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Recognizing the Crime

Recognizing human trafficking requires an acute awareness of the red flags that suggest the presence of human trafficking. The locations and settings where trafficking occurs do not always appear suspicious. For instance, trafficking often occurs at places frequented by the public, such as restaurants or hotels. It is important to remember that key indicators of this crime may not be in the setting itself, but in the conditions and circumstances that the victim experiences.

One of the key misperceptions in identifying human trafficking is that movement is a required element of human trafficking. In fact, human trafficking often occurs without the victim crossing any state lines or the border of a country, or even their hometown.

Indicators of Human Trafficking

Some red flags that may indicate the presence of human trafficking include:

  • A person whose movement and activities appear to be closely controlled or monitored by another.
  • A person who works excessive hours but receives little or no pay. This person may be told that payment is on its way or that their pay is being used for expenses, like housing or food.
  • A person who works excessive hours and is fearful of discussing working conditions or is unaware that unsafe conditions are unlawful.
  • A person who has little or no idea where they are geographically located and is always transported to and from the worksite.
  • An able-bodied person who never leaves home without an escort.
  • A person who is fearful of discussing their relationship to a person who appears to have physical control over them.
  • Groups of workers who are transported in and out of labor locations covertly and under controlled conditions.
  • Foreign national adults or minors who are not in possession of their documents, particularly if they say that someone else has them.
  • A person with unexplained physical injuries or signs of abuse.
  • Unusual activity at a residential home or business, such as many different cars coming and going late at night.
  • A minor engaged in commercial sexual activities.
  • A minor or young adult who expresses interest in or is in an intimate relationship with a much older individual.
  • Frequenting Internet chat rooms or sites known for recruitment.
  • Going on unexplained shopping trips or having expensive clothing, jewelry, or a cell phone.
  • Using language from “the life” among peers, or referring to a boyfriend as “daddy.”
  • Inconsistencies in their story about where they stay or who is their guardian.
  • Constant communication with multiple men; evidence in phone of names with monetary amounts.
  • Reluctance to explain a tattoo.
  • Keeping late nights or unusual hours; vagueness regarding whereabouts.

Not all indicators are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any one of the indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking. If any of these indicators are present, further inquiry should be made to assess the situation.

Other Crimes That may Involve Human Trafficking

Law enforcement responding to or investigating other crimes may encounter human trafficking. Some of those include the following:


Check out the DHS Blue Campaign for a list of indicators, as well as other resources such as posters, fliers, and videos for public use.

  • Adult and child pornography
  • Arms trafficking (as “expendable” carriers)
  • Assault
  • Criminal street gang activities
  • Domestic violence
  • Drug trafficking (as human “vessels”)
  • Immigration violations and visa fraud
  • Incest
  • Kidnapping
  • Money laundering
  • Organized crime
  • Petty theft
  • Prostitution
  • Sexual assault
  • Traffic violations
  • Workplace violations

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