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Trafficking & Exploitation
Signs & Risk Factors

Human Trafficking and Exploitation happens all around us. Whether it be sex trafficking, forced labor, or domestic servitude, it can happen to anyone, and happens more often than you think.

Who's At Risk

Human trafficking and exploitation can happen to anyone -- regardless of age, gender, immigration status, or socioeconomic class.

While it can happen to anyone, there are many risk factors that can make someone more vulnerable to the force, fraud, or coercion that happens for human trafficking and exploitation.

Knowing who is at risk can help provide you with a better understanding of human trafficking victimization.

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Risk Factors

Anyone can experience trafficking in any community, just as anyone can be the victim of any kind of crime. While it can happen to anyone, evidence suggests that people of color and LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience trafficking than other demographic groups. Generational trauma, historic oppression, discrimination, and other societal factors and inequities create community-wide vulnerabilities. Traffickers recognize and take advantage of people who are vulnerable.

Keeping the following risk factors in mind can help provide you with a better understanding of human trafficking victimization and some warning signs:

  • Poverty

  • Homelessness

  • Interaction with foster care or juvenile justice systems

  • Lack of support networks, like strong relationships with friends, family, or other trusted adults

  • Gang involvement, especially among youth who identify as female

  • History of running away and/or being kicked out of their home

  • Low self-esteem

  • Being bullied

  • Personality and characteristics of an empath or "people pleaser"

  • History of self-harm or suicidal ideation/attempt(s)

  • Experiencing discrimination due to their race, gender identity, sexuality, disability, or other personal characteristic

  • History of abusive intimate partners (i.e., boyfriends or girlfriends)

  • Family history of sexual abuse or violence

  • Family history of mental health disorders or disabilities 

  • Cultural historical trauma (particularly among minority communities)

  • Community or familial history of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation

  • Substance abuse or addictions

  • Cognitive and physical disabilities

  • Being the sole or primary provider for their family​

Human trafficking doesn't discriminate.

At least 30% of trafficking cases are men and boys.

What to Look For

Everyone has a role to play in combating human trafficking. Recognizing the signs of human trafficking is the first step to identifying a victim and can help save a life.

Not all indicators may be present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of these indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking.

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Indicators of Human Trafficking

Recognizing these indicators can help identify potential victims and may even help save a life. Not all may be present, nor is the presence or absence of these necessarily proof of human trafficking.

  • Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?

  • Has the child stopped attending school?

  • Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?

  • Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?

  • Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?

  • Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?

  • Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?

  • Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?

  • Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?

  • Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?

  • Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?

  • Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?

  • Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?

How Traffickers Lure People In

Stories become weapons in the hands of human traffickers -- tales of romantic love everlasting or about good jobs and fair wages just over the horizon. Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to commit their crimes, and many times the victim may not even realize or believe at first they are being exploited.

Here are a few situations that might raise concerns:

  • A family member, friend, co-worker, or student is developing a relationship that seems too close with someone they know solely on social media.

  • A family member, friend, or student lives with a parent or guardian and shows signs of abuse.

  • A family member, friend, or co-worker is offered a job opportunity that seems too good to be true.

  • A family member, friend, or co-worker is recruited for an opportunity that requires them to move far away, but their recruiter or prospective employer avoids answering their questions or is reluctant to provide detailed information about the job.

  • A would-be employer refuses to give workers a signed contract or asks them to sign a contract in a language they can't read.

  • A would-be employer collects fees from a potential worker for the "opportunity" to work in a particular job.

  • A friend, family member, co-worker, or student is newly showered with gifts or money or otherwise becomes involved in an overwhelming, fast-moving, and asymmetric (e.g., large difference in age or financial status) romantic relationship.

  • A friend, family member, or student is a frequent runaway and may be staying with someone who is not their parent or guardian.

Recognizing Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking occurs when individuals are made to perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Any child under the age of 18 who is involved in commercial sex is legally a victim of trafficking, regardless of whether there is a third party involved or willingness.

Someone may be experiencing sex trafficking if they:

  • Want to stop participating in commercial sex but feel scared to unable to leave the situation.

  • Disclose that they were reluctant to engage in commercial sex but that someone pressured them into it.

  • Live where they work or are transported by guards between home and workplace.

  • Are children who live with or are dependent on a family member with a substance use problem or who is abusive.

  • Have a "pimp" or "manager" in the commercial sex industry.

  • Work in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money, such as a strip club, illicit cantina, go-go bar, or illicit massage business.

  • Having a controlling parent, guardian, romantic partner, or "sponsor" who will not allow them to meet or speak with anyone alone or who monitors their movements, spending, or communications.

Recognizing Labor Trafficking

Labor trafficking includes situations where men, women, and children are forced to work because of debt, immigration status, threats and violence. Keeping victims isolated -- physically or emotionally -- is a key method of control in most labor trafficking situations, but that does not mean you never cross paths with someone who is experiencing trafficking.

Someone may be experiencing labor trafficking or exploitation if they:

  • Feel pressured by their employer to stay in a job or situation they want to leave.

  • Owe money to an employer or recruiter or are not being paid what they were promised or are owed.

  • Do not have control of their passport or other identity documents.

  • Are living and working in isolated conditions, largely cut off from interaction with others or support systems.

  • Appear to be monitored by another person when talking or interacting with others.

  • Are being threatened by their boss with deportation or other harm.

  • Are working in dangerous conditions without proper safety gear, training, adequate breaks, or other protections.

  • Are living in dangerous, overcrowded, or inhumane conditions provided by an employer.

School Resource Support

Students and young adults may be particularly vulnerable to this crime simply because of their young age and lack of life experience, which makes them less equipped to make informed and sound decisions when presented with a situation that may lead to trafficking.

Traffickers target vulnerabilities and will look to satisfy whatever need a student has, whether it's providing basic necessities like food, shelter, or emotional support.

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Indicators of Human Trafficking in Schools

Indicators of human trafficking can help alert you to a potential victim of this crime in the school where you work. While no single indicator is necessarily proof of human trafficking, recognizing the signs is the first step in identifying possible victims.

Physical or Behavioral Indicators:

  • Appears to be deprived of food, water, sleep, medical care, or other necessities.

  • Suddenly has more (and/or more expensive) material possessions, like purses, clothing, and/or cell phones and/or large sums of cash on them.

  • Has bruises or other signs of physical trauma.

  • Has tattoos or scars that would indicate branding by a trafficker.

  • Has scars, cut marks, burns, or other signs of self-harm/suicidal tendencies.

  • Shows sudden or dramatic changes in behavior (e.g., if a typically mild-mannered youth begins acting out or a typically outgoing youth becomes reclusive and disconnected from peers).

  • Has unexplained absences from school or displays a sudden drop in school performance.

  • Has incidents of trying to skip classes or leaving school during the day and returning to campus before the end of the school day.

  • Exhibits behaviors that would get them suspended (i.e., fighting, class disruptions).

  • Chronically runs away from home.

  • Talks about or uses language related to performing sex acts for money.

  • Suddenly becomes extremely quiet, avoids eye contact, and keeps their head down.

  • Defers to another person to speak for them, especially during interactions with authority figures.

  • Appears to be coached on what to say or responses seem rehearsed.

  • Has a difficult time providing logical answers to basic questions.

  • Acts fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid, or dissociated/ "checked out".

Social Indicators:

  • Has a "boyfriend," "girlfriend," or romantic partner who is noticeably older.

  • References someone in their life being their "sugar daddy/sugar momma," or refer to themselves as a "sugar baby".

  • Engages in unhealthy coping behaviors (e.g., using drugs or alcohol, etc.).

  • Engages in sexual behavior that puts them at risk of harm or indicates they may be experiencing abuse from their partner.

  • Seems to engage in high-risk behaviors even at the apparent expense of safety and/or consequences.

  • Seems restricted from contacting their family, friends, or legal guardian.

  • Stops attending or showing interest in youth activities or extracurriculars they would normally attend.

  • Stops showing interest in future plans (e.g., no longer having a desire to attend college).

  • References traveling to other cities or towns frequently.

  • Seems employed and has a work permit but is clearly working outside the permitted hours for students.

  • Talks about getting paid very little or not at all for the work they do.

  • Flaunts large sums of unexplained money/income or boasts of an extravagant new lifestyle.

  • Claims to be completely financially covered and independent at a young age.

  • Lives with an employer or has an employer listed as their caregiver or emergency contact.

  • Appears to not have the freedom to quit their job.

Talking to Youth

Hollywood movie theatrics can invoke a lot of imagery for us about topics we can't imagine would ever actually happen to us. For the term "human trafficking", this leads to visualizing a kidnapping by a stranger - tossed in the back of a van and held against their will or perhaps immigrant children working in sweat shops.

While these can and do happen, this trafficking situation is not typical and young people are often unaware of what the more common warning signs of trafficking or an exploitative situation can look like, and how to stay safe against them.

To help youth identify warning signs and better understand human trafficking, and more broadly, exploitation that can lead to trafficking, below are recommendations for how to talk about the crime in terms that may be more relatable to the youth you interact with. These recommendations can be incorporated into existing activities, lessons, or used in casual conversations.

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One of the most common ways we see exploitation locally is through online manipulation. Traffickers will use online chat rooms, social media, gaming platforms and alike to build relationships and trust in order to commit their crimes against youth.

Visit our Safety & Resources page to learn more about online safety, warning signs, and how to stay safe.

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Learn more about human trafficking and exploitation.

It's not always just in big cities, immigrants, or kidnappings. Exploitation can and does happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality - even if you've never left your home town.

Find out more about what human trafficking is and the types of trafficking that exists in our communities.

About Human Trafficking

Find out what warning signs exist that you can look for and who may be at a greater risk of being a victim of exploitation.

Warning Signs & Risk Factors

Learn ways to keep yourself safe from exploitation and other resources to combat human trafficking.

Safety Tips & Resources

How to report a tip or get help
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REACH Center
24hr Support Helpline

Call our REACH Center helpline anytime, 24 hours a day at 518.943.4482. Trained staff provide crisis counseling and support services.

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Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line

The HSI Tip Line is available 24/7 to submit anonymous tips for suspected human trafficking.

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National Human Trafficking Hotline

Call 1.888.373.7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733) to report suspected human trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

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