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Recognizing Human Trafficking in the United States

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Human trafficking typically involves coercion and false promises to lure someone into the sex trade, forced labor, or domestic servitude. Human trafficking is a massive international problem; it is a $150 billion industry and it is estimated that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking throughout the world.

[Related: The Need to Combat Human Trafficking Worldwide]

Human trafficking can occur anywhere and in any community, regardless of a victim’s social status. In terms of victims, 25 percent of them are children and 75 percent are females, according to the Polaris Project. This organization operates a national human trafficking hotline in the United States.

Human Trafficking Laws in the U.S.

The United States is not immune to the problem of human trafficking and has imposed laws to try and curb the problem. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was the first comprehensive federal law outlining human trafficking and defined strategies for the prevention, protection, and prosecution of human trafficking.

More importantly, this act provided a formal definition of sex trafficking. It identified sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, or solicitation for the purposes of commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion.

Also, the act labeled any commercial sex act with anyone under the age of 18 as sex trafficking. In the United States, it is estimated that the number of human trafficking victims is in the hundreds of thousands, which includes minors involved in sex trafficking.

Who Are the Victims of Human Trafficking?

In the United States, like other areas around the world, vulnerable populations are often coerced into human trafficking. Young people who live in a difficult home environment are especially vulnerable.

Often, chat rooms and parts of the Internet are stalked by sex trafficking predators who monitor online sites for minors who display vulnerabilities, such as family problems or a propensity to run away from home. A study in Chicago discovered that 56 percent of female prostitutes were initially runaway minors.

There have been many cases in the United States where a minor will meet someone online and develop a relationship with them based on false promises. However, those minors find themselves coerced into sex trafficking once they run away from home.

[Related: Fighting Human Trafficking on Its Own Cyber-Turf]

Foreign nationals in the U.S. are especially vulnerable. Trafficking networks have connections in the native countries of foreign nationals and make threats of violence toward their victims’ families back home if their victims do not engage in human trafficking. Language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and a mistrust of the police make it especially difficult for these victims to seek help.

Citizens Can Help Law Enforcement Detect Victims

Citizens and law enforcement have an important role in detecting potential victims. Often, human trafficking rings operating in the U.S. use hotels and safe houses for sex trade victims and often drug those victims to prevent them from knowing their location.

[Related: How to Identify Signs of Human Trafficking]

Whether victims are encountered during a traffic stop by law enforcement or by a private citizen, questions should always be raised when minor children are accompanied by adults who are clearly not their parents and when those same juveniles appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Often, victims of sex trafficking are transported together, which provides the opportunity for law enforcement to separate and question potential victims.

Additional indicators of a human trafficking victim include when a child:

  • Stops going to school
  • Displays signs of mental or physical abuse
  • Has bruises in various stages of healing
  • Is in the company of someone who answers questions for them

Law enforcement officers should be especially cognizant when they encounter someone who appears coached on what to say and who appears timid and submissive. Citizens should be conscious of unusual behavior, such as multiple minors entering residences with adults who are not family, juveniles without freedom of movement, or unreasonable security measures placed around children by adults who are not their parents.

Truck stops may also be a potential location for sex trafficking. Citizens who observe unaccompanied minors in the vicinity of truck stops should report their observations to their local police non-emergency line.

When law enforcement officers notice suspicious behavior, those officers should conduct thorough interviews, document their findings and reach out to their state human trafficking fusion centers. If citizens observe suspicious activity that may be associated with human trafficking, they should contact local law enforcement or report their observations to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which can be reached at 1-888-373-7888 or by sending a text to 233733.

human traffickingAbout the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been involved in homeland security for over two decades and he is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States and Central America on the topic of human trafficking. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. To contact the author, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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