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Human trafficking: Is someone you know at risk?

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Human trafficking is a form of slavery and involves stealing a person’s freedom to gain money. While it can be difficult to learn about human trafficking, knowledge can empower you to recognize it and help fight it. It’s more common than you might realize and could even happen to someone you know.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking occurs when one person causes another person to engage in sexual behaviors (sex trafficking) or perform labor or services (labor trafficking) to get something valuable, like food, shelter, clothing, a job, money, drugs or transportation. Human trafficking is always illegal and never the victim’s fault.

Anyone can be a trafficker. It can even be someone the victim knows, like a family member, friend, date or acquaintance.

Sometimes victims of sex trafficking don’t even realize they’re being trafficked. The trafficker will “groom” the victim by promising safety, love or romance to get the victim to do what they want. Traffickers may also use the following tactics:

  • Manipulation: Offering protection or gifts to the victim or minimizing the abuse.
  • Threats: Threatening to hurt the victim or their family.
  • Lies: Telling the victim that they’ll get in trouble if they tell anyone.
  • Economic abuse: Creating debt that can’t be paid off, taking away money the victim earns and preventing them from accessing the money they earn.
  • Physical abuse: Physically harming the victim and forcing them to perform sex acts or work in inhumane or unsafe conditions.
  • Sexual abuse: Using sexual assault to control the victim.
  • Emotional abuse: Name-calling, humiliation or convincing the victim that the trafficker is the only person who cares about them.

Who is at risk for human trafficking?

Sex trafficking can happen to anyone and victims represent all:

  • Races
  • Ethnicities
  • Genders
  • Sexual orientations
  • Ages
  • Locations (in the United States and across the world; big cities to suburbs to small towns)

Sex trafficking can cause severe mental, physical and emotional harm to its victims, even if trafficking stops, such as:

  • Health complications
  • Physical pain
  • Isolation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anger

Human trafficking is more common than you might think: 21 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labor and 4.5 million are estimated to be victims of sex trafficking.

What are the signs of human trafficking?

Keep an eye out for signs of human trafficking, such as a person:

  • Missing a lot of school or work
  • Unusual injuries
  • Isolating themselves
  • Seeming more tired than usual

Keep in mind, people show these signs for other reasons that don’t include human trafficking. And there are many other potential signs of human trafficking. But if the person you know doesn’t seem right, talk to them or a trusted adult.

What to do if you think someone might be a victim of human trafficking

If you think you or someone you know might be a victim of human trafficking, talk to a trusted adult. A trusted adult empowers and supports you and helps you make positive decisions. They could be a:

  • Parent
  • Grandparent
  • Aunt or uncle
  • Older cousin
  • Older sibling
  • Teacher
  • Coach
  • School nurse
  • School counselor
  • Parent of a friend

If you or someone you know is experiencing sex trafficking, you can also text “Help” or “Info” to 233733 or call 1-888-373-7888.

Need more info? Connect with an Expert.



National Human Trafficking Hotline

Polaris Project: Understanding Human Trafficking

Polaris Project: Recognizing Human Trafficking

U.S. Department of Defense

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