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Human Trafficking: Know the Signs

Human trafficking is a major world wide problem. It is the third most profitable illegal industry after arms and drugs sales, raking in $32 billion in annual profits. Millions of children and adults are trafficked into sex slavery every single year. In this series we are learning about human trafficking, what is it, how can we prevent it, and how we can help those affected by it. This post will cover the second question: what are the signs of human trafficking? There are key physical, emotional, and behavioural signs of human trafficking that we can learn to recognize. I have added some amazing videos that aid in our understanding of how to spot the signs of trafficking.

To further inform myself on the issue, I took OUR Rescue's free online training course which I highly recommend. It's only an hour long, and comes from an outstanding organization.

The Physical Signs of Trafficking

Traffickers use many physical tactics to control and manipulate their victims.

  • Physical violence, beatings, starvation and rape are commonly used to break down victims and demonstrate control.

  • Victims frequently endure violence from people who purchase sex acts in addition to their traffickers.

  • Wounds are often covered up with make up.

  • Traffickers may brand their victims with a tattoo. If you see the same tattoo in the same location on multiple people, this is a likely sign of human trafficking.

  • Pay close attention to a persons appearance, especially to those whose look does not match their current situation.

Example: a homeless youth who suddenly has new clothes or electronics. Take note if you see someone who has poor personal hygiene accompanied by an older person who is well groomed with expensive clothing. This may be a victim with their trafficker.

  • Sex trafficking victims may be dressed inappropriately for their age and development. Adolescent girls wearing promiscuous clothing and makeup is a good reason to look closely for more signs of trafficking.

  • Victims may live in overcrowded locations, appear to be living out of a suitcase with few personal belongings.

  • Poor hygiene and malnutrition are signs of potential human trafficking.

  • Frequent male visitors going in and out of their home or hotel room is a sign of trafficking.

  • Large amounts of cash, fake ID's, multiple cell phones, hotel keys, and papers with dollar amounts and names written on them are all signs of human trafficking.

Emotional Signs of Trafficking

Trafficking victims suffer from severe emotional trauma, which can be complex and complicated to understand. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their abuse.

Victims may suffer from:

  • depression

  • fear

  • hopelessness

  • helplessness

  • PTSD

  • anxiety

  • panic attacks

  • suicidal thoughts

  • paranoia

  • addiction

Some body language signs pf psychological abuse are:

  • downcast eyes

  • lack of expression

  • poor/insecure posture

  • avoiding eye contact

  • being easily startled

Victims may look to someone else before answering a question, or not answer questions at all, allowing someone else to speak for them. They may show an unfounded fear or paranoia of law enforcement, medical personnel, or other professionals. Some victims are made to believe that their family or pets will be harmed if they turn to authorities. Victims often do not disclose any of their abuse, even when asked by a loved one.

Behavioural and Social Signs of Trafficking

Once a person has been trafficked, their behaviour and social activity will likely drastically change.

They may:

  • brag about having a job in modelling, having an older boyfriend, or earning a lot of money.

  • use new slang or inappropriate words, and mention escorting services.

  • become more secretive about their new relationship, whereabouts, and internet activity.

  • display increased sexualized behaviour, and post more provocative photos on social media.

  • work excessively long or unusual hours. Pay attention if someone you know stops attending school, becomes unreliable, dishonest, socially isolated, or withdrawn from friends.

Victims are often accommodated by a dominating and controlling individual who appears to be older. They may show signs of gang affiliation, drug addiction, and petty theft.

Loss of Freedom: A Key Sign of Trafficking

Victims are deprived of their freedom and other basic rights.

  • Traffickers are in control of where victims live, where they work, what they do, and what they eat.

  • Traffickers often force victims to use addictive drugs to create another level of dependance control.

  • High security measures are often used in victims living and work environments. Look for opaque or boarded up windows, barbed wire, and security cameras.

  • Traffickers often speak for their victims, watch them, and accompany them everywhere they go.

  • It is common for traffickers to exploit immigrants who do not speak the native language. they confiscate travel documents, ID's, and money to control them.

  • Victims often are manipulated to believe they owe their trafficker money or services, and cannot leave until their debt is paid off.

  • Even if it's hard to understand, many victims develop an emotional bond with their trafficker which keeps them from leaving, even if they have the chance to.

Read our previous post in this serious about what human trafficking is here.

Read the next post in this series about how to prevent and respond to human trafficking here.

Observe. Speak Up. Report.

Always report suspected human trafficking to 911. It is better to be safe than to say nothing. If a victim is in need of services, it can be helpful to give them the National Human Trafficking Hotline Number.

Ways to report:

Call: 1-888-373-7888

Text: "BeFree" to 233722

Submit an online form at

This hotline is run by Polaris. Victims, including undocumented individuals, are protected under US law and are eligible for services. You can encourage a suspected victim to call the hotline number, or call yourself to report a suspected case.

Read the previous post in this series: What Is Human Trafficking? Know The Facts

Read the next post in this series: Human Trafficking: How to Prevent Being Targeted

Thanks for reading! If you're interested in self defense and street safety, have a look around our blog and website, and don't forget to follow our instagram and facebook for great tips!


Author: Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight Inc.

Gemma is an ex-MMA fighter who started Girls Who Fight Inc to bring the value of martial arts and self defense training to the female audience.


The Girls Who Fight Film, By Jennifer Roberts

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