Hidden in Plain Sight: Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking in America

by Christina Holder

“In communities nationwide, human trafficking victims often are hiding in plain sight.” — Attorney General Eric Holder1

“Everyone has the potential to discover a human trafficking situation,” says Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large, Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. “While the victims may sometimes be kept behind locked doors, they are often hidden right in front of us at, for example, construction sites, restaurants, elder care centers, nail salons, agricultural fields, and hotels. Traffickers’ use of coercion - such as threats of deportation and harm to the victim or their family members - is so powerful that even if you reach out to victims, they may be too fearful to accept your help. Knowing indicators of human trafficking and some follow up questions will help you act on your gut feeling that something is wrong and report it.”2

A primary obstacle to identifying victims of human trafficking is “lack of awareness of the crime of human trafficking.”3 “Human trafficking is a crime under federal and international law; it is also a crime in almost every state in the U.S.”4 The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was enacted “to combat trafficking in persons, a contemporary manifestation of slavery whose victims are predominantly women and children, to ensure just and effective punishment of traffickers, and to protect their victims.” 22 U.S.C. §7101(a). “[S]evere forms of trafficking in persons” under federal law consist of: (a) “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age;” or (b) “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” 22 U.S.C. §7102(8); 18 U.S.C. §§1589, 1591. The level of protection available under State law varies by State.5

Despite federal and State law aimed at victim protection, “[l]aw enforcement and service providers fear that many victims are falling through the cracks and going unnoticed. Those in positions to best identify victims may not realize it.”6 Studies show that, “even if victims were more visible, …most of the general public would not recognize a victim if they saw one…. [M]ost people do not believe that human trafficking exists in today’s society and in particular, in their communities. Even in those areas where attempts have been made to raise awareness, there remains confusion regarding who is a victim.”7

“Two primary reasons given for why victims who come in contact with those who can help them (e.g., law enforcement, shelter providers, and outreach workers) often go unidentified include: 1) victims do not identify themselves as victims; and 2) others do not view victims as victims.”8 Among the challenges to identification are the “hidden nature of the crime,” the “overall lack of knowledge and understanding that human trafficking can occur domestically,” and that it can and does involve U.S. citizens.9 Another common misconception is that human trafficking crimes require movement of the victim,10 yet, “[d]espite the use of the word ‘trafficking,’ victims can actually be held within their own country-anti-trafficking laws don’t require that victims must have traveled from somewhere else.”11

Lists of potential red flags and indicators compiled by policy advocates, government agencies, and law enforcement to help identify trafficking victims often include disclaimers such as this one from the federally-funded Polaris Project website: “This list is not exhaustive and represents only a selection of possible indicators. Also, the red flags in this list may not be present in all trafficking cases and are not cumulative.”12 These lists are designed to heighten awareness, but they should not supplant “your gut feeling that something is wrong”13 and your instinct to report it.

An informed, comprehensive formulation of “What to Look For” and “Questions to Ask” was recently presented by representatives of the FBI speaking at a recent VS. conference addressing “Modern Slavery in America: Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration of Survivors of Human Trafficking.”14 These non-exclusive, non-cumulative indicators of human trafficking, compiled by the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative,15 are:

  • Inconsistencies in [potential victims’] stories about where they live and who they live with.
  • No access to personal documents or identification.
  • Girls with significantly older boyfriends.
  • [Presenting as] extremely defensive or sensitive about their relationships (with adult females or males).
  • Tattoos, branding or burn marks.
  • Has unexpectedly expensive jewelry, clothing or cell phone.
  • Advanced sexual knowledge.
  • Use[s] the terms “Daddy,” “Wifey,” “Wife in Law,” “Bottom,” “Track,” or “the Life.”
  • Mentions being “out of pocket” or talks about “Johns” or “Tricks.”
  • Dancing or “working” at a bar/club (when obviously not old enough).
  • Poor general health, has one or more untreated STDs, or multiple pregnancies.

If an opportunity to interact with a potential trafficking victim arises, the FBI suggests possible questions to ask in appropriate circumstances:

  • Are you living at home? With a family member or friend?
  • Do you pay rent there? Is there a lease? If so, who’s on it?
  • How do you get by? Who do you depend on since you’ve been away from home/on the street?
  • If you’re working, do you get to keep some or all of the money you make?
  • Where and how did you meet your boyfriend (and/or the person you live with)?
  • Do you have any piercings or tattoos? If so, when did you get them and what do the tattoos mean? Where were they done?
  • Are you free to come and go as you please? What happens if you leave the house without your boyfriend/girlfriend knowing?
  • Do you have a cell phone? Who pays for it? Are your calls/texts/emails monitored?
  • Have you ever exchanged sex for food, a place to stay or other things that you need?
  • Has this person ever pressured you to do something you’re not comfortable doing?
  • Has this person ever pressured you to engage in sexual acts against your will or asked you to engage in sexual acts to help the family or relationship?
  • Have you ever been abused or threatened by this person? Have you ever seen someone else abused or threatened by this person?
  • Did this person introduce you to drugs or alcohol?
  • Has this person ever taken any suggestive photos of you and do you know what they were used for? Were they ever sent to other people or posted online?
  • Did this person tell you what to say if you were stopped or questioned by the police?
  • Do you have all of your identification (Social Security, birth certificate, school ID, etc.)? If not, where is it?16

In recognition of “the pressing need for more effective methods for identifying human trafficking victims so that they can receive appropriate services and law enforcement can identify and prosecute the perpetrators,” Vera Institute of Justice, Center on Immigration and Justice, is currently conducting a two-year research study “to validate and disseminate a human trafficking victim-screening tool [developed in 2008] with the potential to improve victim identification, victim services, and law enforcement on a national scale.”17 The aim of the study is to produce a validated tool with a user guide that can then be distributed to more service providers and be adapted for other relevant sectors such as law enforcement, health, and youth shelters. The anticipated outcome is greater accuracy and standardization of victim identification and indirectly, improved research, service, and enforcement capability.”18

As President Obama has said: “Fighting modern slavery and human trafficking is a shared responsibility.”19 In discharging that responsibility, members of the public should report suspected incidences of human trafficking. In case of immediate emergency, call 911, the local police department, or the nearest FBI field office. To get help determining if you have encountered a trafficking victim or to identify local resources to help victims, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (1-888-373-7888).


  1. Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks on Human Trafficking for the Frank and Kula Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series (Little Rock, Ark., Apr. 24, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2012/ag-speech-120424.html 

  2. Identify and Assist a Trafficking Victim, U.S. Department of State, available at http://www.state.gov/j/tip/id/ 

  3. H. Clawson, N. Dutch, Issue Brief: Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies, Study of HHS Programs Serving Human Trafficking Victims, p. 2 (Jan. 2008), available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/HumanTrafficking/IdentVict/ib.htm 

  4. National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project, Resources: State and Federal Laws, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/resources/state-and-federal-laws 

  5. Shared Hope International, Protected Innocence Challenge, State Report Cards, available at http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/bring-justice/state-by-state-grades/ 

  6. H. Clawson, N. Dutch, Issue Brief: Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies, Study of HHS Programs Serving Human Trafficking Victims, p. 3 (Jan. 2008), available at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/HumanTrafficking/IdentVict/ib.htm 

  7. Id., at p. 2. 

  8. Id., at p. 3. 

  9. Id., at p. 2. 

  10. U.S. Department of Justice, Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, available at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/crm/htpu.php 

  11. Help Trafficking Prevention: Help Us Identify Potential Victims, Federal Bureau of Investigation (Jan. 20, 2012), available at http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2012/january/trafficking_012012/trafficking_012012 

  12. National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project, Recognizing the Signs, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-the-signs 

  13. Identify and Assist a Trafficking Victim, U.S. Department of State, available at http://www.state.gov/j/tip/id/ 

  14. VS. Link to Conference Video. 

  15. VS. Link to Conference Video; Federal Bureau of Investigation, Innocence Lost National Initiative, available at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/vc_majorthefts/cac/innocencelost 

  16. See other Indicators published by: (1) National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-the-signs; http://www.polarisproject.org/resources/tools-for-service-providers-and-law-enforcement; http://www.polarisproject.org/what-we-do/national-human-trafficking-hotline/access-training/online-training; (2) Department of Education, available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osdfs/factsheet.html; (3) Department of Homeland Security, available at http://ipv6.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1268926167753.shtm; (4) Immigration and Customs Enforcement, available at http://www.ice.gov/human-trafficking/; (5) Federal Bureau of Investigation, available at http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2012/january/trafficking_012012/trafficking_012012; (6) Department of State, available at http://www.state.gov/j/tip/id/ 

  17. Z. Cheng, Improving Trafficking Victim Identification, Vera Institute of Justice (Apr. 16, 2012), available at http://www.vera.org/node/5698 

  18. Id. 

  19. Presidential Proclamation-National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, The White House Office of the Press Secretary (Jan. 4, 2010), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/presidential-proclamation-national-slavery-and-human-trafficking-prevention-month