf of the victim. In some cases, the victim’s trafficker or handler themselves, who could be either male or female, may attempt to interject themselves into your initial investigation, essentially acting as the victim’s “mouthpiece.”

This is done in an effort to keep the victim from revealing too much to the authorities like, where they’re from or how many hours they’re forced to work. Neither would traffickers and handlers want victims describing their working or living conditions to an officer or describing instances of abuse, imprisonment or revealing anything else they deem incriminating.

These third parties may suggest that the victim doesn’t speak English, is afraid of the police, or does not wish to speak with them.

He or she may try to spin a tale of reassurance that everything is fine or take a dismissive stance by suggesting that nothing more than a simple misunderstanding has taken place.

These third-party “helpers” want nothing more than for officers to leave and/or leave them alone. Remember, separating the victim from the watchful eye and discerning ear of their traffickers or handlers is an important first step in trying to elicit information from them.

Officers and investigators need to understand that human trafficking has a growing presence within the United States. It also lurks in the shadows of the crimes routinely handled by the police. Human trafficking has some different indicators than routine crimes like labor disputes or prostitution.

Remember this little tip: “A right to be, is a right to see.”

Being on the lookout for indicators like the ones described above and by comprehensively documenting all the information gathered, Officers and investigators can establish the existence of a human trafficking case.

Due to the complexities of these types of cases, I strongly recommend that officers and investigators seek the counsel and guidance of those who have successfully investigated and prosecuted trafficking cases. Taking the time to contact federal agencies like the FBI or ICE as well as your local Attorney General’s Office will be time well spent.

Stay safe.