Human traffickers exploit legitimate systems within multiple business sectors for their own profits. From traffickers who use banks to store their earnings and buses to move their victims around, to the hotel rooms that are integral to the operations of some sex traffickers and the social media that are vital recruitment tools, this report highlights the way industries can make fundamental shifts to their systems to prevent, detect, and disrupt human trafficking.
As with any enterprise, human trafficking ventures are not built in a vacuum but rather depend on and intersect with legitimate industries and systems. Examples are abundant. Traffickers use banks for their earnings and buses to move their victims around; hotel rooms are integral to some sex traffickers, while social media is a recruitment trawling ground for others. The details matter. The more we know about the business plans of human trafficking, the better we can prevent and disrupt the crime and help survivors find freedom. To learn more, Polaris surveyed and interviewed the real experts on human trafficking - the survivors who lived through it. This report compiles what we learned, and how those insights can be used by businesses committed to change.
Child welfare agencies, schools, the criminal justice system, and government actors are the proverbial tip of the spear. But human trafficking is a $150 billion global industry that robs 25 million people around the world of their freedom. This report focuses on the private and public-private sector because fighting back will require participation by business and industry partners with resources at a comparable scale to the size of the problem. Participation, in this context, is not a euphemism for making donations to groups that fight human trafficking. The fight against human trafficking requires not just passive support but actual, active commitment and effort on the part of businesses that unwittingly, but regularly intersect with traffickers, victims, and survivors.
The internet has dramatically reshaped how we buy and sell everything – including each other. Traffickers pose online as “boyfriends” or offer fake modeling jobs, to recruit women and girls into commercial sex and then advertise them on social media. Supervisors of traveling sales crews post about how much money they are making to entice victims to their ranks. Remote interactive sexual acts - aka webcams - depend on social media. Potential traffickers manipulate their victims’ access to social media, impersonate the victim, or spread lies and rumors about them on social media. However, social media is also how many survivors stay in touch with their loved ones, reach out for help, and build community that helps them to heal.
Banks and credit card companies have designed effective and sophisticated systems for identifying potential human trafficking through patterns of payment, spending, deposits, travel and otherwise moving money. They might, for example, notice a paycheck deposited in an account then transferred out again - a pattern seen in trafficking of domestic workers. Or suspicions could be triggered when an unrelated adult male becomes a co-signer and seems to be the primary user of a woman’s bank account. Investment businesses can play a role by making decisions based on the risk of trafficking in a business’s supply chain. Banks are also potential allies for survivors. Flexible or “second chance” bank accounts, for example, can help rebuild credit and ultimately, financial futures.
While the term trafficking triggers associations with transportation, in reality, the crime of human trafficking does not require movement or travel. But like any business, human trafficking depends on transportation systems to operate. Bus and train stations can be recruitment hotspots for homeless youth seeking shelter. Taxis, ride sharing services, rental cars, are all vital to running escort services, while foreign workers trafficked on temporary U.S. work visas are often fraudulently made to pay for plane tickets. Mass transportation hubs like airports are key points for victim identification, and public awareness. Survivors often need transportation to leave their situation, but can’t afford or find good, safe options.
Health consequences of being trafficked can be wide ranging and severe - from depression to broken bones, to any number of severe workplace injuries or exhaustion from being forced to work in inhumane conditions. Preexisting health conditions, including substance use and disabilities can also make people vulnerable to a trafficker’s coercion. Increasingly, health care professionals are learning to look for signs of trafficking and to treat potential victims with the respect they deserve, but many victims and survivors also remember feeling judged or discriminated against when they sought treatment while being trafficked.
Hotels and motels
The clearest nexus between hotels and human trafficking is as a venue for selling commercial sex. Many hotel chains have recognized this and stepped up to ensure front-line staff are well trained in identifying potential signs of human trafficking, but there are also many missed opportunities. Hotels and motels are also venues for labor trafficking, most often of housekeeping staff who have been recruited by and may in fact work for outside agencies. Hotels may also have relationships with vendors for everything from linens to soaps that could have trafficking in their supply chains.
In Polaris’s survey of survivors, 64 percent reported being homeless or experiencing unstable housing at the time they were recruited into their trafficking situation. In fact, traffickers are known to recruit directly from shelters. Traffickers may also hold the fear of being homeless over their victim as a control tactic. Lack of a safe places to stay also keeps many victims in their trafficking situations longer than they might otherwise be. Clearly, then, safe housing is a key need for a range of potentially vulnerable people. In some cases, such as in residential brothels, housing systems and rental management companies are actually integral to the trafficking business operation.