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The who and how of human trafficking

Human trafficking is a crime that is said to be “hidden in plain sight.” Often equated to modern-day slavery, there are many ways humans are trafficked. The most common types involve the commercial sex trade or physical labor.  

There are myriad ways to define human trafficking, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines it simply as the illegal exploitation of a person. 

Human trafficking crimes are often not reported because victims cannot be easily identified by others and may be afraid to come forward due to threats or violence or fear of retribution from traffickers, including danger to their families. They also may not have or have access to their identification documents and many are completely unaware they are a victim. 

“We know that West Virginia as a whole experiences significant rates of trafficking,” said Hannah Rhea, Domestic Violence Specialist at the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC).  “However, to put a number on it is extremely hard as so many instances of victimization go unreported.” 

Rhea said while RDVIC doesn’t see very many cases, with only two clients reported as victims of trafficking in 2022, they know it is happening in our area.  

“It is very likely we had contact with more and were unaware,” she explained.  “We can equate this in part to the fact that people who are victims of trafficking have extremely low access to resources to speak with us.”  

Another barrier is knowledge of what constitutes trafficking. 

“A lot of clients who are survivors of human trafficking don’t identify that way,” Rhea said.  “We have had clients who came to us for other reported reasons, and we only found out later on they had been survivors of trafficking.” 

Roughly 95% of people being trafficked have been manipulated, or tricked, into it in some way. According to Rhea, this can be done by force, but is typically initiated with fraud and coercion.  

Many trafficking victims experience a similar timeline of events that begins with a “grooming” period, which involves gaining trust and information, meeting a need or want, implementing isolation and/or control, and then maintaining control by whatever means necessary. 

People with substance use issues are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Addiction exposes vulnerabilities that can be initiated and manipulated by traffickers as a means of coercion and control. According to the U.S. Department of State, some traffickers will even recruit directly from detox and addiction treatment facilities.  

Sexual abuse can also play a role, not only as a means of control, but also can make people more vulnerable to becoming a victim. Someone who has past experiences of sexual abuse, violence or trauma could be lured in and taken advantage of by a trafficker exploiting his or her need for protection or love. 

The Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said 2021 data showed that while those who recently migrated or relocated remain the most vulnerable to trafficking, mental health concerns, substance use, unstable housing, and homeless or runaway youth are among the top five vulnerabilities. 

It is difficult to say whether sex trafficking or labor trafficking is more prevalent, but Rhea said nationally there is more sex, or sex and labor, trafficking reported than labor alone, and more sex trafficking is prosecuted and convicted at both the state and national level. 

There are many misconceptions about who is committing these crimes as well. In many minds, people who are being trafficked were probably snatched from the street by men in unmarked white vans. The reality is most victims are recruited by someone they know. 

The Polaris Project data shows that 33% of recruiters or traffickers were a family member or caregiver, 28% were an intimate partner of the victim, and 22% were the victim’s employer. Abductions accounted for 6%. 

Rhea said some victims were lured in fraudulently by false job postings or misleading promises or “deals” such as cheap travel trips, the promise of helping to get a visa/citizenship status for immigrants and promises of housing until able to provide yourself.  

Situational examples of the use of force include being sold by parents or family or being sold by your intimate partner.   

Since many victims will likely not seek help or are unaware of their situation, it is important for community members to be aware of the signs someone is being trafficked. Knowing the signs can also help to prevent becoming a victim yourself. 

There are a lot of signs human trafficking may be occurring, but Rhea said it’s important to note that some things individually are not necessarily indicators, but when you begin to add them up and it’s not making sense, that is when concern should kick in. 

Signs you or someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking include: 

  • Not being free to come and go. 
  • Working excessively long hours with no breaks allowed or unusual rules and restrictions. 
  • Unpaid, or severely underpaid, work or a sudden, unexplained, increase in income that does not match job identification. 
  • No job benefits or concern for wellbeing.  
  • Odd, or unnecessarily high, security measures at work or living locations. 
  • Behaviors are fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, paranoid, evasive, resistant, appears coached, has an abrupt change, preoccupation with things they did before. 
  • Physical signs such as malnourishment, bruising, burns, cuts, other injuries, as well as odd marks, tags, and tattoos. 
  • Has little to no personal possessions. 
  • Not in control of their own finances. 
  • No access to ID documents, they are being withheld “until debt is paid off” or “their end of the deal is met.” 
  • Unable to clarify where they are living or working. 
  • Lack of knowledge of city or location. 
  • Not able to speak for themselves, a third party is insistent on being present. 
  • Many inconsistencies in stories.  
  • Multiple electronic devices. 
  • Extreme travelling and being unaware of details prior to.  
  • Documentation containing numbers, names, dollar amounts, addresses. 
  • New, unexplained, or odd, clothing and accessories for their individual situation like young people suddenly dressing in expensive clothing or dressing in inappropriate clothing or someone who works a low paid job dressing in new expensive clothing.  

If you believe you or someone you know may be a victim or human trafficking, RDVIC has resources and help available. 

“We can assist with emergency shelter, safety planning if they aren’t ready to leave yet or need help creating a plan for when they are able to leave,” Rhea said. They are also able to provide individual counseling, legal advocacy such as help obtaining protective orders and reporting to police, and external referrals to other organizations that can meet any needs they cannot. 

More information and resources about human trafficking can be found on their website