Human Trafficking: Look Below the Surface, Hidden in Plain Sight

We have all heard stories and seen movies on human trafficking, depicting young women forced into underground sex trafficking, kept on drugs and forced to prostitute for money.  Have you ever thought that this may be happening in your neighborhood? 

The term “human trafficking” triggers different definitions for different people.  Sex trafficking has received more coverage in the media than forced labor, so people generally think of this first.  The verb traffic means to trade or to barter.  Yet trade in humans does not necessarily involve movement, and international definitions of human trafficking are evolving to reflect this.

People of any age and gender are vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking.  In May 2013, The United Nations Reported that 2.4 million people across the globe are victims of human trafficking at any one time:

Human trafficking varies by type and also by “current”, which is the flow of victims.  These currents include the source nation, the transit nation and the destination nation.  One current of trafficking that is often overlooked is internal or domestic, involving indentured servitude within the country.  The main focus has been on victims of international trafficking, but domestic trafficking is often overlooked and is far more common.

Trafficking can occur in many licit and illicit industries or markets, including in brothels, massage parlors, street prostitution, hotel services, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, health and elder care, and domestic service. Individuals who entered the United States without legal status have been identified as trafficking victims, as have participants in visa programs for temporary workers who fill labor needs in many of the industries described above.

There are common methods used by traffickers, regardless of the type of trafficking, such as, false job offers which lure potential victims and demanding exorbitant fees charged for recruitment, visas, travel, housing, food and the use of tools.  These practices keep victims in an endless cycle of debt. Many times, traffickers charge victims fines for alleged poor behavior or not meeting certain work quotas.  As these debts rise, the victims often go underpaid or unpaid.  To control and limit the movement of victims, traffickers frequently withhold victim’s visas and other identification, isolate the victims or their families, and physically harm the victims.  At the outset, the victims may owe a large amount of money relating to recruiting fees.  In order to pay these fees, workers sell their land, the land of family members or take loans with astronomical interest rates.  While earning low wages, or no wage, and paying high fees for housing, food, and even the use of tools, the workers are unable to repay their debts, putting them in a position of debt bondage.  In cases where the employer has paid the costs upfront, the worker is required to work of their debt before they receive any wages.

What is the distinction between “trafficking in persons” and “human trafficking”?  Both are used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 (Pub. L 106-386), as amended, and the Palermo Protocol, describe the compelled service using a number of different terms, including involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor.  Human trafficking may include movement, but does not require it.

There are many faces of “Modern Slavery”:

Sex Trafficking – When an adult is forced, coerced, or deceived into prostitution.  Sex trafficking also may occur within debt bondage.

Child Sex Trafficking – When a child (under 18 years of age) is induced to perform a commercial sex act, involving force, fraud, or coercion.

Forced Labor – Sometimes referred to as labor trafficking, covers a wide range of activities such as recruiting, harboring, or transporting. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to this form of trafficking, but one could also be forced into labor in their own country.  Female victims in domestic servitude are often sexually exploited under forced labor.

Bonded Labor or Debt Bondage – Bond and debt is one form of coercion.  Some workers may even inherit debt from their ancestors; others may fall victim to traffickers or recruiters who, as a term of employment, exploit an initial debt.

Involuntary Domestic Servitude – This involves informal work in a private residence. Domestic workplaces are informal, connected to off-duty living quarters and often not shared with other workers.

Forced Child Labor – A child may be a victim of human trafficking regardless of their location. The child may appear to be in the custody of a non-family member, who requires the child to perform work that financially benefits someone outside of the child’s family, and who does not offer the child the option of leaving.

This modern type of slavery, has replaced whips and chains with economic intimidation.

The United States is one of the top ten destinations for human trafficking, with reportedly, tens of thousands of victims brought into the country each year. Sex trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking identified among U.S. citizens. The common misconception among Americans is that human trafficking within the States is an underground industry, where victims and abusers are exclusively immigrants, when in fact, U.S. citizens and legal residents, may also become victims.

What are some attributes that may contribute to making a victim vulnerable to trafficking?

The U.S. State Department releases an annual “Trafficking in Persons (TIP)” report, each May, which tracks the progress in the fight against human trafficking.  The report ranks 184 countries by Tier Placement based on their level of compliance with human trafficking laws:

Tier 1 – Fully comply with the minimum standards

Tier 2 – Do not meet the minimum standards, but are making significant efforts

Tier 2 Watch List – Do not meet the minimum standards, are making significant efforts, but have significant level of concerns.

Tier 3 – Do not comply and are not making efforts

For financial institutions, it is important for your staff to be: trained in identifying and reporting human trafficking (SAR filing); legally empowered; and given incentives in identifying potential victims.

Some Human Trafficking Possible Indicators and /Red Flags are:

If your front line staff suspects a customer may be a victim of human trafficking, potential questions to ask may be:

In your community your institution may also partner with the following individuals, agencies, and organizations where human trafficking may occur:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for investigating human trafficking, arresting traffickers and protecting victims.  DHS initiates hundreds of investigations and makes numerous arrests every year, using a victim-centered approach.  DHS also processes immigration relief through Continued Presence (CP) and issues visas to victims of human trafficking and other designated crimes.

Identifying and reporting human trafficking is everyone’s responsibility.

Please report suspected human trafficking activity to law enforcement (available 24/7, in over 300 languages and dialects) by:

The Department of Homeland Security provides some excellent resources, which may be utilized as training for your staff to assist in identifying and reporting suspected cases of human trafficking.

Additional Resources

Kris Welch, CRCM, CAMS is a long time banker and financial services consultant with over 25 years experience in regulatory compliance, risk assessments, financial institution branch management, and real estate appraisal. She has established, coordinated and maintained effective financial institution compliance and reporting programs.



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