What Is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide – including right here in the United States. It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.

Language barriers, fear of their traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement frequently keep victims from seeking help, making human trafficking a hidden crime.

Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation. They look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.

Many myths and misconceptions exist. Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life. Not all indicators listed are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of the indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking.

Myths and Misconceptions

Myth: Human trafficking does not occur in the United States. It only happens in other countries.

Fact: Human trafficking exists in every country, including the United States. It exists nationwide—in cities, suburbs, and rural towns—and possibly in your own community.

Myth: Human trafficking victims are only foreign born individuals and those who are poor.

Fact: Human trafficking victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. They may come from any socioeconomic.

Myth: Human trafficking is only sex trafficking.

Fact: Sex trafficking exists, but it is not the only type of human trafficking. Forced labor is another type of human trafficking; both involve exploitation of people. Victims are found in legitimate and illegitimate labor industries, including sweatshops, massage parlors, agriculture, restaurants, hotels, and domestic service.

Myth: Individuals must be forced or coerced into commercial sex acts to be victims of human trafficking.

Fact: Under U.S. federal law, any minor under the age of 18 who is induced to perform commercial sex acts is a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether he or she is forced or coerced.

Myth: Human trafficking and human smuggling are the same.

Fact: Human trafficking is not the same as smuggling. “Trafficking” is based on exploitation and does not require movement across borders. “Smuggling” is based on movement and involves moving a person across a country’s border with that person’s consent in violation of immigration laws. Although human smuggling is very different from human trafficking, human smuggling can turn into trafficking if the smuggler uses force, fraud, or coercion to hold people against their will for the purposes of labor or sexual exploitation. Under federal law, every minor induced to engage in commercial sex is a victim of human trafficking.

Myth: Human trafficking victims will attempt to seek help when in public.

Fact: Human trafficking is often a hidden crime. Victims may be afraid to come forward and get help; they may be forced or coerced through threats or violence; they may fear retribution from traffickers, including danger to their families; and they may not be in possession of or have control of their identification documents.

Forms of Human Trafficking

Sex trafficking; has been found in a wide variety of venues within the commercial sex industry, including residential brothels, escort services, fake massage businesses, strip clubs, and street prostitution. Minors under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex are considered victims of human trafficking, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Minors engaging in “survival sex” to obtain basic necessities such as food, shelter, milk for babies or transportation are also considered victims.

Labor trafficking; has been found in diverse labor settings, including domestic work in hotels, massage parlors, nail salons, small businesses, large farms, and factories.

Organ trafficking; is "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of living or deceased persons or their organs by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability. (Information compiled from: http://letstalkaboutboyz.info Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention for Teen Girls Curriculum Workbooks)

Indicators of Human Trafficking

Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life. Here are some common indicators to help recognize human trafficking. You can also download or order the Blue Campaign indicator card, which is a small plastic card that lists common signs of trafficking and how to report the crime.

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

Not all indicators listed above are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of the indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking.