Look Closer: How to Spot Human Trafficking Victims

Human trafficking victims are often hiding in plain sight.

Posted Jan 13, 2018

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Every month should be. Because awareness leads to identification. Human trafficking is an insidious epidemic that occurs throughout the world. It occurs in our own backyards, and even our front yards, as trafficking victims are often hiding in plain sight. 

Having spent years prosecuting cases of human trafficking and working with victims-turned survivors, my experience is consistent with relevant research: in many cases, victims can be identified. It requires us to know what they look like, and where to look.

Human trafficking victims can often be identified through excessive and burdensome labor conditions, or visibly strained or awkward interpersonal dynamics with their companions.

Whether it is a restaurant server who works extended hours and never seems to leave the building, a maid working for a family in a beautiful mansion who neighbors notice seems to live in the garage, or a young girl traveling with a much older man who does appear to be a relative. There are red flags we can perceive if we are paying attention.

Failure to Recognize Trafficking Victims

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is the primary legislation in the United States to address the insidious epidemic of human trafficking. Yet the primary challenge in accessing relief under the Act is identifying victims. 

Trafficking victims are not identified because they are not recognized. In "Human trafficking: Improving victim identification and service provision,” (2011) Okech, et al note that even some members of the law enforcement community, if they are not trained to identify victims of human trafficking, may view victims as illegal immigrants.[i]

Farrell and Pfeffer (2014) state that an even more basic reason many people fail to recognize trafficking activity is because neither community members nor law enforcement can identify a crime they do not understand.[ii]

They explain that prioritization of law enforcement efforts starts with the community, because authorities are not inclined to focus on criminal activity that has not been identified. They quote one prosecutor as noting that stereotypical views of human trafficking as sex slaves shipped from overseas at gunpoint results in a failure to identify other cases that do not fit the stereotype.

Media portrayals are not always helpful in identifying trafficking victims, because they can inadvertently create stereotypes that many victims do not fit.  

Misidentifying Trafficking Victims

Cunningham and Cromer (2016) note that the media portrays sex trafficking victims as children who are young, vulnerable, and innocent, while showcasing promiscuous, hardened youth as willful sex workers.[iii] They also note that acceptance of human trafficking myths contributes to perception of victim responsibility.

Labor trafficking cases also fly under the radar. Farrell and Pfeffer note that this can occur when authorities are focused on detecting the sex trafficking of minors. They also explain that identifying labor trafficking cases is complicated by victim unfamiliarity with the elements of the crime, resulting in an inability to accurately classify their employment situation. They give the example of one detective recognizing the challenge of separating exploitive labor practices from trafficking, noting that involuntary servitude does not require a victim to be chained in a basement.

Farrell and Pfeffer explain that another problem involves public lack of sympathy for labor trafficking victims, who are often undocumented adults, due to negative views on illegal immigration.

Reasons Trafficking Victims Do Not Come Forward

Obviously, it would be much easier to prosecute human trafficking if the victims came forward. But they don't, for a variety of reasons.

Many trafficking victims do not come forward because they fear adverse consequences ranging from retaliation to deportation. Others are in love with their traffickers, having been seduced into the relationship with promises of security and marriage, only to realize  that the trafficker´s romantic advances were not motivated by love, but by the love of money.

Okech, et al note that some research indicates that some victims fail to come forward due to the TVPA´s focus to use them as witnesses in law enforcement investigations, while others are unaware of the existence of human trafficking laws that acknowledge their status as victims. Still others fail to reveal their predicament out of fear of retaliation.

Farrell and Pfeffer report that some victims deny their victimization out of shame and embarrassment, not wanting to disclose things they have done under force or duress. They also observe that a victim´s failure to report can stem from the reluctance to return to a home or residential housing facility, which may motivate runaway minors to avoid contact with law enforcement.

Knowledge Is Power

Human trafficking requires knowing what to look for, where to look, and what to do with the information you see. Community awareness enables us to spot red flags, and provide support for survivors. Join the fight this month and every month as we strive to stamp out this insidious epidemic together.


[i] David Okech, Whitney Morreau, and Kathleen Benson, ”Human trafficking: Improving victim identification and service provision,” International Social Work 55, No. 4 (2011): 488-503.

[ii] Amy Farrell and Rebecca Pfeffer, ”Policing Human Trafficking: Cultural Blinders and Organizational Barriers,” The Annals of the American Academy, AAPSS, 653 (May, 2014): 46-64.

[iii] Katherine C. Cunningham and Lisa DeMarni Cromer, ”Attitudes About Human Trafficking: Individual Differences Related to Belief and Victim Blame,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 31, No. 2 (2016): 228-244 (231)(citing Polaris Project, 2006).