Free and Low-Cost Strategies to Help Address Human Trafficking

By Margaret Henderson, M.P.A., and Rick Hoffman

A stock image of a young, distraught female.

Human trafficking is a prevalent and often-overlooked issue throughout the world.1 It can prove difficult to combat, and law enforcement agencies may not know where to begin.

While they always should be addressing this concern, agencies might choose to put particular emphasis on human trafficking investigations when cases emerge in their jurisdictions, members of the public demand a response to a certain form of trafficking, people of influence request that departments give more attention to the topic, or the organization receives resources that enable a new focus on these crimes.2

Ideally, agencies would employ personnel able to focus on sex and labor trafficking in terms of victims (supply), traffickers (distribution), and buyers (demand). Building up to that level of organizational capacity can take years, and having only one or a few officers with such expertise presents disadvantages.

What low-cost or even free strategies exist that agencies can use to begin their efforts? How can they ensure that all personnel hold basic knowledge about the indicators, forms, and dynamics of human trafficking? Once officers become aware of the indicators of trafficking, subsequent training involves teaching them to document their observations appropriately and set up processes to initiate investigations.

Steps for Agencies

Every organization and individual has to start somewhere. Low and no-cost options exist for gradually enhancing an agency’s capacity to recognize, investigate, and charge cases of sex and labor trafficking, beginning with four initial steps.

  1. Start a process of self-education about trafficking through free online resources.
  2. Build an understanding of the indicators of trafficking.
  3. Refocus the lens through which law enforcement agencies view these cases.
  4. Integrate assessment of human trafficking into other criminal investigations.
Margaret Henderson

Ms. Henderson is a lecturer in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government.

Rick Hoffman

Mr. Hoffman is a retired detective from the Raleigh, North Carolina, Police Department.

Free Training Resources

Learning the basics about human trafficking is possible without tapping into the training budget. There exist many reports, discussions, training modules, and other resources available online at no charge.

  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline offers statistics by state, as well as a resource library.3
  • Polaris provides statistics and reports focused on specific types of trafficking.4
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign offers basic information and support for law enforcement.5
  • The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) supplies a guide, toolkit, training course, and other resources.6
  • AEquitas develops and publishes resources related to the investigation and prosecution of gender-based violence and human trafficking.7
  • The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services provides a list of resources for law enforcement agencies, including a screening tool to use when interviewing victims.8
  • HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, Linkage) Trafficking focuses on serving public health professionals; the Protocol Toolkit may be a useful reference when designing protocols for local multidisciplinary teams.9
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government offers print resources related to local governments and community coalitions.10
  • The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides training and resources for law enforcement, especially regarding cases involving children.11
  • The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office for Victims of Crime, Training and Technical Assistance Center, offers free training from a variety of experts in the field.12
  • DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office for Victims of Crime have funded human trafficking task forces for over a decade.13
  • Additionally, law enforcement can reach out to funded task forces in their area to get information on statistics, training, and other resources.

Human trafficking is a complex crime that requires reconsideration of inaccurate stereotypes and attitudes that individuals often assume are true. Additionally, traffickers are highly adaptive predators, skilled at noticing exploitable vulnerabilities and capable of rapidly making changes to adapt to threats or opportunities in their environments.

For these reasons, no single training resource will fully inform any officer in a single session. Agencies can enable successful learning about trafficking by allowing time between sessions to consider and integrate new or reframed knowledge. Additional sessions can deepen and broaden understanding of specific trafficker-victim-purchaser dynamics or business models.

For instance, a law enforcement agency decides to address illicit massage businesses in its area. One free applicable resource is a report on the topic from Polaris. It provides foundational information that could inform the design of an investigative strategy, as well as a description of some successful approaches by the Indianapolis, Indiana, Metropolitan Police Department.14

Signs of Trafficking

Human trafficking often is “hidden in plain sight” in communities. Whereas Hollywood regularly uses imagery of physical restraints and kidnapping, in reality the indicators of trafficking can be much more subtle and situational. Emotional manipulation and coercion are the primary tools of traffickers who intentionally exploit the personal vulnerabilities of victims.

Indicators of Human Trafficking


  • exhibit fearful, timid, or submissive actions like avoiding eye contact;
  • appear to lie about their age, identity, or relationship with others;
  • have matching tattoos;
  • show bruises indicating abuse or restraint;
  • suffer from malnourishment;
  • are extremely fatigued;
  • show signs of drug use;
  • have injuries that should have been treated earlier;
  • lack adequate food or sleep;
  • have repeated pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases;
  • do not have control of their own finances or identification documents;
  • are not allowed to contact friends or family;
  • cannot come and go as desired;
  • have a large debt that cannot be repaid;
  • claim to be “just visiting” or are unable to clarify where they live;
  • may not know exactly where they are, how long they have been there, or what the day or date is;
  • appear to be living at their work site; or
  • have little personal property.


  • lie about identification, relationships, the purpose of travel, the nature of work, or hours worked;
  • try to stay with the victims and speak for them;
  • attempt to distract observers from the work site, indicators, or victims;
  • verbally or physically intimidate, manipulate, or control the victims; or
  • keep control of the victims’ identification documents.

Property in the Setting

  • Multiple cell phones
  • Numerous hotel key cards
  • Condoms, pornography, sex toys, sexy costumes
  • False identification cards
  • Handcuffs or other forms of restraint
  • Tools of intimidation, such as a rod for beating
  • Beds, food, and other personal items that indicate people are living on the premises
  • Guard dogs or dogs in pens between the work site and the exit door or highway

Vehicle Characteristics

  • Multiple unrelated people traveling together
  • Passengers unsure of where they are or where they are going
  • Conflicting accounts of the purpose of the travel or nature of the group
  • Overcrowded or unsafe conditions for passengers
  • Hidden compartments

Situational Characteristics

  • Locks on the wrong side of doors to confine people
  • Buckets in locked rooms for body waste
  • Too many cameras, particularly on exits
  • Covered or barred windows
  • Massage parlors, nail salons, or spas open late hours
  • Regularly changing personnel
  • Tokens given to customers and collected by employees to prove they have provided services
  • Personnel who rarely exit the premises or only leave under the supervision of a manager
  • Employees who report exorbitant fees associated with holding the job or with regular living expenses
  • Tips handed to management, not the employee
  • Lack of paychecks, personnel records, identification documents
  • Vague or undocumented ownership or licensing of the business
  • Business advertised on commercial sex websites

This list of “red flags” is illustrative rather than exhaustive. Different forms of trafficking generate variations in the indicators that outsiders might notice. The presence of any single sign does not necessarily prove human trafficking. However, the occurrence of several warrants additional attention.

“Learning the basics about human trafficking is possible without tapping into the training budget.”

View of the Problem

Intentionally or not, the language people use can deflect responsibility for or diminish the impact of trafficking.15 It is important to use accurate terms that avoid placing blame on victims instead of perpetrators.

  • Child prostitute is an inaccurate term that stigmatizes victims—by law, there is no consent or choice when the victim is a minor. Instead, individuals should use victim/survivor of child sex abuse, trafficked minor, or commercially sexually exploited child.
  • Rather than john or customer, the terms sex buyer or purchaser of commercial sex acts more clearly describe the circumstances. Softer words obscure the role that the purchaser plays in creating the demand for trafficking and, in the case of child trafficking, child abuse and sexual assault.
  • Not only does the word pimp generate inaccurate and even cartoonish stereotypes, but popular culture also has softened it to mean “enhance” or “decorate,” like in some television shows. Instead, people should use trafficker to convey the role more accurately.

Similarly, individuals might use the term consent inaccurately with trafficking victims. Teenagers can choose to be sexually active, but legally they cannot consent to sell sex. People in desperate circumstances might originally consent to take a job only to find that the work situation is not as described.

Other ingrained assumptions become reframed as law enforcement officers learn about the science of trauma. They can gain information on the subject through training on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).16 Additionally, officers might need training to identify indicators of the many forms of exploitation—direct and indirect—that traffickers employ.

People’s attitudes about traffickers, victims, and purchasers are informed over their lifetimes by their intake of social values, media coverage, and biases. Communities tend to pay more attention to cases of sex, rather than labor, trafficking; child, instead of adult, victims; and domestic, rather than foreign-born, victims. Meanwhile, it can prove harder to hold traffickers and purchasers accountable when they are known or hold influence in local communities than when they are strangers.

Integration with Other Investigations

“Police learn about human trafficking during the course of other investigations (e.g., drug raids, domestic violence). Ninety-two percent of law enforcement agencies who identified [human trafficking] cases reported a connection between trafficking . . . and existing criminal networks.”17

Given that human trafficking intertwines with other crimes, one strategy to strengthen organizational response is to learn how to assess potential trafficking within the context of other investigations. Another tactic is to mine past case records for linkages to people, places, criminal acts, organized crime, or communication patterns.

The High Risk Victim Model represents one example of a related program. It focuses on flagging youths who have run away three or more times for outreach related to potential trafficking. This approach has proven successful in the prevention and identification of child sex trafficking victims.18

Federal law requires state child welfare agencies to screen for potential trafficking victims among youths in their care. Local law enforcement can reach out and team up with these agencies to ensure those identified or flagged as at-risk are reported to appropriate law enforcement agencies.19

Community Considerations and Partnerships

Personnel need to understand basic information about human trafficking, but they also need to assess which forms of trafficking likely will happen in their communities. An area’s environmental conditions determine which business models local traffickers more likely will use. For example, the types of trafficking in a popular tourist destination city differ from those in a farming community.

For that reason, agencies should customize training to focus on the needs of individual communities, whether on particular business models of trafficking, specific populations vulnerable to trafficking, or purchasers that create a unique market for trafficking.

Environmental Conditions that Enable Trafficking

  • Tourist destinations
  • Large public events
  • Seasonal farm work
  • Online advertising opportunities
  • Interstate highways
  • Truck stops
  • Highway rest stops
  • Military bases
  • Factories
  • International borders
  • Colleges and universities

These local features allow traffickers to transport, market, or recruit their victims.

“ strategy to strengthen organizational response is to learn how to assess potential trafficking within the context of other investigations.”

The staff of other local government departments are in positions to see indicators of trafficking and potentially hold information useful for investigations. In 2018, researchers conducted focus groups of municipal and county government employees to assess which forms of trafficking they might come across during the normal course of their work.20 Focus group participants reported having the potential to encounter 19 of the 25 business models of trafficking identified by Polaris in its groundbreaking report.21

The job positions most likely to see potential indicators include first responders and inspectors of any kind. While not necessarily confirmed cases of trafficking, local government staff described examples of situations that warrant additional attention:

  • A public works crew called to clear a sewage pipe outside a massage parlor found it clogged with condoms.22
  • Environmental health inspectors saw evidence (e.g., beds in storage rooms, clothes drying on the dumpster out back) that restaurant staff lived on-site.
  • A fire marshal checking for smoke alarms in a vape shop noticed a hidden room containing a bed, microwave, refrigerator, and barely conscious woman.
  • An appraiser evaluating an upscale home noticed a basement filled with bunk beds that did not appear to be intended for visiting grandchildren.
  • A public health department tracked its county’s unusually high rate of sexually transmitted diseases to one truck stop.
  • While investigating charges of neglect, child protective workers found video on the mother’s phone of preteen siblings engaged in sexual activity.

If law enforcement agencies decide to focus on a particular business model of trafficking (such as illicit massage businesses) or a particular population vulnerable to trafficking (such as homeless persons), they must remember to invite peer professionals from other government departments and nonprofits to contribute to the discussion and planning. Human trafficking too often operates in full view, and many community members can hold vital knowledge about its dynamics, victims, and perpetrators.


Resources exist to help law enforcement agencies address human trafficking by deepening their understanding of and efficacy against perpetrators of this crime. Agencies must put effort into research, training, and communication with the community to combat trafficking. They can accomplish this with minimal funding and for immeasurable reward.

“Human trafficking too often operates in full view, and many community members can hold vital knowledge about its dynamics, victims, and perpetrators.”

Ms. Henderson can be reached at and Mr. Hoffman at


1 Most U.S. states have passed antitrafficking legislation. Specific resources outlining human trafficking legislation by state can be found via Shared Hope’s Protected Innocence State Report Cards: “State Report Cards for Sex Trafficking Laws in the United States,” Shared Hope International, accessed November 4, 2019,
2 According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, “[t]he term ‘severe forms of trafficking in persons’ means—(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.” Trafficking Victims Protection Act § 7102, 22 U.S.C. §§ 7101-7112 (2011).
3 “Hotline Statistics,” National Human Trafficking Hotline, accessed November 4, 2019,; and “Resource Library,” National Human Trafficking Hotline, accessed November 4, 2019,
4 “2018 U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics,” Polaris, accessed November 4, 2019,
5 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Blue Campaign, accessed November 4, 2019,
6 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Anti-Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance, accessed January 28, 2020,
7 “Resources,” Aequitas, accessed January 28, 2020,
8 Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, Human Trafficking Resources for Law Enforcement, accessed January 28, 2020,
9 “HEAL Trafficking and Hope for Justice’s Protocol Toolkit,” HEAL Trafficking, accessed January 28, 2020,
10 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government, Human Trafficking, accessed February 20, 2020,
11 “Professional Training & Resources,” National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, accessed January 28, 2020,
12 U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, Training and Technical Assistance Center, How We Can Help, accessed January 28, 2020,
13 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force Initiative, accessed January 28, 2020,
14 “Illicit Massage Businesses,” Polaris, accessed August 26, 2019,
15 For a discussion of how vocabulary matters, see “Language Matters,” The Irina Project, accessed December 2, 2019, The Irina Project has been instrumental in changing the language used to describe trafficking in news reports.
16 See Christopher Freeze, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Crime,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2019, accessed October 8, 2019,; and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, accessed January 30, 2020,
17 Amy Farrell, “Understanding the Determinants of Police Identification of Human Trafficking Cases” (First Annual Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking, December 4, 2009, University of Nebraska, Lincoln), accessed August 23, 2019,
18 Wisconsin Department of Justice, Dallas High Risk Victims Model, Byron A. Fassett, accessed September 5, 2019,
19 Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Human Trafficking and Child Welfare: A Guide for Child Welfare Agencies,” Bulletin for Professionals (July 2017), accessed September 5, 2019,
20 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government, Exploring the Intersections between Local Governments and Human Trafficking: The Local Government Focus Group Project, Margaret Henderson, June 18, 2018, accessed August 26, 2019,
21 “The Typology of Modern Slavery,” The Polaris Project, March 2017, accessed August 26, 2019,
22 “Cops Say Prostitution Ring Busted Thanks to Condom-Clogged Drainpipe,” CBS News, April 12, 2017, accessed February 20, 2020,