What YOU Can Do

How to Recognize a Victim of Human Trafficking

We need our eyes wide open.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly self-focused, egotistical, and narcissistic, it takes a conscious effort to recognize if a situation doesn’t seem quite right. We need to look up from our phones, take out our earbuds, and be aware of what’s going on around us. In every U.S. state, maybe even in your own neighborhood, young girls and boys are sold for sex, held against their will, and treated in a despicable manner.

How to Spot a Victim of Human Trafficking | The Write Ending
photo by David Cassolato

The fact is, victims and their traffickers can’t stay in one place forever.

Especially in the United States, modern-day slaves are constantly being moved around. They are brought to truck stops, to the hospital, they take the city bus and taxi, check in and out of hotels, and are brought to big events such as the Superbowl and Artprize. It’s during these in-between stages that we have the best opportunity to notice them.

Going through daily life, whether you’re a college student, a nurse at the local hospital, or manage a downtown coffee shop, you interact with people from all walks of life. What if, instead of the bare minimum eye contact and the superficial pleasantries, we took the time to slow down and really pay attention to each person we interact with? What if we really cared about every soul that comes across our path? What if, instead of judging that person, comparing ourselves to that person, or ignoring that person, we asked ourselves what battle could he or she be fighting? Then, we might recognize the modern day slaves, even though they may not wear iron chains.

would you recognize a victim?
photo by Canva

What do I look for?

The Polaris Project has a long list of red flags, which I combined with information from Nita Belle’s book In Our Backyard and resources from the Human Trafficking Hotline.  To start, these are the things to look for on a surface level–general indicators that might catch your eye or strike you as strange:

  • Fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, nervous, or paranoid
  • Avoids eye contact or social interaction
  • Avoids authority figures or law enforcement
  • Seems to adhere to scripted or rehearsed responses in social interaction
  • Appears malnourished
  • Poor physical or dental health
  • Tattoos/branding on neck (dollar signs, a barcode, or  “Daddy,” “Property of,” “For sale,” etc.)
  • Not allowed to speak for themselves
  • Shows signs of physical injuries or abuse
  • Lacks identification such as passport or driver’s license
  • Seems disoriented or doesn’t know what city he or she is in
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Children who don’t leave for school each day
  • Children or adults seen through windows but rarely come outside
  • Children serving in a family restaurant

This is the first layer of warning signs. If your intuition tells you something seems off, you’re most likely right. Don’t ignore that funny feeling tickling the back of your mind.

Take the second step.

If you have an opportunity in a safe and confidential environment, ask a few questions. Things like “what type of work do you do?” or “has your identification been taken from you?” can help ascertain whether or not you have a trafficking situation on your hands. However, in speaking with someone who exhibits these warning signs, do so with extreme discretion and caution–and only if he or she is alone. Victims are constantly monitored, so asking them questions in the presence of a trafficker could endanger both the victim’s life and yours.

busy city in daylight
photo by Brandon Nickerson

Delve beyond the surface.

Some things might not be obvious to the naked eye, but if you do have a rare opportunity to ask questions, or you overhear snippets of conversation that give away a red flag, here are other things to look for:

  • Under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Not free to come and go as he or she pleases
  • Unpaid or paid very little
  • Works long or unusual hours
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Was recruited through false premises concerning the nature/conditions of his or her work

Don’t stop there.

Gather as much information as you can, including exact location, license plate number, and description of the potential victim and those accompanying him or her. It’s the little details that make a big difference. Armed with that information, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) immediately if you see any of these red flags.  The specialists on the other end of the line will help you determine whether or not you’ve encountered human trafficking, so never hesitate to make that call! You can also text “HELP” to BeFree (233733), or email the hotline at help@humantraffickinghotline.org.

it takes a conscious effort to recognize the signs
photo by Austin Guevara

Whatever happens, don’t fall into the trap of thinking someone else will or has already reported the situation. Especially if others are nearby and are seeing the same things as you–YOU are responsible. Have you heard of the bystander effect? The chances of someone helping a victim of crime decreases significantly the more people there are in the immediate vicinity. Don’t let the number of witnesses stop you from doing your duty.

Now you’re aware of the red flags, and possess the knowledge to make a difference. Let’s see past the surface level oddities and recognize the horrors that are actually taking place. Let’s be invested in our neighbors’ lives and truly care. We might not be able to rescue all the slaves, but we can save the life of someone’s daughter or son. All it takes on your part is one phone call.



“….what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

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