Steve Lewis: This episode of Inside the FBI covers human trafficking, including sex trafficking of adults and minors; labor trafficking; and domestic servitude. Some people might find this material difficult to listen to. Listener discretion is advised.
Person 1: Myth: Human trafficking is always or usually a violent crime.
Person 2: Myth: Traffickers only target women and girls.
Person 1: Myth: Human trafficking isn’t happening where I live.
Person 2: Myth: Traffickers only target strangers.
Lewis: Fact: Human trafficking can happen to anyone, anywhere, in any circumstance.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, our host Kelly Conner dispels some myths about human trafficking with the help of a special agent from our office in Phoenix. Stay tuned to learn how the FBI combats this crime and supports victims and how you can get that support if you need it for yourself or someone you know.
Lewis: I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.
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Kelly Conner: “I need help.”
That’s what a young woman wrote on a mirror in a rest stop. She wasn’t even 18 when a truck driver drove her across the country, sexually assaulting her and trafficking her to others along the way. He controlled her every move, from where she went to if—and when—she ate. When he finally allowed her to go into the rest stop to shower, she wrote that message asking for help.
Human trafficking is a devastating crime that’s happening with shocking frequency right here in the United States.
Erin: Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion basically to get a person to provide services, and that could be labor services and sexual acts.
Conner: That was Erin, a special agent from our Phoenix Field Office. She works on a squad that investigates human trafficking. In addition to combating the crime itself, she works to counter the myths surrounding it.
When you hear about human trafficking, you might think about cases of sex trafficking, like the one with the young girl in the rest stop. Sex trafficking is when someone is compelled by force, fraud, or coercion to provide commercial sex. When the victim is under 18 years old, it’s known as sex trafficking of a minor. For cases involving minors, it’s not necessary to prove force, fraud, or coercion.
But there are other forms of human trafficking, too.
In labor trafficking, someone is forced to perform some sort of labor or service in exchange for little to no pay. Traffickers may hurt or threaten their victims or subject them to inhumane working conditions.
In domestic servitude, people who appear to be housekeepers or nannies may actually be under the full control of their so-called employers. They’re forced to provide services in a home—like childcare, cleaning, or cooking—with little to no compensation. In some cases, the victims have even traveled from overseas for the promise of a job or U.S. citizenship, only to be forced into domestic servitude instead.
Erin also told us that there’s a common misconception that human trafficking is the same as human smuggling. But there’s a difference between the crimes.
Erin: Smuggling is a crime against a border. It’s always international. Trafficking is a crime against a person or that person’s fundamental rights, and it’s both international and domestic.
Conner: While it can happen, perpetrators don’t have to move their victims to commit human trafficking. They can recruit and traffic them in their own hometowns. In your hometown.
After the break, we’ll talk about how traffickers recruit victims and who these victims are.
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Person 1: If you are a human trafficking victim or if you have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. This national, toll-free hotline has specialists available to answer calls from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also submit a tip at humantraffickinghotline.org.
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Conner: You might think that human trafficking doesn’t happen in your area or that it could never happen to someone you know, but Erin makes it clear:
Erin: It’s happening everywhere. It’s happening in the smallest city, in rural areas, in urban areas. It’s happening in plain sight, and we’re just not looking.
Conner: Trafficking victims also don’t fall into one profile or category.
Erin: We see cases of all different types. We see predominantly girls, but we have also seen boys. Here in Arizona, we see every race and ethnicity.
Conner: There are some risk factors, like poverty or substance use, that make some people more vulnerable to human trafficking. Perpetrators may also target individuals who have experienced homelessness or who have a history of abuse.
Erin: These traffickers, they're targeting the vulnerable.
And when we're talking about vulnerable, particularly in regards to children, they're generally kids who are at risk. They've suffered some kind of abuse, whether it was physical abuse or sexual abuse. They're removed from their family. They're in the care and custody of child protective services, and they're in group homes, where they may not feel safe. And it makes them ripe for targeting.
We've had kids here in Phoenix just picked up at bus stops, and it doesn't take a lot.
I have been told by one pimp in particular, he said, “I’ll just tell a girl her eyes are beautiful. If she keeps walking and says, ‘Thank you,’ I'll move on to the next girl." And if she puts her head down and says no, he’s got her. It’s that easy.
Conner: These risk factors that traffickers prey on not only make people vulnerable to human trafficking, they also make it difficult for victims to leave trafficking situations—especially when the trafficker starts out as someone the victim cares about.
In some cases of sex trafficking, for example, a perpetrator may start out as the boyfriend of a woman or girl. He may be caring and complimentary at first—and generous with gifts and money.
But it’s not long before the relationship changes. Traffickers start to use force, isolation, and other tactics against their victims.
Erin: And then the controlling starts. These girls have to ask their trafficker for everything. What they're going to wear, how their hair is done, their nails done, what they can drink, what they can eat.
So, when you have somebody who is dictating every aspect of your life, there’s a perception that they are in control, and I no longer have any means of getting away.
And then you add in the force aspect. They start beating the girls, choking them out. And then you have real fear that’s keeping them in place.
They isolate them. So, you're now in the life, and when you're in the life, you don't talk to any of your family members. You don't talk to any of your friends. You are now in the life with a trafficker and the other victims. So, there’s isolation in combination with you have no control over anything. You don't make any decisions anymore.
Conner: With every aspect of their lives controlled for them, victims have a difficult time feeling that they can escape or seek help, and some victims even believe they’ve formed a connection with their trafficker.
Erin: Sometimes they do nice things. There’s that counterintuitive trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome where the victim tends to align with their trafficker and vice versa.
And the part of that is that they're also then saying, the trafficker, “You need me, and you cannot trust law enforcement.” So, it’s this relationship of a bond between the victim and the trafficker and then a distrust of law enforcement. And in the trafficking realm, it has life and death consequences.
Conner: Erin says, someone who has been forced into this life for a prolonged period may not see any alternative.
Erin: It’s a vicious cycle of a feeling or a perception of a lack of options.
Conner: Erin says the average age a person gets into the life is 14.
Erin: So you haven't been to school. You don't have a high school diploma. You don't even have a GED. What else are you going to do? The amount of money that they make from commercial sex trafficking is way more than what they will make working weeks at a fast-food restaurant. So, there’s financial incentives and reasons why people stay in that life. And then once that’s your life, even as an adult—what else am I going to do?
Conner: After the break, we’ll discuss how the FBI and our law enforcement partners investigate human trafficking cases and what resources they offer victims. We’ll also discuss ways you can help end the cycle.
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Person 2: If you believe a child is involved in a trafficking situation, submit a tip through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline at report.cybertip.org or call 1-800-THE-LOST or 1-800-843-5678. FBI personnel assigned to NCMEC review the information provided.
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Conner: Every one of the FBI’s 56 field offices has reported cases of human trafficking. As of January 5, 2022, the FBI had more than 1,700 pending cases.
But human trafficking of all kinds is notoriously underreported, so it’s likely those numbers only tell part of the story.
Erin hopes people start to understand how common this crime really is. One of the first steps you can take is to start looking for signs of trafficking situations in your community.
Erin: We close our eyes to what’s happening right in front of us, and I think once your eyes are open to it, it’s shocking how prevalent it is. It’s happening everywhere.
Conner: So, what are some indicators of human trafficking you might see?
Labor trafficking victims may have jobs that seem too good to be true. They may live with their bosses.
Sex trafficking victims may receive gifts or money from their traffickers. They may seem like they’re in stable romantic relationships.
All victims and survivors may give scripted or rehearsed answers to questions, show signs of abuse, or miss school or work.
Keep your eyes open. Reporting these signs can change—and save—lives.
Erin: We had a young lady several years ago who was smuggled into the United States, and then she was forced to cook and clean—so more of kind of the domestic servitude. She had to help raise the children.
The subject of that particular case, when she turned 18, he started forcing her to have sex with him as well. She got pregnant. When she was getting ready to deliver the baby, they dropped her almost a mile away from the hospital and made her walk the rest of the way to the hospital to deliver. And taught her one word, which was adoption. So, obviously this piqued the interest of the hospital staff. They contacted Catholic Charities, who then contacted the FBI.
Conner: So what should you—whether you're a friend, a teacher, or a passerby—do if you suspect you have information about a trafficking situation?
First, you can call the National Human Trafficking Resource CenterHotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733.
If you’re reporting the trafficking of a minor, call your department of child protective services, too.
If the victim is an adult, notify law enforcement, whether it’s your local police department or FBI field office.
Erin: The people that I work with—the people from child protective services, from juvenile probation, from the local police departments, through the NGOs and the survivor mentors, the people who are working in this field—they care a lot. And so, it’s a difficult crime. It’s not for everybody to investigate or work.
The people who do do it, it is a passion.
Conner: The FBI also has dedicated victim specialists to support survivors, including specially trained staff who work with children.
The FBI and our law enforcement partners who tirelessly investigate human trafficking do what they do to bring perpetrators to justice, help give survivors better lives, and fight to end the cycle once and for all.
Erin: It is a terrible crime that a lot of people don't ever recover from.
Conner: But victims should know:
Erin: There is help, and we understand the totality of the problem. And one of the things that I try to say to all of the people that I encounter is that you deserve better.
Conner: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
I’m Kelly Conner with the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for listening.
Under its human trafficking program, the Bureau investigates matters where a person was induced to engage in commercial sex acts or perform any labor or service through force, fraud, or coercion.