Recognizing Trafficking

There is no rulebook when it comes to human trafficking.  Victims may be of any sex, age, ethnicity, or social status.

Familiarize yourself with the common characteristics of the victim. Victims of human trafficking are almost always female, typically children, pre-teens, or young adults. They are usually found alone or in the company of another individual or small group. The people surrounding them are most often men and may appear much older than the victim.

Look for evidence of physical abuse

Bruises, cuts, and burn marks may be clues that the victim has been hurt by their captor.  These marks are especially telling when found around the wristws, ankles, arms, and neck, as they suggest that the victim has been controlled or restrained by force.  An isolated bump or cut might just be an acciden – multiple injuries grouped in the same area can ;point to a much more wserious cause.

  • Thin, red lines criss-crossing the wrists aand ankles are often left behind when a victim has been tied up.
  • Malnourishment or a dirty or unkempt appearance could be due to neglect, even if there are no visible signs of harm.

You might feel pretty scared if you have reason to think you’ve come into contact with a victim of human trafficking, but by being alert and attentive, you have the potential to help save a life.

Warning Signs 2
Warning Signs

Take note of ill-fitting or inappropriate clothing.

The garments worn by the suspected victim may be too big or small for them, or seem overtly sexual.  This is often because they’ve been given to them by the traffickers.  Mismatched accessories like scarves, long sleeves, and sunglasses may also be used to make the victim unrecognizable or hide signs of abuse.

  • Children and young teenagers wearing suggestive or revealing items, such as lowcut tops, short skirts or shorts, or plainly visible undergarments, may be facing exploitation as sex workers.
  • When traveling, determine whether the person’s style of dress matches their intended destination.  A child on a flight to a country with a cold climate wearing only a tank top, shorts, and cheap flip-flops may not have chosen those clothes for themselves.

Check for tattoos of bar codes or men’s names.

Traffickers often use tattoos to mark their property.  A bar code symbol or dollar sign may indicate a victim who is to be bought, sold, or traded.  On victims of sex trafficking, these brands may take the form of a specific man’s name or a masculine nickname like “daddy.”

  • Look for odd or isolated tattoos in places like the wrists, upper arms, and the back of the neck.
  • Tattoos should always be a cause for suspicion when spotted on a person who appears to be underage.
Marked Woman
Man Woman

Try to pick up on anxious or timid behavior.

Trafficking victims may seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere or shut down attempts at conversation.  They’re often reluctant to make eye contact when spoken to, or they might look around nervously.  In some cases, they’ll ignore others around them or avoid communication altogether.

  • Pay attention to inconsistencies in the person’s account of what they’re doing and who they’re with.
  • Cautious traffickers will frequently try to do most or all of the talking for the victim.

Observe the person’s reaction to law enforcement.

If they look away, get up to leave, or try to make themselves incognito when there’s a police officer or security guard nearby, they may be worried about being noticed.  For the same reason, they’ll also tend to avoid places where police can be found in large numbers, such as crowded streets and public events.

  • Victims of human trafficking are conditioned to act invisible around authority figures out of fear of being punished for drawing attention. 
Police with Women
Girl Addict

Watch for the outward effects of drugs or alcohol.

See whether the suspected victim appears to be in control of their movements.  A person who’s been drugged may sway, stumble, or lack coordination performing basic tasks.  At worst, they might have a hard time holding their head up or keeping their eyes open.

  • Traffickers sometimes use intoxicating substances as a means of influencing and manipulating their victims.
  • If the person is close enough to examine discreetly, check for other indications that they might have been given something to dull their reactions, like dilated pupils, needle marks, or the smell of alcohol.

Be aware of the presence of a controlling figure.

Traffickers don’t typically let their victims out of their sight. Search the area for another person who seems to be leading the victim or telling them what to do.  This person may be male or female, but in most cases they’ll be noticeably older.

  • The victim may show heightened fear or agitation when their captor is around.
  • It’s not uncommon for traffickers and their associates to pose as bosses, business partners, parents, or boyfriends in order to explain their connection to the victim and prevent people from asking questions.  The trafficker usually does most of the talking.
Controlling Figure
Call the Police

Call 911

Dial your country’s emergency response number and inform the dispatcher that you believe you’ve encountered a victim of human trafficking.  Specify your location and the exact signs or behaviors that made you suspicious.  Your local law enforcement agency will send out an officer to assess the situation.  They may also relay your report to another agency that specializes in kidnapping and human trafficking offenses.

  • You may be expected to provide further information, including a detailed description of the person and anyone they happen to be with.
  • Ask to remain anonymous if you’re feeling uneasy about getting involved.

Seek help from the staff at an airport or bus station

If you get a bad feeling while traveling, head directly to the customer service office and tell the person in charge about what you’ve seen.  They’ll alert the authorities, and may even be able to delay the flight or trip in order to help detain the suspected trafficker.

  • Professionals like flight attendants, customs agents, and conductors are often trained to spot and respond to instances of possible human trafficking.
  • On-site police or security will then be able to apprehend the suspect and get the victim to safety.
Staff at airport
Human Calling

Contact a human trafficking organization

If the victim has moved on or isn’t in immediate danger:

  1. Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. 
  2. Text “HELP” or “INFO” to “BeFree” (233733).  
  3. Submit a report online by going to and filling out the form. 

Groups like these provide emergency aid and other resources for victims of trafficking and people who are courageous enough report the crimes they uncover.

Keep your eyes open. 

Human trafficking can happen anywhere, not just in big cities.  You’ll only notice the crime if you’re looking for it.

Trafficking victims frequently pass-through

Common spots for traffickers to look for potential victims include:

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