By: Andrea Cipriano, MAFP

When looking at cold cases, there are victimology warning signs of human trafficking that citizen detectives should look at that to indicate if a missing person has possibly become of victim to being trafficked.

The Charley Project Map and Meaghan Good

Human trafficking is a serious problem that affects millions of people around the world. It is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals are forced into labor or sexual exploitation through the use of violence, deception, or coercion. There are a few key signs of human trafficking to look out for. Continue reading to find out more.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to educate ourselves about this issue and take action to help combat it.

Most Common Types of Human Trafficking

The three most common types of human trafficking are sex trafficking, human labor, and debt bondage.

Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to engage a person in a commercial sex act. Victims are often women and children who are forced into prostitution or pornography. Sex traffickers use a variety of methods to control their victims, including physical violence, psychological abuse, and drug addiction. Traffickers may also threaten to harm victims’ families or reveal embarrassing information about them to keep them under their control. Victims of sex trafficking often suffer from physical and mental health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, addiction, and trauma.

Human Labor

Human labor trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a person for labor or services. This can include domestic servitude, agricultural work, or factory work. Victims of labor trafficking are often lured into a job with false promises of good pay and working conditions, only to find themselves working in dangerous or abusive situations. Labor traffickers often confiscate their victims’ passports and other identification documents to keep them from escaping.

Debt Bondage

Debt bondage is a form of human trafficking in which a person is forced to work to pay off a debt. Victims of debt bondage often come from impoverished backgrounds and are promised good-paying jobs, but they end up working in slave-like conditions to pay off their “debts”. The debt is often inflated with high-interest rates, making it impossible for victims to ever repay. Debt bondage is often used in agricultural work, mining, and domestic servitude.

It’s important to note that these three types of trafficking often overlap and can occur simultaneously. For example, a victim of sex trafficking may also be forced to work in a factory or farm to pay off their trafficker. Similarly, victims of debt bondage may also be subjected to physical or sexual abuse.

How Often Does Human Trafficking Occur?

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an estimated 21 million people are currently being trafficked globally. Of these, 4.8 million are forced into sexual exploitation, and 16.2 million are forced into labor exploitation. 

While forced labor is the biggest sector of trafficking in the world, sex trafficking often poses the most significant threat for women and children who have gone missing. The majority of sex trafficking victims (71 percent) are women and girls forced into the commercial sex industry.

In America, this problem is pervasive. 

More than half of new U.S. human trafficking victims identified in 2021 were minors, according to a report from the Human Trafficking Institute. Of all human trafficking criminal cases filed in 2020, 92 percent were of sex trafficking.

 When looking at cold cases, there are warning signs that citizen detectives should look at that would indicate if a missing person has possibly been human trafficked. Some of these investigative warning signs are reinforced by survivor stories noted by the Polaris Project. 

10 Warning Signs of Being Targeted For Human Trafficking

Victimology warning signs before someone goes missing that could indicate if they’ve ultimately been trafficked include:

1. They suddenly posess gifts or money;
Victims of human trafficking may suddenly acquire expensive gifts, money, or access to things that they did not have before. Traffickers use material possessions to lure vulnerable individuals into their trap. Victims may also be forced to engage in criminal activities, such as theft or drug trafficking, to earn money for their traffickers.

2. They began receiving attention from an older person and is secretive about the relationship;
Traffickers often use manipulation tactics, such as flattery and affection, to gain a victim’s trust. They may pose as a romantic partner, friend, or authority figure and gradually isolate the victim from their support network. Victims may be reluctant to discuss the relationship with others due to feelings of shame or fear of retaliation from their trafficker.

3. They started using drugs or alcohol;
Traffickers may use drugs or alcohol to control their victims and keep them compliant. They may also exploit an individual’s pre-existing addiction or vulnerability to substance abuse. Victims may use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism for the trauma they are experiencing.

4. They skipped school, work, or tried running away from home;
Victims of human trafficking may be forced to work long hours or perform illegal activities, leaving them little time or energy for other pursuits. They may also be punished or threatened if they attempt to escape or seek help. As a result, victims may have a pattern of absenteeism or truancy from school or work, or may attempt to run away from their situation. For example, James Evans shares that before he was trafficked, he dropped out of school. He says he was “Homeless, penniless, and alone, I wanted to just drink myself into oblivion — and I needed somewhere to do that.” This left him vulnerable to being groomed by older men that would later leave him violated.

5. They exhibited changes in behavior, such as becoming withdrawn;
Victims of human trafficking may display sudden changes in behavior, such as becoming more withdrawn or depressed. They may also exhibit symptoms of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health conditions. These changes may be a result of the trauma they are experiencing or the fear of their trafficker. For example, Hazel Fasthorse shares that she was a senior in high school when she was being sex trafficked. The trafficking lasted for nine months out of the school year, and it influenced her behavior to the point where she was withdrawn and lost interest in things that used to bring her happiness.

6. They suddenly got involved in a new social group, particularly online;
Hazel shares that while she was being sex trafficked, she started spending time with different gangs, which was out of character for her.
Traffickers may use social media or online platforms to recruit and groom victims. They may create fake profiles or use other tactics to establish a relationship with vulnerable individuals. Victims may also be coerced into participating in online sexual exploitation.

7. They had multiple older boyfriends or girlfriends;
Traffickers may use multiple romantic partners to control their victims and keep them isolated. Victims may be coerced into engaging in sexual acts with these partners or forced to work in the sex industry. At just 15-years-old, Jose Alfaro formed a relationship with a 36-year-old man who promised to give him the love and affection he so desperately wanted from his parents. The man ended up exploiting Jose.

8. They were promised a new job;
Traffickers may lure victims with the promise of a new job or opportunity. They may offer false information about the nature of the job or the compensation to entice vulnerable individuals.

9. They fell into a situation of economic vulnerability;
Individuals who are struggling financially may be more susceptible to trafficking. Traffickers may exploit economic vulnerabilities by offering employment opportunities or financial assistance in exchange for their victim’s labor or participation in illegal activities. Jose was too young to be legally licensed as a massage therapist, and without money to support himself, his trafficker promised that he could participate with clients as a way to make money and have stability. Jose was vulnerable, thinking: “Here we go again. Someone else taking advantage of me,” but thought a stable working life was the only way to get himself out of his situation.

10. They suddenly desired to change their physical appearance to look older;
Traffickers may use physical appearance to manipulate victims into engaging in sexual acts. They may encourage victims to dress provocatively or to use makeup or other techniques to appear older or more sexually mature. Victims may also be forced to undergo plastic surgery or other cosmetic procedures.It’s important to remember that all of the listed warning signs take place over time, so these red flags may not be immediately obvious and could be part of a wider pattern of abuse. It is also important to remember that a child can be trafficked by someone they know, trust, and love, so they may not be aware they are being groomed for trafficking.


Signs of Human Trafficking Do Not Happen All At Once

It’s important to remember that all of the listed warning signs take place over time, so these red flags may not be immediately obvious and could be part of a wider pattern of abuse. It is also important to remember that a child can be trafficked by someone they know, trust, and love, so they may not be aware they are being groomed for trafficking.

Moreover, some victims of human trafficking are victims of opportunity and are abducted without warning.

Lastly, the red flags listed out are meant to act as starting points for investigators — they’re not end-all-be-all indicators that someone fell victim to human trafficking. Again, they could simply be red flags to a broader pattern of abuse.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month is an opportunity to educate ourselves about this issue and take action to help combat it. We all have a role to play in ending this problem and building a world where all people can live with freedom and dignity.

Have You Identified Signs of Human Trafficking?

If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888), Text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233-733, or call your local law enforcement.

Love this post? Meet the Author.
Andrea Cipriano is a Case Researcher and Content Specialist at Uncovered, where she writes for the twice-weekly true crime newsletter, The Citizen Detective. Andrea graduated with a Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she focused on researching and peeling back the criminal mind. Andrea believes that it’s never too late for justice.
Uncovered is building a community around collective impact for cold cases and supporting further education to develop citizen detective skills. Interested in contributing? Join our community, or reach out with a topic you’d like to share with our readers.