Be the Change:

How You Can Help End Human Trafficking

Educate yourself on the issue, explore options for getting involved, and become a human rights advocate.

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

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Meet the Expert
Mellissa Withers PhD, MHS

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Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, is an associate professor at the USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health and USC’s MPH Online Program at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

An estimated 40 million people are victims of modern day slavery and human trafficking. Though it might seem shocking that anyone in today’s world could still be forced into domestic servitude, child labor, sex trades, and other unthinkable situations, it’s something that happens in hundreds of countries – and it might even be happening in your own backyard.

Recognizing the signs of human trafficking is just the first step in stopping these heinous acts. By becoming better informed on the issue, raising awareness, speaking up and taking action, we can all do our part to help victims of trafficking. This guide will improve your knowledge and show how you can join the cause to give others a chance at a free life. Whether you want to become a volunteer, learn how to spot red flags of trafficking in your community, or make ending trafficking your life’s work in a dedicated career, you’ll be ready to make a real difference.

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, reach out for help or report a tip now.

National Human Trafficking Hotline


Text “BEFREE” or “HELP” to 233733

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Call 911 for Emergency Help

What Is Human Trafficking, Who Does It Affect, and Where Does It Happen?

Many people have misconceptions about human trafficking, such as what it is and who it affects. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.


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. A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within this definition.

Source: U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Person’s Report

The terms human trafficking and modern slavery are often used interchangeably. What’s the difference between the two, if any?

Human Trafficking

Though the U.S. Department of State considers “human trafficking” to include both sex trafficking and forced labor, this term ais most often associated with sex trafficking.

Modern Slavery

According to the U.S. Department of State, modern slavery is an umbrella term that also encompasses both sex trafficking and forced labor. However, most people think of modern slavery as forced labor, including domestic servitude or debt bondage.

While human trafficking is often associated with transporting individuals across borders, it doesn’t have to involve the movement of victims as noted by the U.S. Department of State. It includes men, women, and children of all ages, races, nationalities, or genders. Human trafficking can be happening right now in your community. Many believe human trafficking is only a problem in certain countries, but the unfortunate truth is that human trafficking happens everywhere. Though most trafficking is national or regional, international trafficking is also a serious problem. Long-distance trafficking most commonly takes a victim from one lesser-developed country to a more developed country. Most victims come from Asia, though the Americas are quite common as both a destination and an origin point for trafficking.

Types of Human Trafficking

Though sex trafficking is what often makes the news, there are other forms of trafficking that can be just as devastating for victims. Here are some of the most common forms of trafficking happening on a daily basis around the world.

Forced Labor

Forced labor involves using physical force, threats, coercion, deception, abuse of the legal system, or other forms of coercion to compel a victim to work for an employer. Victims might not receive any sort of paycheck or compensation, or might receive so little that it keeps them dependent on the employer. According to UNICEF global estimates, 25 million adults and children are victims of forced labor. This includes children working in global supply chains.

Bonded Labor

Sometimes known as debt bondage or peonage, bonded labor deliberately puts victims into a deep debt. For example, a victim might inherit the debts of relatives, or might be charged recruitment fees, extreme interest rates, or expensive rates for room and board. Victims often feel as though they have no recourse, especially if their legal status in a particular country is tied to their employer.

Domestic Servitude

This type of trafficking happens in private homes, where the victim is abused and underpaid, assuming they receive any pay at all. Working in a private home can keep them isolated, and they might not get a day off or have to work very long hours. Since labor officials don’t often have the ability to inspect employment conditions in a private home, the abuse can continue for years.

Sex Trafficking

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that 79% of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation. However, this might be because the exploitation of women is much more visible in modern society than other types of trafficking, such as domestic servitude. It is also much more frequently reported than other types of human trafficking. Though men can be trafficked into sex trades, women are much more likely to be victims.

Child Sex Trafficking

Occurs when anyone under the age of 18 is somehow brought into the sex trades, whether through recruitment, transport, solicitation, or any other form of coercion, force, or fraud. Proof of these methods is not necessary to prosecute child sex trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department, those under the age of 18 in the sex trades are always considered trafficked. This rule is the same in most countries around the world.

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Did You Know?

  • In the United States, California has the most trafficking reported, followed by Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Georgia. 1
  • Every year, traffickers earn approximately $39 billion on exploitation of children alone. 2
  • As of 2017, it’s estimated that 40 million people are enslaved across the world. 3
  • 71% of modern slavery victims are women and girls. 3


Recognizing the Signs of Human Trafficking

Victims of human trafficking often cannot seek help on their own. That’s why it’s so critical for everyone to be aware of the signs. It’s especially important for those who work in public service or medical careers, as the nature of their work makes it more likely that they will come into contact with trafficking victims. Here are some of the red flags a person may be a trafficking victim:

  • Has unusual restrictions at work, such as no breaks
  • Works excessively long hours, or lives and works onsite
  • Has a great deal of anxiety, worry, or depression
  • Exhibits fear at the mention of law enforcement officials
  • Offers a scripted story to explain signs of abuse
  • Is not allowed to speak for themselves
  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, fatigue, or abuse

Signs to Look Out for in Your Profession

Medical Professionals

Those in the medical profession are in a unique position to spot physical signs of abuse, overwork, neglect, or other concerns that could raise a red flag for trafficking. It’s important to remember that trafficked men, women, and children might exhibit signs of abuse, malnutrition, poor hygiene, severe fatigue, signs of physical restraint or confinement, as well as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and other mental health symptoms. Healthcare professionals can reference this training material from Polaris to learn more about how to recognize and respond to human trafficking.

Social Workers & Mental Health Professionals

Victims of human trafficking might reach out for help in subtle ways, such as through pleading eye contact, cryptic statements, or body language that indicates they are fearful or anxious. Mental health issues are also common in victims of trafficking and can include depression, paranoia, a lost sense of time, scripted stories, submissive behavior, or signs of substance abuse or addiction.

Criminal Justice & Law Enforcement

Victims of human trafficking often have a fear of law enforcement, as they are conditioned to protect their abusers. Given that, sometimes you must go looking for them – monitor dating or hookup sites, conduct surveillance of motels, strip clubs, and massage parlors, and after executing warrants, make a point of photographing everything to demonstrate the conditions the victims are forced to live in.

Teachers & Educators

Teachers see the same students every day, and over time can begin to pinpoint strange behaviors. This insight into a student’s day-to-day wellbeing can help catch issues concerning human trafficking, such as being forced to work in child labor or being trafficked for sex. Teachers might also notice changes in the behavior or mental health of the parents, and that can raise red flags that lead to getting in touch with guidance counselors or social workers to further investigate the potential issues.

Signs to Look Out for as a Friend or Relative

Look for changes in the behavior, attitude, and mental and physical health of friends and family members. Are they suddenly secretive? Do they seem to have new friends who are very demanding? Are they spending more time isolated from everyone they used to enjoy being around? Are they suddenly working all the time, deep in debt, or hiding where they go and what they do – especially when they used to be quite open? These could all be signs that your friend or family members has been caught up in the web of human trafficking.

Signs to Look Out for as a Concerned Citizen

Airport travelers often hear the words: “See something, say something.” The same holds true if you see anything that looks amiss and wonder if it might be worth investigating. Look for situations where someone is being coerced, seemingly held against their will, forced to do things they don’t want to do, say things that seem a little off, covered in bruises, being fearfully submissive, or appear to be afraid of something that you can’t really pinpoint. In short, if it looks suspicious, it probably is. Gather all the information you can, such as license plate numbers and descriptions, then contact the authorities.

5 Ways You Help Stop Human Trafficking Right Now

In many cases, a victim has been saved from human trafficking simply because someone spoke up. They saw the signs and made some noise. Here are some simple ways you can get involved and make a real difference.


Raise awareness

The problem will not end unless everyone knows it’s there in the first place. Raising awareness of the issue on a local, regional, and national level is the first step toward ending the trafficking of men, women, and children. Here are some ways to get the word out there.

  • Share this Slavery and Trafficking Fact Sheet to help others see how prevalent the problem is.
  • Host an educational event at a local community center that focuses on how to spot the signs of human trafficking.
  • Share your concerns backed by solid information on social media.


Fundraise for anti-trafficking organizations

Many anti-trafficking organizations run on a shoestring budget. Raising money for them can help immensely in their quest to help others. Fundraising can include everything from running a funding drive online to meeting with members of your local community and offering information and asking for donations.

  • Hold fundraising drives at local shelters or shopping malls
  • Set up crowdfunding and give details about the organization you’re supporting
  • Hold a silent auction to help the community pitch in

Once you decide on how you’ll fundraise, choose an organization. Make sure your fundraising efforts and dollars are benefiting reputable anti-trafficking organizations that will actually make a difference, not just pad their executives’ paychecks. Here are a few organizations that rate charities and nonprofits, so you can feel confident you’re supporting a good cause.


Volunteer for anti-trafficking organizations

As mentioned earlier, many of the organizations fighting human trafficking just don’t have enough funds to go around. They rely heavily on volunteers to make the difference. Use the following resources to find volunteering opportunities near you.


Civic engagement: promote anti-trafficking legislation

The stronger the legislation, the more difficult it is for traffickers to find loopholes and avoid punishment when they are caught. There are many things you can do to help the process along:

  • Write to your local, state, and federal representatives
  • Sign petitions that aim to strengthen anti-trafficking laws
  • Speak up at town halls and other political meetings about the problem
  • Write a letter to the editor of a prominent news organization concerning the issue on a local level


Reporting human trafficking

Seeing someone in a human trafficking situation can immediately spark you to call for help; but what if that person is someone you know? Though reporting is still necessary, the emotions around it can be complicated. That’s one of the reasons organizations allow for anonymous reporting. Here are a few places to get help:

Anti-trafficking Degree & Career Paths

Those who feel very strongly about human trafficking and want to make a difference every single day can look to careers that put them right in the center of the fight. The following careers can help you help those who need it most.

Criminal Justice

A degree in criminal justice opens the door to work in a wide variety of fields, including law enforcement, corrections, homeland security, social justice services, and more. These professions bump up against human trafficking threats on a regular basis; some might even work in a task force that focuses on different types of trafficking. For example:

  • Border patrol agents might be able to spot trafficking in humans across borders in vans, cars, trucks, boats, and other vehicles – often the victims are well-hidden.
  • A detective or criminal investigator might work on the local or state level to pinpoint trafficking operations and gather information needed to indict the perpetrators.

Public Health

Public health focuses on protecting and improving the health of communities around the world. Eradicating human trafficking can be a strong focus in many public health careers, including those in mental health, public health education, emergency services, and social and behavioral health services. Some of these allow individuals to work directly with the victims of human trafficking, while others are a more supportive role. Examples include:

  • A public information officer might be the point of contact with various organizations that need information on trafficking and how to stop it.
  • A social services manager might work with communities to spot and report human trafficking issues, or might work directly with victims through nonprofit or governmental organizations.

Social Work

Degrees in social work form the foundation of many careers that naturally intertwine with the fight against human trafficking. Social work can include anything from working with those in the grip of addiction to looking out for child welfare to being an integral part of the criminal justice system. Here are a few examples of what those in social work can do to help fight against trafficking:

  • Substance abuse counselors can often spot the signs of a person being coerced with the use of drugs, alcohol, or other substances, and reach out to the proper authorities for a thorough investigation.
  • Those in public welfare, such as a manager or supervisor, can head up projects that focus on raising awareness of human trafficking in their communities.


Understanding human behavior is important in most areas of day-to-day life; that’s why those with a psychology degree or background are ideal candidates for jobs that seek to eliminate human trafficking. The in-depth understanding of psychology can assist in spotting the subtle signs of trafficking, from the way a person acts when approached by others to the things they say – or do not say – in the course of a conversation or even an investigation. For example:

  • A clinical psychologist can spot not only the emotional nuances that set off red flags, but can also see the physical signs, such as bruises from restraints.
  • Psychology professionals who work in human services might speak with those who are being trafficked and can be alert for the signs, such as someone not allowed to speak for themselves, someone with no clear address, and more.

Homeland Security

Homeland security is often at the forefront of the fight against trafficking on a national scale, fighting to not only rescue victims crossing into the U.S. but to punish the perpetrators with the help of the justice departments around the country. Homeland security professionals might wind up in any number of career trajectories that put them in direct contact with those in desperate need of help. A few examples include:

  • Homeland security criminal investigators can look into potential trafficking rings, the transportation used to move victims from one place to another, or where perpetrators get the money to fund their operations.
  • A mission support specialist might be on the front lines of the fight against trafficking by gathering information, interviewing victims, or even working in an undercover capacity.


Human traffickers are now using advancing technology to streamline their operations. Cybersecurity professionals can be right there to follow along, finding the traffickers and dismantling their plans. Cybersecurity provides an opportunity for individuals to work in a variety of organizations and agencies that chase traffickers and use their internet footprint to bring them to justice. For instance:

  • Cybersecurity professionals in the FBI might work in internet “sting” operations, where they pose as a minor and attract the attention of would-be traffickers.
  • Cybersecurity experts at Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) might be tasked with tracking down human traffickers on the Dark Web, who mask their identity and discuss their plans and illegal business dealings with like-minded perpetrators.

Women’s and Gender Studies

Those who dive into women’s and gender studies will learn a great deal about human trafficking, especially sex trafficking. They will gain a firm understanding of the history of trafficking and how it has evolved, the reasons it is so prevalent, and most importantly, the steps that can be done to stop it. Those who graduate with a women’s and gender studies degree can put their knowledge into action by working at anti-trafficking nonprofits or governmental agencies.

International Relations

Human trafficking is a global problem, and those with a strong background in international relations can see the bigger picture of the issue. A degree in this field opens up doors in many lines of work, so any organization that is working to eliminate trafficking could be a good option for using your skills. International relations can provide a firm understanding of how the trafficking channels between countries work, how cultural differences can lead to various types of forced labor or sex trafficking, and how to reach out to victims with those cultural sensitivities in mind.

Students: How to Take Action Against Human Trafficking

It might be easy for students to think they can’t do much to fight human trafficking; after all, they’re so busy with school, work, and everything in between. But there are several ways students can speak out, shine attention on the problem, and make a difference. Here’s how.

  • Create a club.Don’t go it alone! Start a club at your school that will focus on helping the victims of human trafficking. A club like this can also help others see the signs of traffickers, so they can possibly avoid falling victim themselves.
  • Get educated.Learn everything you can about human trafficking. When someone asks you about it, you’ll want to be able to make a clear impression about how serious the problem is. The more you know, the more confident you will seem, and the more someone else will listen to what you have to say.
  • Host events to raise awareness.Work with school clubs, Greek organizations, and social groups at the school to host events that raise awareness. Invite speakers close to the issue, hand out flyers and information packets, and educate others on how to spot the signs.
  • Petition to add human trafficking courses.If your school doesn’t have human trafficking courses available, start a petition and ask them to add a few. Talk with the heads of departments that might be able to help, such as those in psychology or women’s studies, to get them on board with the possibility of teaching the courses.
  • Volunteer with local organizations.Volunteering with places near your college that take in victims of human trafficking, such as women’s shelters, children’s shelters, and social service agencies, can help you make a direct difference in the lives of those who have been rescued from trafficking.

Interview with the Expert

Mellissa Withers

Mellissa Withers, PhD, MHS, is an associate professor at the USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health and USC’s MPH Online Program at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

What can the everyday person do to reach out to victims of trafficking?

There are lots of things that each of us can do to help prevent human trafficking. We can ensure that we are purchasing fair trade product and not supporting labor trafficking in the supply chain. It is also important to be informed about the red flags and how to report tips about possible victims to the national hotline. Everyone can support local, national, and international policies and programs to prevent trafficking and provide better services for victims. For example, we can support initiatives that require all school districts implement human trafficking education in schools, something that many counties have already done.

We can also support legislation around human trafficking and join advocacy groups to lobby our legislators to do more. Something else that is not talked about enough is the fact that each of us can play an important role in helping to prevent young people from falling prey to traffickers through mentoring and supporting at-risk kids. Because it is the kids who have low self-esteem or problems at home that are the most vulnerable to traffickers. And we can all reject sexual stereotypes and positive portrayals of pimps. We can challenge gender socialization in which boys are encouraged to be sexually aggressive while girls are supposed to be submissive and weak. The sexual stereotypes that perpetuate these, are not harmless, and normalize sexual violence.

Tell me a bit about the trauma-informed approach to human trafficking, perhaps some tips to help others interact with victims in a sensitive manner.

A trauma-informed approach takes into consideration the role of the trauma that victims have experienced. Victims may not behave in a way that we think is rational or appropriate. They may have what we believe is poor judgement. But it is critical to understand that their behaviors have often resulted as biologically-driven survival strategies to cope with long-term exposures to abuse. Victims may have lived in “crisis mode” for so long that it can negatively impact their perceptions of reality and inhibit their ability to think ahead. Trauma is also associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to difficulties controlling emotions, sudden outbursts of anger, difficulties concentrating, dissociation, and increased risk taking. Victims may have hypersensitivity to everyday situations, which they may perceive as dangerous, threatening or out of control. And they avoid seeking help or support from others because of mistrust. Those of us who haven’t experienced trauma may not anticipate or understand their reactions or behavior. The result is that people may lack not only lack empathy for victims, but it can result in judgmental attitudes and even re-victimization of those who have survived trauma. Victims can be judged as lying about their stories, difficult to deal with, or even to blame for their situations. So, we definitely need more awareness about how trauma impacts victims of trafficking and more training for law enforcement, those in the justice system, health professionals, and others who work directly with victims.

Some of the signs of trafficking are obvious. What are some more subtle signs that might be missed by the average person?

  • Lack of knowledge about whereabouts or city he/she is in
  • Inconsistent or conflicting stories about their personal lives
  • Not allowed to speak for his/herself
  • No ID
  • Tattoos or branding, especially on neck or those that say someone’s name
  • Serious dental problems from lack of care
  • Serial sexually-transmitted infections or abortions
  • For young people, luxury items without an explanation of how he/she paid for them, older boyfriends, sexually provocative clothing
  • Frequent moves

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about human trafficking?

People often have this Hollywood version of what a trafficking victim might look like. Most victims will not be kidnapped, drugged, and chained up. Many victims have cell phones. They are allowed days off to go shopping, church, or other places. And most people are really shocked to hear that many traffickers are women. So female traffickers often get by without anyone noticing. That’s why it is really critical for the public to be informed and to not make assumptions about what a victim or trafficker will look like.

Recommended Reading & Resources About Human Trafficking Prevention