Human Trafficking

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is a type of human rights abuse where people profit from the exploitation of others – mainly through the use of force, fraud or coercion to manipulate victims into engaging in sex acts or labor/services in exchange for something of value. All persons under age 18 who exchange sex for something of value are human-trafficking victims, regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion is involved. Human trafficking is a crime at both the Federal and State levels.

Identifying Human Trafficking

There is no “one-size fits all” way to identify a trafficking victim. Human trafficking victimization is complex and presents in numerous, unique ways. It is unlikely there will be visible indications that a stranger you pass is being trafficked. In order to best help potential victims, it is important to pay attention to the people you know or already interact with in your own family, workplace and community. Understanding the vulnerabilities that can pave the way for victimization and being aware of situations that may raise red flags is key.


Anyone can be trafficked, but it is no coincidence that traffickers recognize and take advantage of people in vulnerable situations.

Persons you know might be vulnerable to trafficking if they:

  • Are facing poverty or are having trouble paying for basic needs
  • Are in an unstable living situation
  • Have a history of domestic violence victimization
  • Have a caregiver or family member with a substance use issue
  • Are a runaway, foster care system, or juvenile justice involved minor
  • Have unstable immigration status
  • Are a member of the LGBTQ+ Community
  • Have prior criminal convictions, especially for prostitution and related offenses
  • Are a survivor of sexual abuse
  • Are facing substance use issues
  • Have unaddressed mental health needs
  • Have a cognitive and/or physical disability that impacts daily functions
  • Are isolated from family and friends

Situations of concern

Traffickers use promises of love, friendship, money, and an all-around better life to “sell the dream” to potential victims.

These situations may raise red flags:

  • A potential employer refuses to provide contracts for workers, or asks them to sign a contract in a language they cannot read.
  • A potential employer charges a prospective employee fees for the “opportunity” of the job.
  • Someone you know appears to:
    • Have sudden and unexplained access to expensive objects and money.
    • Become part of a consuming and/or controlling asymmetric relationship (young/older; wealthy/struggling romantic relationship).
    • Develop a relationship that seems “too close” with someone they have only communicated with online.
    • Be offered a job opportunity that seems too good to be true, especially in the modelling or entertainment fields.
    • Be offered a job opportunity that requires relocation, but they have been given little detail about the job.

Potential signs of labor trafficking

Often times, labor traffickers will isolate their victims from their support systems. However, that doesn’t mean you haven’t already interacted with someone who is in a trafficking situation. Nail salons, construction sites, agricultural sites, restaurant kitchens, and motels are all workplaces where labor trafficking has been reported.

Someone may be in a labor trafficking or exploitative situation if you know they:

  • Feel pressured by their employer to stay in a job they want to leave.
  • Owe money to their employer or a recruiter and are not being paid the wages they were initially promised or are now owed.
  • Do not have control over their legal documents, including passport, state issued identification, immigration documents, and the like.
  • Are living and working in isolated conditions, disconnected from their friends, family, and other support systems.
  • Another person seems to monitor their communications.
  • They work some place where the safety measures are intended to keep people from getting out.
  • They are being threatened by their boss with deportation and/or other harms.
  • They are working excessive hours in dangerous conditions, without proper safety gear, specialized training, suitable breaks, or other necessary precautions or protections.
  • Are residing in subpar or even inhumane conditions provided by their employers.

Potential signs of sex trafficking

There are numerous myths and misconceptions surrounding sex trafficking, a prevalent one being that all trafficking victims are bound and cannot move on their own volition. While anyone under 18 years old who exchanges sex for something of value is a trafficking victim, exploitation exists on a spectrum and every victim’s circumstances are different. Most often, psychological coercion and threats are used to induce forced commercial sex in a trafficking situation.

Someone you know may be in a sex trafficking situation if:

  • They want to exit the sex trade, but are scared or unable to leave.
  • They have a pimp or manager in the sex trade.
  • They work an industry where they may feel pressured to engage in sex acts for money, such as a strip club, illicit massage business or escort service.
  • They live where they work or have guards who provide their transportation to and from work.
  • They have a controlling, and even abusive, parent, guardian, romantic partner, acquaintance or “sponsor” who monitors their daily activities and seems to control their ability to communicate with others.
  • They have a history of criminal convictions for prostitution, loitering, obstruction of the highway, retail theft and/or drug offenses.

COVID-19’s Impact on human trafficking

Massive shifts in daily life, economic insecurity, and isolation brought on by COVID-19 have paved the way for increased trafficking vulnerability. With more persons working fully or partially from home, opportunities to observe others, encounter people on the street, or witness patterned or suspicious behavior have decreased. Adults and children are more isolated from their support systems and are spending increased time online, providing greater chances for traffickers to reach potential victims through a screen.

(Some information adapted from Polaris)

Reporting Human Trafficking

If you suspect you or someone you know is a human trafficking victim you can:

How to help Victims and Survivors

How the courts can help survivors

Pennsylvania allows trafficking survivors to petition the court to vacate convictions for prostitution, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, loitering and prowling at night time, obstructing highways and other public passages, and simple possession of a controlled substance if their convictions were sustained as a result of trafficking victimization. For more information on criminal record relief for survivors see The Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation and The Survivor Reentry Project.

Some reputable anti-trafficking organizations include:

Get involved with your local anti-trafficking coalition