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Trafficking History

Scheme Used by the Trafficker

Smart Tip: Creating Boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries between the roles of law enforcement and victim service providers is critical in stabilizing a victim, ensuring they receive access to necessary services while not jeopardizing the law enforcement investigation.

How a victim was initially brought into the trafficking situation, and the strategies that the trafficker used to control the victim, can significantly impact the way a victim feels about sharing information with law enforcement. Below are several ways traffickers coerce their victims, with some suggested approaches for law enforcement to take in countering these in advance of, or during, an interview.

Physical and sexual violence. Many victims of human trafficking, both labor and sex trafficking, endured extensive physical violence. Some have a history of prior abuse and victimization that created a vulnerability to trafficking and an acceptance of violence as unavoidable. Cultural beliefs may influence victims to accept violence or defer to the trafficker. Ensuring proper medical screening and treatment for all victims prior to any interview with law enforcement is critical. Law enforcement should also express interest and concern in the physical condition of the victim to demonstrate an interest in the safety and comfort of the victim as a human being.

Poor living conditions. Traffickers often restrict access to food, medical care, sleep, and physical comfort in order to control their victims. Victims may be tired, hungry, or lack access to appropriate clothing. Specifically, when victims are identified through a law enforcement action and removed from the situation of exploitation, allowing time for them to have access to clean clothing, food, and rest in a safe place before an interview is important.

Drug or alcohol addiction. More and more trafficking victims are describing the extensive use of drugs and alcohol by their traffickers as part of their means of control. As soon as this is identified, work through the task force to ensure placement with a drug and alcohol treatment program. Investigators will need to plan their interviews strategically, understanding the impact of withdrawal on victims, and coordinate with any treatment or services that the victims receive.

Trauma bonding. Some traffickers develop a romantic relationship with the victim. The trafficker promises romance, nice clothing and other material goods, a better life, and in some instances, actually marries the victim. Some traffickers have children with the victim prior to, or entwined with, the trafficking exploitation. This type of recruitment can create strong ties between a trafficker and their victim, called a trauma bond. Trauma bonding can also occur in a non-romantic context when the victim has emotional ties to the trafficker due to their dependent status. They may feel appreciative for being fed, receiving some payment, or not being violently treated. In some cases, victims say that one trafficker was better than their last because he did not beat them. Some victims may look to their trafficker as a parental figure who is in a position of power they admire. See Section 4.1 for more information.

Federal Law Enforcement Resources:

Federal law enforcement agencies have emergency funds available when victim service providers may need time before they can assist. They can cover:

  • Emergency housing, food, transportation to victim assistance services
  • Emergency medical care or mental health assessments
  • Payment for sexual assault forensic exams

Having federal law enforcement victim assistance service providers as part of your task force helps ensure additional emergency victim assistance resources are available when needed. See

The sooner that law enforcement recognizes the victim has an emotional bond with the trafficker, and that is part of the trafficker’s coercive scheme, the sooner law enforcement and victim service providers can collectively respond. It is important to remember that a victim’s loyalty may initially be to the trafficker. Victims are often combative with law enforcement and focused on protecting their trafficker, even at their own expense. They do not identify as a victim, but rather see themselves as willing participants.

In an interview, it is important not to talk about the trafficker in a negative way or allude to them being a potential target of an investigation. Connecting the victim to victim service providers and mental health experts with experience in trauma bonding and domestic violence relationships can be very helpful. Most importantly, do not make assumptions that because a potential victim is acting in this way that they are not a victim. Give it time and allow the victim to come to her/his own conclusion about the trafficker.

Fear of law enforcement. Victims may be conditioned to fear law enforcement and thus not seek help. They may come from countries or communities that believe law enforcement will never help them. Victims may have been forced to engage in criminal activity by their trafficker, and were arrested and treated as criminals instead of victims, reinforcing their negative perceptions and fears of law enforcement.

From the first contact, setting a tone of respect is critical in building rapport. Ensuring that the victims' basic needs are being met before you interview them, connecting them to victim service providers, and keeping them informed throughout the criminal investigation and prosecution are all excellent strategies to mitigate fears about law enforcement.

Fear of deportation. Foreign nationals may be inherently fearful of law enforcement and immigration, particularly those who entered the United States illegally, fell out of legal status, or are dependent on their trafficker for their legal status. Of course, traffickers promote and reinforce that fear through their own coercive strategies, threatening to have the victim deported for noncompliance with the trafficker’s demands.

Luckily, law enforcement can take immediate and effective action to address this issue, further developing rapport with the victim and encouraging the victim to share information. See Section 4.4 for tools to provide immigration relief to your victim.


Visit Faces of Human Trafficking to view related materials.

Threats against family. Traffickers routinely threaten to harm the victim’s family members. If the victim knows that the trafficker is well regarded in their family or community, has influential relationships with local law enforcement, or knows where the victim’s family lives, these threats are particularly effective. There are numerous cases of human trafficking in which the threats against families are a significant factor controlling a victim and coercing them to remain in terribly exploitative and abusive conditions.

Law enforcement must be very clear about what can be done as well as what cannot be done to address these concerns. Accessing resources to relocate a victim’s family members can be critical in securing a victim’s cooperation, but it is expensive and complex. For victims whose families overseas are being threatened, partnering with federal law enforcement agencies with offices overseas will be critical.

Law enforcement should immediately raise these concerns with the prosecutor to protect the name and identify of the victim whenever possible throughout the investigation and prosecution. Be honest with the victim about what you can and cannot do. Also, see Section 4.4 on protection/restraining orders.

Shame. Many victims blame themselves for being tricked, thinking that they should have stopped the trafficker or not believed the trafficker’s promises. Others feel shame because of the types of exploitation they endured. For example, traffickers may have threatened to share photos with family members of the victim doing things that they do not want their family to know about.

Keeping the interview team small and explaining why each person is in the room can be helpful in building rapport with the victim may make them feel more comfortable discussing things about which they are ashamed. Talking with victims about how the information they share will be protected and what will happen with it is also very important. Make sure you are honest about what you can and cannot do to protect their privacy. Work with the prosecutor to use all the tools available to protect the victim’s name and identify, such as rape shield laws.

Debt bondage. One common reason victims are initially vulnerable to a trafficker’s recruitment scheme is their desire for a better life. Many victims come from communities with limited economic opportunities. Others become vulnerable because of their family’s needs for education, shelter, or medical care. Traffickers exploit these vulnerabilities by promising good pay, but first requiring victims to pay significant fees. The traffickers may continue to charge fees to the victim for housing, immigration documents, transportation, or other charges, leaving the victim with mounting debt or an income that is inadequate to ever repay the initial debt and interest, essentially creating a debt bondage situation.

Connecting victims to victim service providers who can help connect them to job training and placement is important so they can continue to support themselves and their families. Likewise, for foreign national victims who are unable to work in the United States legally, securing short-term immigration relief can go a long way in assisting the victim. Law enforcement should be mindful of the victim’s schedule, once she or he is employed, when scheduling interviews or other meetings. See Section 4.4 about the various short-term and long-term immigration options available for foreign national victims.


For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for 5.3 Victim Interview & Preparation.