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Law enforcement officials may encounter a potential victim of human trafficking during the course of their duties –during domestic disturbance calls; when responding to incidents at massage parlors, bars, and strip clubs; or even during routine traffic stops.

Signs of Human Trafficking for Law Enforcement

Recognizing key indicators can save a life. This is the first step in identifying victims. If you suspect that someone may be a human trafficking victim, please reach out to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) field office at 1-866-347-2423 or human trafficking task force in your area to work collaboratively on an investigation, or report a tip. ICE HSI is responsible for investigating human trafficking and arresting traffickers. There also may be an organization-specific protocol you should follow to notify your supervisor and engage the proper local authorities. 

Not all indicators listed below are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any indicator is not necessarily proof of human trafficking.

Labor or Service Indicators

  • Was the person recruited for one purpose and forced to engage in some other job?
  • Is the person’s salary being garnished to pay off alleged debts?
  • Was the person forced to perform sexual acts? Is the person a juvenile engaged in commercial sex?
  • Does the person work excessively long and/or unusual hours?
  • Is the person inadequately dressed for the situation or work they do?

Control Indicators

  • Is the person in possession of his or her identification and travel documents; if not, who has control of the documents?
  • Does the person appear to be coached on what to say? Are they with someone who appears to be controlling the situation?
  • Has the person or their family been threatened with harm?
  • Is the person fearful, timid or submissive?
  • Has the person been threatened with deportation or law enforcement action?
  • Is the person confused, afraid, or do they show signs of mental or physical abuse?
  • Can the person freely contact friends or family?
  • Is the person allowed to freely socialize or attend religious services?

Living Conditions Indicators

  • Does the person lack personal possessions and appear to have an unstable living situation?
  • Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
  • Has the person been deprived of food, water, sleep, medical care or other life necessities?

Travel Indicators

  • Does the person know his or her final destination? Or how they will get there?
  • Does the person know who is meeting him or her at that final destination?
  • Is a child traveling with someone who does not seem to be their real parent or guardian?

Medical Indicators

  • Does the person have scars, burns, mutilations, or infections?
  • Is the person being prevented from or limited in providing his or her medical history?

Please remember, not all indicators are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any indicator is not necessarily proof of human trafficking. Learn more about human trafficking, including how traffickers operate.

Collaboration between Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement

Most states now have their own laws criminalizing human trafficking, making this form of modern-day slavery a violation of not only international and federal law, but also state laws. As a result, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)―in particular ICE HSI―pursues collaborative investigations with other law enforcement agencies at the international, federal, state, local, county, and tribal level. DHS also works with those that have investigative authority, such as code inspectors, labor officials, and child welfare investigators. DHS’ primary aim in its fight against human trafficking is to work with law enforcement colleagues to protect and stabilize victims, prosecute offenders, and prevent additional trafficking.

E-mail the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit at ICE Headquarters with policy questions: For urgent or operational matters, call 866-347-2423.

Last Published Date: November 5, 2014
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