By: Andrea Cipriano, MAFP

When looking at cold cases, there are victimology warning signs that citizen detectives should look at that would indicate if a missing person has possibly been human 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. 

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

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

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.

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

  1. They suddenly posess gifts or money;

Keyana Marshall was excited to be driving around town with her ‘friends’ in a fancy car and to be sneaking into clubs at 15-years-old. She wanted to “live a good life” and enjoyed the money and shopping trips. Keyana had no idea one of her older friends, Treena, ran an escort service — and that Treena would one day pimp Keyana to older men.

2. They began receiving attention from an older person and is secretive about the relationship;

3. They started using drugs or alcohol;

As Keyana was getting dragged into the cycle of trafficking and violence, she was frequently given alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. The cycle went on for years, in other cities, and with other pimps. Eventually, she wound up under the control of a male trafficker who fed her addictions, manipulated her emotions, threatened her, beat her, and kept her firmly under his control.

4. They skipped school, work, or tried running away from home;

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;

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.

7. They had multiple older boyfriends or girlfriends;

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;

9. They fell into a situation of economic vulnerability;

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.

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.

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.
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