Human Trafficking

3 Elements & How to Prevent Through AML Compliance

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Some people like to believe that slavery is a relic of colonial times. The unfortunate truth is that it still exists in the form of human trafficking. People from all countries and all walks of life can be seduced, controlled, and exploited for manual labor, sex, abetting criminal activity, or even their own body parts.

Let’s begin with a human trafficking definition aimed at succinctly explaining this criminal enterprise.

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What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking refers to illegal activities used to control a person’s movements in order to exploit that person, often through forced labor or commercial sex. It involves deception, violence, or threats to capitalize on a victim’s vulnerabilities and keep them from escaping exploitation.

Human Trafficking vs. Human Smuggling

The primary differences when it comes to human smuggling vs. human trafficking revolve around consent and freedom. Victims of human trafficking are coerced into doing things against their will, usually through force or manipulation.

On the other hand, smuggled people often freely choose to be smuggled between countries and territories to escape oppression, conflict, poverty, etc. Smuggled people are also generally left to do as they please by the smugglers once they reach their destination.

With that said, many of the abuses associated with human trafficking are also often seen in human smuggling. Smugglers often force migrants to labor as payment for getting them illegally across borders. Migrants who are poor and desperate are also vulnerable to trafficking activities in their new jurisdiction.

How Does Human Trafficking Work?

So how does human trafficking happen?

It’s a crime that takes advantage of people’s insecurities to force them out of their current situations or trick them into thinking they can get better lives. Either way, the victims end up in exploitative environments that are difficult to escape due to violence, threats, isolation, theft, and other controlling behaviors.

Human trafficking generally works in three phases:

Step 1: Recruitment

Traffickers typically target people who live in vulnerable circumstances and have unmet needs (psychological, emotional, economic, social, etc.). They may contact victims directly, or through indirect methods such as classified advertisements. They often falsely promise things like friendship, love, money, or job opportunities to appeal to what’s missing in victims’ lives and gain their trust.

Step 2: Isolation

Next, traffickers use various techniques to separate victims from familiar people and places. They may physically transport victims to rural or isolated areas, but not always. Traffickers can also create situations where victims become dependent on them. These could include getting victims addicted to drugs; claiming that victims need to repay them for affection, gifts, favors, or services; and stealing victims’ money or ID documents.

Step 3: Exploitation

In the last step, traffickers use coercive practices to force victims to do things against their will. They may physically, mentally, or emotionally abuse victims, or threaten to if victims try to escape or seek help. They may threaten to reveal sensitive information about victims, some of which could lead to criminal charges or deportation in certain countries. They may even threaten the safety of victims’ friends or family members.

The Three Elements of Human Trafficking

In brief, human trafficking happens when a person commits an act towards putting or keeping someone else in an exploitative situation. They must have a means of taking advantage of the victim’s vulnerabilities. And it must be done for some purpose that results in financial, material, or other benefits for the traffickers.

The table below summarizes these points.




An action toward another person meant to put or keep them in an exploitative scenario.

A technique used to put a person in an exploitable position, or to keep them from leaving it.

The benefit human traffickers receive from exploiting a trafficked person.

  • Recruit a person to become involved in human trafficking.
  • Transport a person to a place where they can be exploited.
  • Transfer stewardship of a person to someone who intends to exploit them.
  • House or hide a person to keep them in an exploitative scenario.
  • Give benefits to a person, and receive benefits from them, to control their behavior.  
  • Assault or threaten violence against a person or their loved ones.
  • Threaten a person with the prospect of being deported or losing contact with loved ones.
  • Use force or deceit to kidnap a person.
  • Defraud a person by charging or “borrowing” money to pay for fake travel/employment/ID documents.
  • Deceive a person by offering them made-up economic opportunities.
  • Abuse a position of authority to coerce a person into obeying.
  • A person providing sexual services against their will.
  • A person forced to labor in unsafe conditions for little or no pay.
  • A person forced to commit illegal acts to shield criminals from repercussions.
  • A person who is coerced or forced into having their organs transplanted, or removed for traffickers to sell illegally.

4 Types of Human Trafficking

While specific incidents of human trafficking can take many forms, they generally fall under a handful of broad groupings depending on their exploitative goal(s). As far as types of human trafficking go, there are four major categories (note that they can overlap in some cases):

  • Forced labor: Many victims of human trafficking are from impoverished nations, desperate for more lucrative employment. Traffickers prey on these vulnerabilities to trick people into working in labor-intensive industries – such as agriculture, mining, fishing, construction, or domestic service – under slavery-like conditions.
  • Forced criminal activities: In this form of human trafficking, criminals use victims as proxies for their illegal activities to reduce the risk of themselves being caught or harmed. These activities can include theft, drug manufacturing/transport, dealing in counterfeit items, and aggressive panhandling.
  • Sexual exploitation: This category of human trafficking typically affects women and children. It usually involves luring victims away from their homes and families with false promises of love or gainful employment, along with forged travel documents. Once isolated, the victims are forced to perform sex acts in coercive scenarios.
  • Organ harvesting or transplant: Human traffickers are also increasingly taking advantage of long wait times for organ transplants in many countries. Some patients and donors may become desperate enough to be tricked into undergoing risky underground operations that have little to no medical supervision.

Human Trafficking Statistics: The Extent of the Problem

Human trafficking is a worldwide problem. Though it affects certain regions and demographics more than others, no country or person is entirely safe from it. To illustrate, here are some human trafficking facts:

  • Top 10 human trafficking countries in 2022: India, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia, and Afghanistan are some of the countries that consistently have high rates of human trafficking or have done little to combat the practice.
  • Human trafficking in the United States: Despite being a leading country in the fight against human trafficking, the US is not immune to this crime. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, over 46,000 human trafficking cases were reported in the US between 2016 and 2020.
  • Top 10 worst states for human trafficking: According to a 2020 National Human Trafficking Hotline report, California, Texas, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan had the highest number of reported incidents of human trafficking that year.
  • Human trafficking in China: Recent estimates peg the number of trafficked people in China (not including victims of organ trafficking) at almost 4 million people (or about 3 per every 1,000 people). In the US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, China was listed as a Tier 3 nation – not having adequate policies to address human trafficking, and not making a significant effort to change that.
  • Human trafficking in India: According to a 2018 report by Walk Free, there are nearly 8 million human trafficking victims in India at any given time. India was listed as a Tier 2 nation in the US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report; it doesn’t meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act standards for human trafficking prevention, but is making strides to improve in this regard.
  • Human trafficking in Africa: Africa accounts for nearly a quarter of all human trafficking worldwide (about 9.2 million people). As of 2022, only one African country – Namibia – is considered compliant with the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act standards. Other African countries such as Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have some of the highest percentage-of-population rates of human trafficking in the world.
  • Human trafficking in Asia: Over half of the world’s population lives in Asian countries. So by some estimates, almost two-thirds of all human trafficking happens in Asia. Human trafficking is common in countries in East and Southeast Asia such as North Korea, Mongolia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.

One more significant fact: in contrast to the above stats on the worldwide prevalence of human trafficking, a relatively small percentage of cases are actually reported or even result in criminal prosecution. This is because many victims don’t come forward for several reasons:

  • Fear for the safety of family, friends, or themselves
  • Mistrust of law enforcement officials (usually instilled in them by the traffickers)
  • Inability to (fluently) speak a region’s native language
  • Not knowing their rights within a given jurisdiction
  • Lack of evidence (like ID documents) to prove who they or their traffickers are

How to Stop Human Trafficking: Reporting & Prevention

Human trafficking can happen to anyone, anywhere. However, certain groups of people are more often targeted by traffickers because of their vulnerable individual and/or social circumstances. They include:

  • Young people (especially runaways, orphans, and juvenile offenders)
  • Females
  • Indigenous people
  • New immigrants and migrant workers
  • Impoverished people
  • Substance addicts (or those who have caregivers/family who are)
  • Abuse/trauma survivors
  • LGBT+ people

In addition, there are human trafficking red flags that may indicate someone is being trafficked; we’ll discuss some of them below.

Signs of Human Trafficking: Red Flags to Watch For

Human trafficking victims seldom report offenses themselves because they lack the appropriate resources to do so, or are scared and untrusting of outsiders. However, there are signs of human trafficking that other people can be aware of and report if they witness them.

  • Always has a chaperone: Someone being trafficked may have one or more people constantly escorting or supervising them to keep them from running away or seeking help. The person may also give only coached answers to questions, or have their chaperone talk for them and not speak for themselves.
  • Shows physical signs of abuse: A trafficked person may show visible signs of malnourishment, substance abuse, or other unaddressed medical conditions. They may also have unexplained injuries, including scars, burns, or crude tattoos on their body to signify which trafficker “owns” them.
  • Doesn’t appear familiar with their surroundings: Traffickers tend to isolate their victims from people they could reach out to for help. So a trafficked person may always seem unfamiliar with where they work or live. They may claim to be “new to the neighborhood” or “just visiting”, or claim to change homes or jobs frequently.
  • Has suspicious (lack of) possessions: A trafficked person may wear clothing that doesn’t match their age, the weather, or an overall social context. Or they may suddenly wear upscale clothing that they never seemed to have before. They may carry things like unusually large amounts of money, multiple cell phones, or several hotel keys. In contrast, their identifying documents may be fake or completely absent.
  • Acts excessively fearful: Trafficking victims tend to act overly intimidated, submissive, and obedient towards their partners or employers. They may avoid eye contact with people, especially police officers and other government officials. Tones of voice, facial expressions, and other body language that exhibit extreme anxiety, nervousness, or lack of self-esteem can all be signs that someone is being trafficked.

How to Prevent Human Trafficking

Though human trafficking is a massive problem, there are small things people can do to prevent human trafficking. Financial institutions and their customers have roles to play in stopping the financial crime that often makes human trafficking possible, as well as the acts that constitute human trafficking.

Some ways that financial institutions can shut down the financial side of human trafficking include:

  • Know Your Customer: The first line of defense in stopping human traffickers from financing their crimes is in customer onboarding. Robust identity verification and due diligence functions can help FIs block human traffickers out of financial networks before they even have the chance to engage in money laundering.
  • Transaction monitoring: FIs can collect information from survivors of human trafficking, as well as anti-human-trafficking organizations, regarding financial schemes used to fund human trafficking. Then they can tune their transaction monitoring tools to more accurately detect these activities.
  • Link analysis: Using effective case management software to visualize financial networks, anti-fraud/AML agents can spot relationship patterns and anomalies that may be indicative of financial crime related to human trafficking.

While financial institutions should make efforts to mitigate financial crime related to human trafficking, there is only so much FIs can do to stop human trafficking. Part of their efforts should be directed towards training customers to protect themselves. Below, we cover some of the top recommendations for people to protect themselves from falling victim to human trafficking:

  • Know the signs: Be aware of how human trafficking works. This includes the ways people can be exploited through it, the kinds of people commonly targeted by traffickers, and the techniques traffickers use to trap people in exploitative situations.
  • If you see something, say something: If you notice signs that a person may be being trafficked, do not attempt to confront the traffickers directly. If it is safe to do so, ask the person questions about how free they are in their current situation. If you can identify trafficking, call 9-1-1 or contact an organization such as the National Human Trafficking Hotline that knows how to handle these situations.
  • Start a conversation: Share information about human trafficking prevention with family, friends, coworkers, and the community. Challenge common misconceptions about human trafficking, such as that it only happens to women or children, it only happens in developing countries, and it only involves sexual exploitation.
  • Be a conscientious consumer: Certain goods and services, such as clothes or food, are prone to being products of human trafficking. Research and support businesses that avoid forced labor as part of their supply chains, and encourage companies to be more transparent about how they source what they sell.
  • Volunteer your time: Reach out to one or more local anti-trafficking groups and ask how you can get involved.
  • Offer professional resources: Provide employment opportunities, healthcare services, legal counsel, etc. – depending on your industry – to trafficking survivors or at-risk people. This will help to keep them from being exploited or re-exploited.
  • Demand action from authorities: Contact local, state, and federal government officials and ask what they are doing to address human trafficking.

Examples of Human Trafficking: Real-Life Cases to Learn From

To put everything together in context, here are some case studies on human trafficking incidents and patterns.

Tonya and Eddie

Tonya first met Eddie in Dallas, Texas, when she was 13 years old. He lived in the same apartment complex, and his stepdaughter was her classmate in school. Two years later, after running away from home, Tonya ran into Eddie again at a bar. Soon after, they moved in together and started a relationship.

One night at a party, Eddie pressured Tonya into having sex with another man for money. What was supposed to be a one-time event turned into weeks of captivity, forced prostitution, and physical abuse. Tonya accepted it all because she hoped it would make Eddie love her, and that they would make enough money to live a better life. In 2015, Eddie was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

This human trafficking case highlights how the crime can happen even in developed countries like the US. It also shows how traffickers will often target people they already have connections with. Finally, it illustrates how the victim may not know or care that they’re being exploited because they feel materially or emotionally dependent on the trafficker.

The Domotor Case

This case involved members of the Domotor family trafficking people out of their native Hungary to work for their construction company in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The traffickers paid for victims’ flights into Canada and coached them to lie to immigration officials that they were refugees. This allowed them to apply for employment insurance.

Afterward, the traffickers used threats against the victims and their families to confiscate their identity documents, confine them to cramped quarters, and malnourish them. The victims were forced to work 14-hour days, and even steal cheques from mailboxes. Meanwhile, the traffickers kept the defrauded employment insurance money the victims were supposed to receive. In 2012, eleven members of the Domotor family were convicted of human trafficking involving forced labor, the first such conviction in Canada.

This case demonstrates how migrant workers are among the most vulnerable people to human trafficking – again, even in developed countries like Canada. It also illustrates the importance of having KYC and anti-fraud checks in place to identify and prevent these kinds of exploitative arrangements.

From Smuggling to Slavery in Libya

Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa on their way to Europe often pass through Libya. In many cases, they have paid (or promised to pay) a smuggler to get them illegally across borders. En route, however, they are prone to being kidnapped by criminal organizations or traded between smugglers. They may be detained in camps and told their family has to pay a ransom to get them out.

In the meantime, migrants may be forced to work at demanding jobs for no pay, or provide sexual services against their will. They are often subject to violence and inhumane working conditions. Some are even sold to work as unregistered domestic servants. This exploitation sometimes ends once the ransom is paid, or it can continue for months or even years.

This shows how human trafficking and human smuggling, while fundamentally different, are often linked in terms of exploitation. It also highlights why people need to start conversations with their friends, families, communities, and political leaders about how to address human trafficking. That includes reducing demand for the products of exploitation.

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Help Root Out Human Trafficking with Fraud/ML Prevention Compliance

Human traffickers often use forms of fraud and money laundering to conceal the criminal nature of what they do. So it’s essential to have a robust anti-fraud/AML system that combines features like KYC checks, behavior-based transaction analytics, and SAR filing. This not only can help stem the flow of illicit money that makes human trafficking possible, but it may also expose that human trafficking is actually happening in a particular area.

Contact Unit21 today for a demonstration of how our platform is a powerful system for rooting, identifying, and helping organizations prevent financial crime.