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Human Trafficking 101

Human Trafficking is modern day slavery. It is a scourge that exists across the entire globe, including in the U.S. It is a horrific crime that hides in plain sight. Unless you know what to look for and unless you understand what you are seeing you may miss it. Read on to learn more about human trafficking in the U.S., why it happens, how it happens, how to spot it, where to get help and how you can help stop it.

Human trafficking is the exploitation of another person for labor, domestic servitude or commercial sexual activity by force, fraud or coercion. If a child (under 18) is induced to perform a commercial sex act then it is automatically considered human trafficking—no showing of force, fraud or coercion by another person is necessary. The official U.S. criminal law definitions can be found by googling: Title 22, Chapter 78 of the U.S. Code, Section 7102.

Human trafficking is people enslaving or exploiting other people. Human beings are treated as property and their bodies are sold to others without their consent. It occurs in every country across the world and in every state in the U.S., and it’s happening right now. Victims can get recruited into human trafficking through deceit and/or abduction and it often involves the promise of a better life for the victim in one way or another. Traffickers usually target the most vulnerable members of society such as children, victims of physical/emotional abuse, the homeless, the disabled, the poor, refugee and migrant children, LGBTQ+ youth, and the drug-addicted.

Human Trafficking is not Human Smuggling. Human smuggling involves the illegal transportation of a person across a border, whereas Human trafficking centers on the illegal exploitation of a person.

What is Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is big business globally, second in size only to the illegal drug trade.1 The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated in 2017 that there were over 40 million people enslaved around the world—more than at any time in the history of the world—with 24.9 million in forced labor and 15.4 million in forced marriage.2

Gender: Women and girls are disproportionately affected by modern slavery, accounting for an estimated 71% (29MM) of the overall total, while men and boys account for 29% (10.8MM).3

Age: The ILO estimates that of the 40+ million trafficked people, 25% are children.4

Labor/sex: The ILO estimates that sex trafficking and labor trafficking generate $99 billion and $51 billion in revenues worldwide, respectively.5 According to the ILO, of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labor globally, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector (such as domestic work, construction or agriculture), 4.8 million people are trapped in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million people are enslaved by the state in forced labor.6

How Big is Human Trafficking Globally?


* 40+ Million People Enslaved — (International Labor Organization & Walk Free Foundation, 2017): link

* Global Victims Gender Breakdown — (International Labor Organization & Walk Free Foundation, 2017): link (Page 5)

* 1 in every 4 victims is a child — (International Labor Organization & Walk Free Foundation, 2017): link

* Human Trafficking is a $150 billion industry; $99 billion from sex trafficking and $51 billion from labor trafficking — (International Labor Organization, 2014): link

* Human Trafficking almost matches the annual revenue of Starbucks, Nike, Facebook, & Disney combined (approx. $152 billion) — (Fortune Magazine, 2018): link

An estimated 400,000 people are currently living in modern day slavery in the U.S.—which includes labor trafficking and sex trafficking, as well as debt bondage and forced marriage.7

Gender: According to a 2016 DOJ-funded study, of youth (aged 13-24) involved in the sex trade (which includes sexual exploitation and survival sex as well as human trafficking) across six different cities in the U.S., 60% were female, 36% were male; and 4% were transgender.8

Age: In 2017, the Nation-wide FBI-led anti-trafficking Operation Cross Country (OCC) raid reported the average age of sex trafficking victims in October 2017 was 15 years old, but the youngest children who would have been victimized were a two-year-old and a three-month-old.9

Labor/sex: Of the forms of human trafficking reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2017:10

  1. 71% were for sex trafficking;
  2. 15% were for labor trafficking (Labor trafficking is almost certainly underreported due to the lack of understanding about the subject and inability to easily recognize trafficking scenarios and victims);
  3. 4% were cases of both sex and labor trafficking; and
  4. 10% were cases where the form of trafficking was not specified.

How Big is Human Trafficking In The U.S.?


* 400,000+ People in Modern Slavery: A rate of 1.26 victims for every 1,000 U.S. citizens — (Global Slavery Index, 2018): link

* U.S. Human Trafficking Breakdown — (Polaris Project, 2017): link (Page 5)

* Gender Breakdown (U.S. Youth Victims) — (Center for Court Innovation, 2016): link

There are many reasons why Human Trafficking happens in the United States. The structural reasons include:

  1. The breakdown of the family unit, leading to abuse or neglect of children in the home, which then makes the children vulnerable to traffickers.
  2. Extremes amount of money to be made for traffickers by selling people—could be over a million dollars a year or more for a pimp. You can sell a gun or drugs once, but you can sell someone multiple times a day, every day.
  3. The Internet makes every child online accessible and susceptible to traffickers. The Internet allows Traffickers to easily access supply (trafficking victims) and demand (buyers of commercial sex/”Johns”) and this has spurred the growth of Human Trafficking in the U.S. Between 2010 and 2015, reports of online sex trafficking increased by over 800 percent.11
  4. Breakdown of the foster care, group home, youth shelter system within states makes children vulnerable to traffickers.
  5. Generational and extreme poverty leads to less education, fewer economic opportunities, more exposure and vulnerability to criminal activities including trafficking.
  6. In many cases trafficking can be generational, with a grandparent trafficking a child who then grows up and in turn traffics their child.
  7. Drug addiction/Opioid crisis ensnaring parents and trafficking victims alike, leading to impaired decision-making.
  8. Immigration policies that keep U.S. residents in the shadows and vulnerable to traffickers.
  9. Refugee crisis worldwide leading to human smuggling into the U.S. and then potentially leading to trafficking.
  10. Lack of social safety net for homeless/runaway youth makes them vulnerable to traffickers.
  11. Lack of support and services for individuals, largely women, fleeing domestic violence who then turn to individuals who may exploit their trauma and need for housing and care.
  12. Untreated mental illness makes the afflicted vulnerable to traffickers.
  13. Social isolation and bullying causing children to have a lack of self-esteem and become vulnerable to traffickers’ false friendship and affection.

Why Does Human Trafficking Happen?

In the US, the three most common scenarios that Traffickers use to lure victims are promises of romantic love, a sense of family or access to a better life. Trafficking often happens in impoverished communities where residents lack access to basic opportunities and other options.

In 2017, 84% of criminal sex trafficking cases in the US were ones in which the trafficker used the internet to sell their victim for sexual services. (According to a 2017 Federal Human Trafficking Report conducted by Trafficking Matters). In the remaining 16% of the criminal sex trafficking cases, traffickers used the following means/venues to sell their victims:

  1. Street-based commercial sex,
  2. Illegal brothels,
  3. Massage parlors,
  4. Bars or clubs, or
  5. Other venues

Top recruitment tactics by traffickers, in order from most commonly observed:12

Sex Trafficking:

  1. Intimate partner/marriage proposition
  2. Familial
  3. Posing as a benefactor
  4. Job offer
  5. False promises/fraud

Labor Trafficking:

  1. Job offer
  2. False promises/fraud
  3. Smuggling related
  4. Familial
  5. Posing as a benefactor

Traffickers identify targets and establish a relationship through a “grooming” process.

What does GROOMING Look Like?

  1. False promises—like a “Honeymoon” phase
  2. Traffickers identify a potential victim’s needs and begins to fulfill them
  3. Trust with the target is built on a false sense of care and love. (For many at-risk youth, a trafficker may be the first adult figure that follows through on their promises or says “I love you”)

Where does GROOMING take place?

  1. Online,
  2. Group homes,
  3. Outside of schools,
  4. Bus and train stations,
  5. Detention centers (by other youth),
  6. Homeless and runaway youth shelters,
  7. Malls, libraries, churches, restaurants, and other public places
  8. Government welfare benefit offices

What happens after Grooming?

  1. Victim is turned out on the streets or sold online
  2. Threats of violence if the youth says no
  3. Rewards of “love” and gifts are reduced or taken away so that the youth wants them back and will try to do what they are told
  4. Frequently told to call their trafficker “daddy”
  5. Withholding pay (labor trafficking)

How Does Human Trafficking Happen in the U.S.?

For Parents, Guardians and Adults:

  1. Always on their phone and refuses to take breaks
  2. Sleeps with their phone
  3. Not coming home at night
  4. Coming home in different clothes then when they left
  5. Wearing clothes that you did not buy them
  6. New tattoos—Possibly cherries, roses, dollar signs, and crowns
  7. Using words that are indicative of the “life” (commercial sex*) such as: finessing, getting a telly (a hotel), baddy, wifey, out of pocket, quota, RHGO (Real Ho-ing Going On), etc.
  8. Sudden change in fashion (more provocative)
  9. Sudden negative change in grades
  10. Always exhausted
  11. Excessive crying or depression
  12. Expressing feelings of self-hate or worthlessness
  13. Acting secretive; defensive to questions
  14. Unable to say where they are or have been
  15. Will not disclose information about who their friends are
  16. Will not look you or others in the eye
  17. Having a significantly older boyfriend or girlfriend
  18. A lot of adults you do not know on their social media
  19. Multiple STIs / STDs
  20. Sudden poor hygiene and odors that are indicative of an STI / Urinary Tract Infection
  21. Is someone (a boyfriend/girlfriend) trying to control their movements/communication with other friends?
  22. No longer going out with other friends

*A commercial sex act is a sexual act conducted in exchange for money or things of value. For a teenager, this could be a place to sleep, food, a cell phone, and more, and might be called “Survival Sex”

NOTE: Although this list is compiled by advocates and survivors of sex trafficking, it is NOT exhaustive.

How to Spot Human Trafficking

Talk to your children about internet safety and create agreements with your child that covers the following points (try signing an actual contract with your child to make it more powerful — download one here ).

Start early — Traffickers have been known to start grooming children as young as 8 years old:

  1. Allowing you to be friends with them on their social media sites,
  2. Accepting friend requests only from people they have met in person,
  3. Having them tell you if someone suggests that they send sexy or provocative photos or if someone offers them a job or travel opportunity,
  4. Talking to you if they receive sexual images or other inappropriate links from another person,
  5. Asking your child to set their photos on the highest level of internet security so that strangers cannot download their images.

Be “present” and available for your kids... Let your kids know that you care. Tell them you love them. Show them you love them. Meet their needs as best you can--and if you can’t, then at least let them know you are trying!

Make a "Human Trafficking" talk a mandatory talk to have with your kids--like the “sex talk” or the “drug talk”.

If you DON’T do these things you can bet that A TRAFFICKER WILL.

Additional Resources to check out:

How to Keep Your Kids Safe Online

National Human Trafficking Hotline
GET HELP for you or someone you know:

CALL: 1-888-3737-888

TEXT: #BeFree

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)

CALL: 1-800-THE-LOST (843-5678)

Report to the CyberTipline: www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline

  1. Awareness: Raise awareness of Human Trafficking so that it is removed from the shadows and properly defeated, and so that any stigma is removed from victims and survivors.
  2. Prevention: Provide prevention education to youth before traffickers reach them, so that children (and the public) are educated regarding the strategies and tactics of the traffickers.
  3. Support At-Risk Youth: Help at risk youth get support so traffickers don’t have to give it to them. Specifically, support organizations that are ministering to at-risk youth like boys and girls clubs, anti-poverty organizations, and head-start organizations.
  4. Intervention: Intervene to rescue trafficking victims (when they are ready) or plant a seed so you can rescue them in the future.
  5. Support Survivors: Support survivors through their trauma and rehabilitation.
  6. Demand Deterrence: Work to reduce demand through deterrence, including publicly “naming and shaming” buyers of sex and increasing the financial and criminal penalties for buyers of sex. Working to change the laws to increase penalties and consequences against buyers of sex. Working to change the culture so that knowing buyers of sex with underage girls are known as child rapists, not “Johns”.
  7. Pimp Deterrence: Work to reduce the number of traffickers (pimps) through deterrence, including increasing the financial and criminal penalties for pimps and helping youth understand the negative ramifications of pimp/trafficker behavior for themselves and the humans they traffic.

Support organizations that work to do the above to defeat Human Trafficking

UNITAS is working in the U.S. to accomplish the above through:

  1. Digital, social and email campaigns to raise awareness of Human Trafficking.
  2. The development of prevention education curriculums that include LGBTQ+, male victims, and pimp-deterrence specific components for schools with children from ages 11 to 18,
  3. Events and grassroots activities that are complementary to the prevention education curriculums and awareness-raising activities.

U.S.A. Programs How to Help UNITAS Resources UNITAS Videos

UNITAS is working in Europe to accomplish the same:

Europe Programs