Lana’s* trafficker put all the credit cards in her name. So when he skipped out on hotel bills, and defaulted on the car payment, it went straight to her credit report. She thought they were in love and she didn’t mind helping out in the beginning – since his credit was bad. But she slowly came to understand that the relationship was abusive, and she needed to break free. That part was hard enough. What she wasn’t counting on was how difficult it would be to rebuild her life – including her finances. She couldn’t even rent an apartment with a credit history like that. And until recently, there was no clear pathway for getting her credit cleaned up.
Now, thanks to Congress, Lana and others in similar positions have a pathway to financial freedom. The new rules, known as the Debt Bondage Repair Act, were included in a larger package of legislation enacted in late 2021. The rule creates a process through which survivors can provide information and have adverse credit information resulting from their trafficking experience removed from their credit report. It’s not perfect and there will still be some survivors who don’t have the evidence they need to move forward, but it is a major leap forward from where things stood before.
What happened to Lana is not unusual in trafficking situations. In 2018, Polaris conducted a survey and focus groups with survivors on their experience with financial institutions before, during, and after their trafficking situation. Of survey respondents, 26 percent reported that their trafficker used or controlled an account in their name and almost all of the focus group participants reported that traffickers kept their own names off of any financial records whatsoever.
Using the identity of their victims is not just a tactic to avoid identification, but to further entangle a victim under a trafficker’s financial control. The use of victim identities by traffickers can have a long lasting and devastating impact. Survivors report leaving their trafficking situation only to discover their credit score has been ruined by their traffickers. Some are left to pay debts their trafficker incurred in their name. Damaged credit histories make it difficult for survivors to find safe housing, get a credit card, and secure loans for things like education or starting their own business. Without stable credit, survivors are vulnerable to re-exploitation.
There is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure survivors of sex and labor trafficking have the tools and support they need to put themselves on solid financial footing and move forward their lives. But this legislation is a key step in that direction that will have a measurable impact on the lives of people who have struggled and fought their way to freedom and deserve the chance to get out from under the mess their traffickers have made of their credit scores.
*Please note, in order to protect survivors’ privacy, the name used is not real.