Skip navigation

Understanding Human Trafficking

While existing data are not sufficient to fully identify the extent of human trafficking in the United States, current research indicates that many law enforcement agencies in the United States have encountered some form of human trafficking or contacted victims through routine work and investigations into other crimes. Victim service providers may also come into contact with trafficking victims in a variety of settings.

Due to the complex nature of the crime, perpetrators often operate unnoticed, and those who suffer are not likely to self-identify as victims of human trafficking. Trafficking victims do not always see themselves as victims, often blaming themselves for their situation. This makes discovering this crime more difficult because victims rarely self-report, and the time and resources required to uncover violations can be significant. Too many victims are misidentified and treated as criminals or undocumented migrants. In some cases, victims are hidden behind doors in domestic servitude in a home. In other cases, victims live in plain view and interact with people on a daily basis, yet they experience commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor under extreme circumstances in public settings such as exotic dance clubs, factories, or restaurants, and are not identified due to a lack of identification training and awareness.

What is the Definition of Human Trafficking?

According to federal legislation (the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 [TVPA], and its subsequent reauthorizations), human trafficking is defined as:

a) Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or

b) The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. (22 USC 7102(9))

Human trafficking often involves severe violence to its victims, along with a host of other crimes, including gang, drug, and property crimes; organized criminal operations; and other violations of state, federal, and international law. See Chapter 1.4 Human Trafficking Laws for additional information.

Who is a Victim?

There is no single profile of a trafficking victim. Victims of this crime may be men, women, transgender persons, adults, minors, U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, or foreign nationals. Any person under the age of 18 who engages in commercial sex acts, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion, is a victim of human trafficking, even if they appear to consent to the commercial sex act.

In the United States, some of the most highly vulnerable populations include undocumented workers, runaway and homeless youth, individuals with substance abuse or addiction issues, and low income individuals; however, individuals across all income and education levels can be trafficked. Regardless of background, the common denominator is some form of vulnerability. Whether the vulnerability lies in a dream of a better life, lack of employment, an unstable home, a disability, or the desire to escape physical and/or sexual abuse, these conditions exist in every city, state, and country.

Who is a Trafficker?

Just as there is no one type of victim, trafficking perpetrators can be foreign nationals or U.S. citizens, and they can be family members, partners, acquaintances, or strangers to their victims. People often incorrectly assume that all traffickers are males; however, several cases in the United States involve women as traffickers. There are cases where traffickers are pimps, family members, peers and intimate partners, gangs and criminal networks, diplomats, business owners (legitimate and those operating as a commercial front for the illicit activity), labor brokers, farm owners, factories, and companies large and small.

Many victims and traffickers share ethnic or cultural backgrounds. In these cases, traffickers are better able to understand, gain trust, and ultimately exploit victims. Traffickers choose targets based on vulnerability, and they use recruitment or enticement tactics and methods of control that will work most effectively.

Human Trafficking – a Hidden but High Profit Industry

Human trafficking is a low risk, high profit industry for the trafficker. Human trafficking is believed to be one of the fastest growing illicit industries in the world. Fortunately, as practitioners are better trained and the general public becomes more aware of the problem, the equation of low risk is starting to shift. The riskier the crime becomes, the less incentive exists for perpetrators to commit the crime. A strong multidisciplinary task force that utilizes talents from all sectors can add to this momentum.

For additional information, visit the Resource page for Chapter 1 Understanding Human Trafficking.