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Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking


The following is a list of red flags to keep in mind when indicating a potential situation of or a victim of human trafficking. Taken individually, each indicator may not necessarily imply a trafficking situation. Furthermore, items on this list are not meant to be interpreted as present in all trafficking cases, nor is the list intended to be exhaustive. This list is intended to encompass transnational and domestic trafficking, as well as both sex and labor trafficking. Some indicators may be more strongly associated with one type of trafficking.

Common Work and Living Conditions:

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Is under 18 years of age and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp/manager
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large and/or increasing debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • Is living or working in a location with high security measures (e.g. opaque or boarded-up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.).

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior:

  • Exhibits unusually fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid behavior
  • Reacts with unusually fearful or anxious behavior at any reference to “law enforcement”
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Exhibits a flat affect

Poor Physical Health:

  • Exhibits unexplained injuries or signs of prolonged/untreated illness or disease
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control:

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, and/or has no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (e.g. ID, passport, or visa)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for him/herself (e.g., a third party may insist on being present and/or interpreting)
  • Has an attorney that he/she doesn’t seem to know or to have agreed to receive representation services from 


  • Has been “branded” by a trafficker (e.g. a tattoo of the trafficker’s name)
  • Claims to be “just visiting” and is unable to clarify where he/she is staying or to provide an address
  • Exhibits a lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or does not know what city he/she is in
  • Exhibits a loss of a sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

If you think you have come in contact with a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1.888.373.7888

Victims of trafficking may look like many of the people coming to your organization for assistance every day. Victims are young children, teenagers, men, and women. By looking beneath the surface and asking yourself these questions, you can help identify potential victims:

  • Is the person accompanied by another person who seems controlling (possibly the trafficker)?
  • Is the person rarely allowed in public (except for work)?
  • Can you detect any physical or psychological abuse?
  • • Does the person seem submissive or fearful?
  • • Does the person have difficulty communicating because of language or cultural barriers?
  • • Does the person lack identification or documentation?
  • • Is someone else collecting the person’s pay or holding their money for “safe keeping”?

What Does the Human Trafficking of Children Look Like in the United States?

Across the globe, traffickers buy and sell children, exploiting them for sex and forced labor, and moving them across international borders. Some child victims are trafficked into the United States from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe. In the United States, children are subjected to human trafficking in many different sectors. Examples include prostitution on the streets or in a private residence, club, hotel, spa, or massage parlor; online commercial sexual exploitation; exotic dancing/stripping; agricultural, factory, or meatpacking work; construction; domestic labor in a home; restaurant/bar work; illegal drug trade; door-to-door sales, street peddling, or begging; or hair, nail, and beauty salons. Family members, acquaintances, pimps, employers, smugglers, and strangers traffic children. They often prey upon the children’s vulnerabilities – their hopes for an education, a job, or a better life in another country – and may use psychological intimidation or violence to control the children and gain financial benefits from their exploitation. Trafficked children may:

  • show signs of shame or disorientation
  • be hungry and malnourished
  • experience traumatic bonding (Stockholm syndrome)
  • fear government officials, such as police and immigration officers

Victim Interaction

Asking the right questions may help you determine if someone is a victim of human trafficking. It is important to talk to a potential victim in a safe and confidential environment. If the victim is accompanied by someone who seems controlling, you should try to separate the victim from that person. The accompanying person could be the trafficker or someone working for the trafficker.

Ideally, you should also enlist the help of a staff member who speaks the person's language and understands the person's culture. As an alternative, you can enlist interpreter services such as those provided by the ATT Language Line. If the person is a child, it is important to enlist the help of a social services specialist who is skilled in interviewing minor trafficking or abuse victims. If an interpreter is needed, they must be screened to ensure they do not know the victim or the traffickers and do not otherwise have a conflict of interest.

If you think you have come in contact with a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1.888.373.7888. This hotline will help you determine if you have encountered victims of human trafficking, will identify local resources available in your community to help victims, and will help you coordinate with local social service organizations to help protect and serve victims so they can begin the process of restoring their lives. For more information on human trafficking visit

If you think you have encountered a victim of human trafficking, it is important for you to collaborate among key service providers, including the Department of Health and Human Services, law enforcement and others at the local, state and Federal levels, to help the victim get the protection and services they need. Calling the Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline will provide important guidance to you on enlisting these support services.

More information can be found at Polaris Project