AMU Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Gaining Insight into the Mentality of Human Traffickers

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Human trafficking continues to be an enormous problem worldwide. According to Oregon-based anti-trafficking organization Guardian Group, sex trafficking alone is a $99 billion industry worldwide.

Human trafficking occurs at an alarming rate in the United States with the International Labour Organization estimating that it is a $10 billion industry. It is important for everyone in society to become aware of human trafficking and to know how to recognize human trafficking when it occurs within our communities.

Stopping Human Trafficking Starts with Understanding the Mentality of Human Traffickers

An important step in combating human trafficking is gaining a deeper understanding of the mentality of human traffickers. There is no one specific profile that defines a human trafficker.

Human traffickers can be pimps on the street or restauranteurs. They can be technology company owners or possess other businesses. In short, human traffickers can exist in any profession.

Traffickers can also operate alone or they may be a part of a trafficking ring. Lone criminals, gangs and highly structured organized crime groups gravitate toward human trafficking due to its high profitability.

Criminals who traffic in drugs must continually obtain additional product once they make a drug sale. But in the case of human trafficking, traffickers exploit the same person (viewed as a product) over and over, without needing to obtain someone new to make a profit.

Human traffickers have no true empathy or other feelings for their victims. They commonly force sex trafficking victims into using drugs as a way to combat the trauma and emotional distress from being exploited.

The Characteristics of Lone Human Traffickers

For human traffickers who operate alone, they commonly have more than one victim that they exploit. For instance, traffickers may be in the company of runaway children. In fact, one in six runaways commonly become victims of child sex trafficking, because traffickers exploit their vulnerabilities and separation from family and other resources.

Lone traffickers “groom” their victims. They develop a rapport with their victims based on false promises and the victims’ belief that the trafficker truly cares for them. The trafficker also provides lavish gifts, which the victim must later pay for by performing commercial sex acts. Coercion is also used as a tactic to control victims.

In research by the Guardian Group, 85% of victims reported developing what they perceived to be a close relationship with the trafficker. The number one place that traffickers seek out victims is on social media sites.

The Guardian Group also found that traffickers use the internet to sell their victims. Approximately 75% of sex trafficking victims are sold online, which commonly occurs through the 150,000 new escort ads that are posted each day.

Lone traffickers are commonly referred to as pimps. But what separates prostitution from sex trafficking is that adult sex trafficking victims are forced to engage in commercial sex acts or are engaged in commercial sex acts as minors under the age of 18.

Related link: COVID-19’s Impact on Juvenile Human Trafficking Victims

The Characteristics of Human Trafficking Rings

Human traffickers who participate in trafficking rings are typically well organized and well-funded, due to the profitability of human trafficking. Human trafficking rings sometimes make it easier for law enforcement to rescue victims. Once one trafficker in the ring gets caught, he or she will often talk to the police about others who are involved in the ring in the hope of getting lesser charges.

Trafficking rings often impact many more victims that single traffickers. Commonly, the trafficking ring uses different people in different roles to facilitate the sexual exploitation of their victims.

A Study Reveals the Mindset of Human Traffickers

A study was conducted by the DePaul University College of Law, which surveyed 25 male ex-pimps and madams who operated in the Chicago area. This study provided insight into the minds of traffickers and the common characteristics in their backgrounds. It also displays their thought processes, actions and motivations for engaging in sex trafficking.

The study found that the vast majority of these human traffickers experienced physical or sexual abuse at a young age and commonly observed their mothers being beaten by men in their lives. One of the study’s participants reported that she was sexually abused beginning at the age of six. She shared that she was a sex trafficking victim to “whoever my mom, a prostituted heroin addict, wanted to sell me to.”

The study found that all of the women who acted as pimps began to sell their own bodies for sex at the average age of 14 years old prior to becoming a pimp. They also forced others to engage in commercial sex acts.

Sadly, another participant in the study explained that her mother sold her and both her sisters for sex while they were children. The ex-pimp explained that when she was nine years old, her mother allowed her uncle to rape her “so I could lose my innocence. For sure, he paid her. Soon after she brought other men to me, some raped me, some took pictures. By the time I was 12, I was used to it. If I didn’t do it, we would live in the streets.”

Human Traffickers Often Seek Out Females Who Appear Vulnerable

In the DePaul study, human traffickers also explained that they would seek vulnerabilities in who they were going to exploit for commercial sex. Traffickers explained that they would target “Girls who ran away from home or were put out by their parents.”

These reflections by the ex-pimps who engaged in sex trafficking reflect some of the common mindsets of human traffickers:

  • “Any player can tell when a girl has the look of desperation that you know she needs attention or love.”
  • “I helped girls who no one else would. I picked up throwaways and runaways and dressed them up and taught them how to survive.”
  • “I wanted very pretty girls and young because they took orders better. Most were 16 to 17 years old.”
  • “We eat, drink, and sleep thinking of ways to trick young girls into doing what we want them to do.”

Engaging in Human Trafficking May Also Be Aligned with a Relevant Occupation

For other human trafficking, engaging in human trafficking may be aligned with their occupation. For example, massage parlor operators may force girls to engage in commercial sex acts to increase their profits. Similarly, someone who works with computers may use their technical skills to sell girls for commercial sex online.

Related link: What to Know about Pursuing a Career in Criminal Justice

Anyone Can Be a Human Trafficker, So You Must Report the Signs of Human Trafficking Wherever It Occurs

Anyone, anywhere, can be a human trafficker, even members of the community who have respectable jobs. This statistic reflects the importance of reporting to law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline when you observe any suspicious activity that could be associated with human trafficking.

Some of the signs of human trafficking include:

  • High turnover of young females at a residence that is frequently visited by older men
  • Older adults who transport children who are not their own without a valid reason
  • Truck stops or motels where young females not properly dressed for the environment are frequently shuttled in by older men

Human trafficking continues to be a widespread problem that affects multiple continents. Although human trafficking may prove impossible to completely eradicate, it is possible to at least reduce the number of its victims through raising awareness and more regular reporting.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate criminal justice professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. His expertise includes human trafficking, maritime security and narcotics trafficking trends. Jarrod recently conducted in-country research in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in human and narcotics trafficking. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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