The little girl feels a shock of fear pulse through her body as the blacked-out non-descript van screeches around the corner barreling in her direction. She turns to sprint away as the van doors suddenly spring open, as a ski mask-wearing giant of a man reaches out and scoops her up. She becomes whisked away as you look on in disbelief. Did you just witness daylight human trafficking or kidnapping? It is more than likely the latter. Modern-day human trafficking does not resemble daylight snatch and grabs of unwitting children. You may witness it every day and have no idea it is happening before you. Let’s look at what human sex trafficking really is.
HBO’s The Wire, arguably one of the best HBO series to date, opens Season 2 with a cargo container of dead human trafficking victims, smuggled from overseas from a Slavic nation to the United States secreted in a cargo container by an international crime syndicate. Is this the reality of human trafficking in the United States? No. Trafficking takes on many forms, but this is not the main one, nor the top of the list of trafficking methods.
To understand what it is, it helps to define human trafficking. The Department of Justice gives a legal definition of human trafficking as “a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts. The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological. The exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is human trafficking, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud, or coercion was used.”
There are two types of trafficking, sex and labor. Sex trafficking happens in the streets, houses, and hotels; basically, anywhere a human can be sold for sex. Labor trafficking occurs at farms, factories, and restaurants, where a human is forced to work.
Domestic, i.e., here in the United States, human sex trafficking can happen right down the block from you, even next door.
Traffickers come in many forms, from family relations to gangs to pimps. All have one goal in mind, to exploit the victim.
So how can you spot human trafficking?
First, this is not a manual to make you an expert trafficking analyst but to provide an overview of human trafficking signs.
You will not see a flashing sign pointing to a trafficked victim. The signs may be subtle or almost transparent, but they are there to spot. Here are signs you can look for:
The victim is controlled. Look for an older man or woman controlling their actions, hovering over or near them. The victim isn’t allowed to talk for themselves, or the trafficker talks for them. The man or woman is likely the trafficker. The victim has no freedom of movement; another person brings them from point A to point B.
They have signs of physical and mental abuse. Often times they can appear scared, startled easily, depressed, and hopeless. They may have bruises, malnourishment, and cuts. You can also look for scaring or branding. Traffickers may tattoo their “possession” or brand them to show ownership.
They have few possessions but multiple cell phones. They show up to a location, think hotel (even mainstream hotels) and pay with cash, or someone pays for them. The victim may be unkempt with clothes worn-out clothes. They may have multiple phones for multiple “jobs.”
We’ve all seen the movies and the heroes taking the law into their own hands to take down the illicit network of human traffickers. They are knocking down doors and rescuing the apparent victim. Reality? Not for a second. In fact, when vigilantes take matters into their own hands, they do more harm than good.
Vigilante tactics remove almost all chance that law enforcement can seek prosecution of a trafficker and take them off the street. The other aspect is the “victim” may not be willing to leave their situation yet, as dire as it may seem.
Nic McKinley, a former CIA operative and veteran of U.S. Special Operations, founded DeliverFund, a countertrafficking group that provides direct intelligence support to law enforcement. Nic discussed vigilante tactics as a method to stop human traffickers. Nic said, “Vigilante tactics do not work. In fact, they may harm the victim. You can help by being a great witness and reporting what you see to the local authorities. Take notes of what you witness and believe would help an investigation. If you see any vehicles, write down the license plate and description of the vehicle. It is imperative that you do not confront any potential trafficker or victim; it can be dangerous to you and the victim.”
For many people, it is difficult to imagine the pain, abuse, torture, and trauma human traffickers force upon their victims, but even more impossible to fathom is how someone could endure that suffering and live to tell the story. DeliverFund’s Director of Strategic Impact, Sandy Storm, didn’t just survive two decades of trafficking. Still, today she pulls from her traumatic experiences to train and advise law enforcement and other professionals to identify human traffickers and shut down their illicit marketplaces.
“As a trafficking survivor, my insider information allows me to inform investigations and work with detectives and analysts to target these criminals and ensure they are put behind bars, where they belong.”
Storm knows how these criminals operate and uses her skillset to collaborate with her team at DeliverFund to create software solutions and “tech that protects” that drastically reduces the time police allocate to building cases that ensure traffickers receive the justice they deserve.
You can get involved in the fight against human trafficking, not by knocking down doors and dragging out a trafficker, but behind your keyboard or in your community. There are ways you can take the fight to traffickers and end commercialized rape.
How can you support the fight? First, find a reputable organization to support, contact your local community services to see how you can help, and contact your representatives to see what they are doing in the fight against human traffickers.