Human trafficking thrives within the borders of the United States, though it often goes unnoticed. It can include organized criminal syndicates forming prostitution rings, forcing labor on victims in various industries, or it can be a form of serious abuse within relationships.

Every once in a while we see victims come forward and tell their stories. Each story is unique with different motivators and circumstances that led them into being trafficked — if you were to think of the typical life events that brought someone into, say, the illicit sex industry, what type of things do you imagine? Substance abuse, little to no family support, financial struggles — these issues are common when discussing victims, but it can also be surprising at how incredibly ordinary some of the them are. Some are regular mothers, teenagers or children from relatively normal families.

And how do very regular people get caught up in the world of human trafficking? They are coerced by the traffickers, often in a number of different ways. If a woman has moved with her son to a new town for a fresh start, she may have no support system. If the trafficker threatens her son, she may feel like going to the police is not an option. The threat of physical force is just one of many tactics employed by traffickers to manipulate their victims.

These coercion tactics tend to work well with victims who are already vulnerable in some way, and that’s where the images of financial crisis and substances abuse comes from. This is exactly why the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that 88% of cases involving trafficked children were in social services — they find people at their most vulnerable, and they exploit them.

Some of the primary methods of coercion were laid out at the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators (IAHTI) conference in Clearwater, FL recently.

Force: They threaten your family or loved ones in order to keep you around. They forcefully restrain and hold you in a certain area. They are requiring you, physically, to stay in a place and work against your will.

Fraud: This is where the traffickers lie and convince victims to willfully walk into their trafficking scheme; upon arrival, it is too late and the victims are already caught up in the trafficker’s system. This has been seen in cases where shady online personalities convince a young woman to move elsewhere, where they can work as a “model” or a “dancer.” Or, for example, the case where they convinced teenagers in Guatemala that if they moved to America to work on an egg farm, they could receive an English education as well as a paying job — both of which would have been game changers for the poor villages they came from. That is, if they were true. Instead they were forced to live in extreme poverty upon arrival to the U.S., while working off an unlivable wage and attempting to pay off an unpayable debt.

Serious Harm: The threat of serious violence has been used to coerce people since before the dawn of civilization, and that has not changed. A simple threat to someone’s life may be enough to get them to do whatever they want, especially when used in conjunction with some of these other methods. An example commonly referenced would be a pimp’s threat of violence or serious harm to the prostitutes that work for him or her.

Abuse of law: There are ways in which traffickers have used the law against their victims. They might convince them that, since prostitution is illegal and they have already performed sex for money, then going to the police will cost both of them (which may not even be true). If the victims are undocumented, then they could threaten deportation if they don’t fall in line.

Nonviolent conduct: This sort of social manipulation happens all the time in trafficking cases. They constantly put down the victims with ridicule, putting them in terrible living conditions, or simply building an overall climate of fear. Constant berating, emotional injuries, and twisting personal wounds can push someone into a mental state that makes them feel innately subservient to the trafficker.

And of course, these aren’t categories that traffickers consciously choose from — they generally use a combination of the above in order to gain control over a person’s life.

“Why don’t they just go to the cops?” “Why can’t they just pack up their belongings, grab their loved one(s) and leave?”

There are often conceivable ways that some victims could simply pick up and leave, or call the police — except that there is rarely anything simple about it. These coercive tactics serve to corner a victim and make them feel like there is no way out except to work. This is especially effective if the victim can tell themselves that “it’s not that bad,” or that “other people have had way worse.” If the traffickers have convinced them that the police are the bad guys, then that limits the victims’ options even more.

As one presenter at the IAHTI conference said, “This is a system that overrides free will.”

These are just a few tools that law enforcement officers and non-governmental organizations in the human trafficking realm keep an eye out for. These situations are complex, with complex motivators. Knowing these things enable law enforcement to better identify and hopefully help trafficking victims.

Images courtesy of Pexels.