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How to Identify a Trafficking Victim: Unveiling the Signs of Human Trafficking

02 Mar 2023,4:15 PM


Identifying a Trafficking Victim

Identifying a victim of human trafficking is a crucial endeavor because, without proper identification, the bottom drops out of anti-trafficking efforts (Roth, 2011). First, an unidentified victim will likely engage in activities such as prostitution, creating pornographic content, escort services, exotic dancing, and street peddling (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2022). While these occupations are only just anticipatory and not guaranteed hotspots for trafficking victims, there are general clues that can help further identify them. Evidence of physical and psychological control, along with loss of control/possession of a person's identification credentials, is a common sign. The inability to speak for oneself, being in the constant company of a spokesperson, and being unable to leave one’s workplace or home at will are also indicative of victimhood (U.S. Department of State, 2022b). A victim will also own virtually no possessions, suffer a lost sense of time and unfamiliarity with their environment, and possibly owe a large debt that they are unable to clear. From a psychological perspective, a victim will exhibit signs of shame and helplessness, shock, denial, sleeping/eating disorders, emotional numbness, and trauma. In addition, they will exhibit signs of drug or alcohol use/addiction and trauma bonding with their chaperones (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2022).

Taking Action

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is a 24-hour toll-free emergency line where one can report suspicions or proof of ongoing human trafficking through the number 1-888-373-7888. Alternatively, the whistleblower can send a text message to 233733 or report the situation online via There is also an opportunity to submit an online tip by filling out and submitting an anonymous online report form (National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2022). Other humanitarian activities would include volunteering and support of counter-trafficking efforts and actively engaging in combatting trafficking by reaching out to local, state, and federal officials for information and requests for action (U.S. Department of State, 2022a).

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Law Enforcement Training

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC) are dedicated to preparing officers of the law to combat human trafficking and safeguard the welfare of all American citizens. Instructors at FLETC provide human trafficking awareness training (HTAT) to law enforcement personnel at the tribal, local, state, and federal levels. In addition, the FLETC collaborates closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to dispense export training via digital platforms, which have been instrumental in the training process since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (Lefevre, 2021). Similarly, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) offers evidence-based expert-driven training and technical assistance (TTA) that serves to strengthen assistance efforts toward victims of human trafficking. The OVC TTA center provides a host of free resources to law enforcement officers, including a five-module online interactive training session for foundational learning, an action research toolkit, a series of pre-recorded webinars, and an e-guide for use by any human trafficking task force (Office for Victims of Crime, 2022).

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) also provides a host of training resources, including a comprehensive law enforcement guide to identifying and investigating human trafficking, guidelines on how to handle victims and witnesses of trafficking, and a toolkit for law enforcement personnel provided by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Additionally, the Blue Campaign, a nationwide awareness effort to offer education to law enforcers and the public, issues training and awareness material to shed light on key human trafficking indicators. The Blue Campaign is an initiative of the Center for Countering Human Trafficking (CCHT), whose main function is to counteract human trafficking by deploying law enforcement strategies and training programs to protect victims and prevent occurrences.

Exploitation of Children

The commercial sexual exploitation of children describes a set of crimes and criminal activities involving the exploitation of children for financial gain. Such abuse also includes exploiting a child through sexual activity in exchange for nonmonetary valuables. These activities are considered illegal because the U.S. constitution illegalizes such acts on any person considered a child or a minor—under Title 15 Section 6501, a child is any individual aged 13 and below, and a minor is anyone below the age of 18 (Cornell Law School, 2022a) Title 18 Section 2251 criminalizes any attempt to persuade, entice, use, or coerce a minor into engaging in any form of sexually explicit conduct (Cornell Law School, 2022c). Examples of acts that qualify as commercial sexual exploitation of children include prostitution of children, tourism of children involving commercial sex work, the commercial filming and production of child pornography, and transmission of live footage involving child sexual activity.

Section 1591 of Title 18 also illegalizes the recruitment, harboring, enticement, patronization, or solicitation of anyone below the age of 18 to engage in commercial sex activities (Cornell Law School, 2022b). Similarly, Section 2423 criminalizes the transportation of any individual who has not attained the age of 18 or traveling with them with the intent of inducing them to engage in sexual activity within the U.S. jurisdiction or foreign places (Cornell Law School, 2022d). According to U.S. law, a minor engaging in commercial sex activities, whether through free will, coercion, fraud, or force, is a victim because they have not attained the legal age for which they can consent to trade sex (Franchino-Olsen, 2021). Even if a minor willingly engages in commercial sex activity, this never counts as consent. The law argues that a child is developmentally unable to make decisions about when or how to engage in sexual behaviors such as commercial sex work (Stop It Now, 2022). This is why sex trafficking of children or engaging minors in commercial sexual exploitation remains a highly criminalized activity and also renders minors victims of the crime.

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Cornell Law School (2022a). 15 U.S. Code § 6501 – Definitions.

Cornell Law School (2022b). 18 U.S. Code § 1591 - Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion.

Cornell Law School (2022c). 18 U.S. Code § 2251 - Sexual exploitation of children.

Cornell Law School (2022d). 18 U.S. Code § 2423 - Transportation of minors.

Franchino-Olsen, H. (2021). Vulnerabilities relevant for commercial sexual exploitation of children/domestic minor sex trafficking: A systematic review of risk factors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse22(1), 99-111.

Lefevre, J. (2021, January). FLETC’s human trafficking awareness training.

National Human Trafficking Hotline (2022). Report trafficking.

Office for Victims of Crime (2022). Human trafficking.

Roth, V. (2011). Defining human trafficking and identifying its victims: A study on the impact and future challenges of international, European and Finnish legal responses to prostitution-related trafficking in human beings. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Stop It Now (2022). Why permission from a child or underage teen doesn't count.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2022). Fact sheet: Identifying victims of human trafficking.

U.S. Department of State (2022a). 20 ways you can help fight human trafficking.

U.S. Department of State (2022b). Identify and assist a trafficking victim.



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