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Psychological Tactics Used by Human Traffickers

A look at seven common manipulation tactics used by traffickers.

When you think of a human trafficking victim, what comes to mind? A young woman who has been kidnapped, drugged and bound as she is transported across borders? This is the Hollywood version, but rarely the reality. While some traffickers may hold their victims captive, expose them to large amounts of alcohol or drugs and keep them chained up, this is not the norm. Psychological manipulation tactics are critical to traffickers’ success. While traffickers sometimes do use violence, outright aggression can attract unwanted attention. For example, if a health care provider notices signs of recent physical abuse on a person, they are obligated to call the authorities. Coercion, manipulation and psychological abuse are often more powerful weapons than physical violence.

A multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise, human trafficking involves recruiting or obtaining an individual under false pretenses—usually, under the guise of helping to secure promising work in another country and then forcing the individuals to perform services or labor against their will. The United Nations has estimated that as many as 21 million people around the world are trafficked each year, generating an estimated $32 billion. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked annually into this country and coerced into modern-day servitude—and these numbers may be grossly underestimated, as exact figures are difficult to obtain. In addition, these figures only account for those trafficked into the U.S. from other nations, not the thousands of individuals who are also trafficked domestically within the U.S.

Psychological Tactics

Instead of using physical violence or restraints, traffickers, some of whom are women, often use psychology to keep their victims enslaved. Many people are unaware that human trafficking is truly a low-risk, high-reward venture for traffickers. As a colleague at UCLA, Paula Tavrow, and I have highlighted in our work, traffickers use degrading and dehumanizing tactics to keep victims enslaved. Mental enslavement is a cost-effective, low-risk approach—one that often doesn’t attract unwanted attention from law enforcement. In order to combat human trafficking, it’s crucial to understand the psychological tactics that traffickers use to prey on vulnerable women and help ensure that victims stay silent. These strategies also explain why victims may not attempt to escape their traffickers even when they have the opportunity. Tavrow and I have interviewed numerous human trafficking survivors. Tavrow identified seven ways that traffickers psychologically manipulate their victims to keep them enslaved, which she outlined in a presentation made in 2015 in Japan regarding a labor trafficking survivor’s experiences.

Tactic 1: Dehumanization

From the viewpoint of traffickers, victims are little more than commodities. Traffickers constantly tell victims that they’re worthless, insignificant and forgotten. Victims are exposed to high levels of emotional distress induced by constant threats, fear, and psychological abuse. Victims are repeatedly told they have no control over their lives and are continually reminded that they are in a foreign country where they have no papers or passport, no family, no money and essentially, no other options. Victims are made to believe that they are helpless and cannot survive without their traffickers’ help. Such alienation fosters a sense of lost identity for victims and a sense of dependency upon their traffickers. Over time, this psychological abuse contributes to low self-worth. Victims may even believe they are at fault for their abusive situations because they were foolish enough to be tricked in the first place.

Tactic 2: The Worst-Case Scenario

Traffickers torment victims by instilling false fears over worst-case scenarios. They tell victims that they’ll be thrown out and left homeless if they seek help or try to escape. Or, worse yet, they might get arrested and thrown in jail—and if that happens, how will they ever build a new life in this country? The worst-case scenario is a particularly effective tactic because the police and criminal justice system are perceived to be corrupt in many of the victims’ home countries. Being put in jail may be a victim’s worst nightmare and will be avoided at all costs. An arrest, incarceration or being labeled as a criminal would also bring a great sense of shame and embarrassment to victims’ families. Traffickers use this knowledge to their advantage and threaten to spread rumors of prostitution or criminal activity in their communities back home if they refuse to obey orders.

Tactic 3: Distrust of Others

Traffickers tell victims that most people—even health care providers—will report undocumented migrants, resulting in arrest. To ensure that victims don’t speak out to health care providers, traffickers will often accompany victims to their clinic appointments, posing as family members and claiming that they need to be present in order to translate. Since many traffickers are from the same country as the victim, this practice may not raise suspicion at the clinic.

Tactic 4: Keeping a Close Watch on Victims

Traffickers will often live near their victims, regularly dropping by unannounced. Traffickers may constantly remind victims that they are always being watched, even by their co-workers. Many victims even live and work within the same confines as their abusers, leaving victims with little or no time alone. Victims may be kept isolated from others, further creating a sense of dependency upon the traffickers.

Tactic 5: Avoiding Physical Abuse

While a lack of physical abuse may seem positive, traffickers often make a concerted effort to avoid physical abuse and keep their criminal activity under the radar. If victims are seen by a health care provider and have obvious signs of recent physical abuse, the provider is required by law to call the police, which could expose the trafficker. Traffickers often take great measures to ensure that victims display no physical signs of abuse, choosing to torment the victim psychologically instead to help ensure that they don’t get caught. Because many health care providers may not be familiar with other warning signs of human trafficking, this tactic makes identifying victims within a health care setting even more challenging.

Tactic 6: Threats to Call the Police

Most human trafficking victims are in coercive or abusive situations from which escape may be difficult and dangerous. Traffickers know that victims may be terrified of being arrested, and they use this to their advantage by repeatedly assuring victims that the police will not be on their side if they expose their traffickers. In many cases, the passports of victims are confiscated by traffickers and victims are told that they’re in the country illegally. Additionally, traffickers often make threats that if a victim tries to run away or expose their operation, they will call the police and claim that the victim stole from them or committed some sort of crime. Since the trafficker, unlike the victim, often speaks the native language and legally resides in the region, they insist that no one would believe the victim’s story over theirs.

Tactic 7: A Hopeful Timeframe

Lastly, traffickers keep victims silent by offering them a glimmer of hope. For example, traffickers might offer victims a set timeframe—say, 10 or 15 years—of servitude. With an end in sight, some victims may decide to stay, focusing on just surviving day to day until the promised timeframe is up. In many cultures, endurance is seen as a positive characteristic, especially among women. This belief can translate into women tolerating harsh, abusive situations.

When the promised timeframe is up, however, traffickers will invent other debts to be paid by the victim, often inflating the costs of basic living essentials like food and clothing by many times the actual cost. Traffickers may also tell victims that they must work to pay off the travel expenses that they incurred to bring them here, often charging absurdly high interest rates. Traffickers make false promises to victims that they will be released once they pay off these debts, which may seem like the only option to victims. Knowing that victims often want to protect their families, traffickers will threaten to go after their loved ones back home with violence or pass the victim’s substantial trafficking debts over to the family if the victim doesn’t comply. This is just another tactic to extend enslavement and may continue indefinitely unless the victim receives help.

Traffickers, in short, are experts in psychological manipulation, which is why many victims don’t seek help—even if the opportunity may arise. Unfortunately, it appears that these tactics are commonly used by human traffickers to manipulate, defraud and exploit victims to keep them enslaved through dependency, coercion, and fear. By understanding these tactics and how they may affect victims, we can become better prepared to create more effective ways to properly identify victims and assist them in accessing the services that they need to heal.

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California. Paula Tavrow, Ph.D., MSc, MALD is the director of UCLA’s Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health and Associate Adjunct Professor in the Community Health Sciences Department at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.