Human Trafficking 101:


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1. Human Trafficking Defined

The United States defines the crime of human trafficking – or “trafficking in persons” – in the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). There are two categories of human trafficking:

Sex Trafficking

The TVPA defines sex trafficking as, “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of commercial sex.” Commercial sex happens when anything of value – money, drugs, rent – is given to or received by any person in exchange for a sex act. Under this law, both the person who sells another person for sex – a trafficker – or the person buying the sex act- a sex purchaser – can be charged with the crime of human trafficking.

The TVPA lays out different requirements for showing an adult or minor is victim of the crime of sex trafficking:

  • Adults are considered victims of the crime sex trafficking when they are induced (persuaded, convinced) to perform a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion (see more on this below).
  • Minors (under age 18) are considered victims of the crime of sex trafficking when they are induced (persuaded, convinced) to perform a commercial sex act, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion are used.

Labor Trafficking

The TVPA defines labor trafficking as, “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” These are all forms of getting someone to work against their will for the benefit of another. Peonage and debt bondage are similar; they happen when an employer compels someone to pay off a debt with work.

Whether a person is an adult or minor, the TVPA lays out the same requirements for showing is a victim of the crime of labor trafficking. At any age, a person is considered a victim of the crime of labor trafficking when he or she is induced (persuaded, convinced) to perform labor through force, fraud, or coercion.

Force, Fraud, Coercion

Here are just a few examples (there are many more) of how a trafficker might induce (persuade, convince) someone to perform a commercial sex act or labor by using force, fraud, or coercion:


Physical aggression, including:

  • Beating / Slapping / Objects (bat, tools, chains, etc.)
  • Burning
  • Rape / Gang rape
  • Confinement / Locked in
  • Forced drug use


Intentionally misleading someone through lies, including:

  • False job offers
  • False promises of “a better life”
  • False affection and romance
  • Preying on desperation and poverty
  • Blackmail / Sextortion


Manipulation, threats, and intimidation, including:

  • Threats of violence to a victim or his/her family
  • Intimidation / Humiliation / Climate of fear
  • Absolute control over daily life
  • Demonstrations of violence
  • Creating dependency on the trafficker for food, shelter, drugs, relationship
  • Establishing quotas (must earn $2000 a night or suffer consequences)
  • Making victim feel like the victimization is his/her choice
  • Blaming victim for abuse

References: U.S. State Department

2. Red Flags and Indicators

You can watch for circumstances that may point to the possibility that human trafficking is happening. You might see these at your work place, getting gas, while traveling, or notice them in one of your child’s friends.

Red Flags for Human Trafficking in General

  • Story is inconsistent or seems memorized like a script
  • Unwilling or hesitant to answer questions about an injury or illness
  • Accompanied by an individual who does not let them speak for themselves, refuses to let the person have privacy, or who interprets for them
  • Evidence of controlling or dominating relationships (excessive concerns about pleasing a family member, romantic partner, or employer)
  • Fearful or nervous behavior, avoids eye contact
  • Resistant to offers of help, possibly even hostile
  • Unable to provide his/her address
  • Not aware of his/her location, the current date, or time
  • Not in control of his or her own money
  • Not being paid for work or wages are withheld

Labor Trafficking Indicators

  • Has been abused at work or threatened by an employer or supervisor
  • Not allowed to take adequate breaks, food, or water while at work
  • Not provided with adequate protection for hazardous work
  • Was recruited for different work than he/she is currently doing
  • Required to live in housing provided by employer OR to live in the place where they work
  • Has a debt to employer or job recruiter that he/she cannot pay off

Sex Trafficking Indicators

  • Under the age of 18 and involved in the commercial sex industry
  • Has tattoos or other forms of branding, such as tattoos that say, “Daddy,” “Property of…,” etc.
  • Talks about an unusually high numbers of sexual partners
  • Does not have appropriate clothing for the weather or venue
  • Uses language common in the commercial sex industry

3. Vulnerabilities to Human Trafficking

Victim/survivors of the crime of human trafficking don’t fit one neat description or “profile.” People harmed by human traffickers are as diverse as the entire human race, including any culture, socio-economic status, education level, sexual orientation, or gender.

However, some people who have been trafficked may share some common traits that increase their vulnerability in the eyes of criminals looking for someone to exploit. Traffickers often prey upon people with the following experiences or characteristics by offering to fill some kind of physical and/or emotional need, thereby gaining control over that person.

Common Circumstances in Vulnerable Populations

  • Minors
  • Runaway youth
  • Low self-esteem, depression
  • History of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or other trauma
  • Low income
  • Parent or guardian has substance abuse issues
  • Developmental / Cognitive delay
  • History with Child Protective Services (CPS) / foster care
  • Marginalized populations: Native, LGBTQ identity, someone who lacks a support system
  • Those engaged in survival sex