Human trafficking is contemporary slavery that involves coercing or compelling an individual to participate in commercial sexual conduct or offer labor or services. It is a profitable criminal enterprise accounting for approximately 9.5 billion annually in the U.S. and $32 billion globally. Additionally, the United States Department of State reports that there are about 18,000 victims in the U.S. annually.

Put simply, human trafficking is:

  • Depriving a person of their liberty intending to acquire forced services or labor from them
  • Depriving an individual of their liberty intending to make them participate in a commercial, criminal activity like pandering, pimping, prostitution, or extortion
  • Convincing or trying to convince a child to engage in commercial sex conduct intending to have them engage in the above-mentioned sexual acts

Typically, labor trafficking can happen in the following situations:

  • Escort services and prostitution
  • Exotic dancing, stripping, and pornography
  • Massage parlors
  • Agricultural work
  • Begging and street peddling
  • Domestic labor
  • Cantinas, bars, or restaurants
  • Factory work

Although smuggling and trafficking can happen together, the two are different. Trafficking is based on exploitation, while smuggling is based on transportation. 

Who is a Victim of Human Trafficking?

A human trafficking victim can be any person, a young child, teenager, man, woman, a U.S. citizen, foreign national, or Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). They can be found in rural, suburban, or urban areas. 

A minor child induced to engage in commercial sexual conduct is a victim of trafficking, notwithstanding whether the perpetrator used coercion, fraud, or force. 

While any person can be a victim, LGBTQ+ people and people of color are at a higher risk of experiencing trafficking than other demographic groups. Historical oppression, generational trauma, and discrimination increase vulnerability. You can be prone to trafficking if you:

  • Have unstable living conditions
  • Have previously experienced other types of violence like domestic violence or sexual violence
  • Are involved in the juvenile justice system or ran away
  • Are undocumented immigrant
  • Are addicted to alcohol or drugs
  • Have a caregiver or relative with a substance abuse issue


Who is a Human Trafficker?

A human trafficker can be a U.S. citizen or a foreign national. They can be relatives, intimate partners, business partners, strangers to the victim, criminal networks and gangs, factories, farm owners, and labor brokers.

Generally, traffickers and victims share cultural or ethical backgrounds. In this case, the trafficker gains the victim’s trust and eventually exploits them. 

A trafficker chooses a target based on vulnerability, and they use enticement or recruitment tactics of control. 

What are the Warning Signs of Human Sex Trafficking?

Since human trafficking is an offense hidden in plain sight, it is essential to be aware of warning signs exhibited by the minor like:

  • Chronic absenteeism 
  • Excess amount of cash in their possession and can be reluctant to explain the source
  • Hotel key cards and keys
  • False ID or lying about age
  • Inconsistency when recounting or describing events
  • Fear or presence of another individual
  • Prepaid cell phone
  • Can try to protect the perpetrator from authorities
  • The victim does not consider themselves a victim 
  • Exhibiting submissiveness, tenseness, depression, nervousness, anxiety, fear
  • A high number of reported sexual partners at a young age
  • Alienation from friends
  • Weight loss
  • Tattoos associated with prostitution conduct
  • Secrecy when it comes to phone and social media  
  • Drug and substance abuse

Are There Indicators of Human Trafficking?

If you confidentially talk to a potential human trafficking victim and recognize red flags, you can ask the victim the following follow-up questions without endangering them because the perpetrator is watching:

  • Can you leave your employment whenever you please?
  • Can you leave at any time?
  • Has your family been threatened?
  • Have you been threatened or hurt if you attempted to leave?
  • Do you live with your boss?
  • Do you eat? Where do you sleep?
  • Do you have your identification/passport? If not, who has it? 
  • Do you owe your employer?

Typically, human trafficking signs do not cut across the board. Each victim is unique. A victim can exhibit one of these signs or even numerous. 

Being Controlled

  • Not permitted or inability to speak for themselves
  • Not in possession of their passport or ID
  • Refusing to maintain an eye contact
  • The victim puts on the same clothing repeatedly, carries their property in a trash bag, or has little personal belongings
  • Paid in cash and not in control of their bank account or financial records

Workplace Conditions

  • Little or no pay
  • Recruited with false promises about their work’s conditions and nature
  • Not free to leave when they wish
  • Has a person that does not leave their side
  • Works at unusual or for long hours
  • Has a huge debt that they cannot clear
  • Exchanges commercial sexual conduct for means of survival like food and shelter

Physical Signs

  • Unable to access healthcare attention without supervision or cannot access healthcare
  • Extreme weight loss and appear malnourished
  • Has branding scars like tattoos with money symbols or crowns or burns
  • Exhibits signs of sexual/physical abuse, confinement, physical restraint, or torture

Mental Health Signs

  • Paranoid, nervous, submissive, depressed, fearful, anxious
  • Appears to be drunk
  • Too attached to one individual
  • Requires direction or permission to make a simple decision 
  • Their answers appear scripted and rehearsed

Why Can I Report Human Trafficking?

If you believe you have identified a human traffic victim, alert the law enforcers immediately. The perpetrator can retaliate against you or the victim. Instead, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888. The 24/7 multilingual hotline handles calls from different regions within the U.S. from callers like victims, law enforcers, medical experts, legal experts, community members, policymakers, and researchers. You can also text the center via BeFree (233733). 

For an urgent situation, notify law enforcers immediately by contacting 911. 

However, if you identify a survivor, you can refer them to various organizations for assistance with critical services like medical attention, legal help, and shelter. 

Other contacts include:

Countywide Crisis Line



DA victim-witness number



What are the Ways to Prevent Human Trafficking?

Any person can join in the fight against human trafficking. Here are ideas to consider:

  • Learn of the human trafficking facts, myths, red flags, and signs  
  • Report any suspected human trafficking case by calling the national human trafficking hotline
  • Use your various social media platforms to raise awareness
  • Support victims by integrating them into the society, recommending them to relevant professional resources, and providing skills training, internships, and jobs
  • Support legislators who hold perpetrators liable and promote the victims’ dignity
  • Encourage faith-based or civil organizations to create awareness among their members
  • Encourage schools to include human trafficking in their curricula and develop protocols for responding to victims or identifying and reporting suspected cases.

The internet can also be a platform that johns, pimps, and traffickers use for selling and purchasing victims. Here is how to protect yourself or a loved one:

  • Do not speak with strangers.
  • Do not post personal details on social media that you do not want unfamiliar individuals to know.
  • Do not trust disguised perpetrators who claim to be producers or photographers who can make you rich or famous.
  • Do not accept invitations to any party of people you do not trust

How Does the San Diego District Attorney’s Office Fight Human Trafficking?

The San Diego DA’s office has prioritized the fight against human trafficking and uses an inclusive approach to protect victims, prosecute perpetrators, and prevent crime commission. The Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Unit comprises investigators, victim attorneys, paralegals, and prosecutors. 

Fighting human trafficking needs a multidisciplinary effort. The DA’s office has ensured coordination and participation among authorities with numerous responsibilities, including labor enforcement, criminal enforcement, victim outreach and services, intelligence, diplomacy, public awareness, and education. To realize an integrated response to the crime that amplifies results and leverages resources, the government agency collaborates with local entities, survivors, religious groups, civil society, academia, and the private sector. 

Other measures that DA’s Office has taken include:

  • Creating and utilizing the “Girls Only” toolkit aimed at protecting girls from falling victims through the Girls and Boys Club Organization
  • Using technological advancement to track any gang involved with human trafficking
  • Promoting prevention and awareness by implementing the SB 1193 (Posting Law)

Do Public Schools Offer Prevention Education?

The San Diego Trafficking Prevention Collective is a program that integrates early childhood education, a classroom-based curriculum, and participatory theater to reduce the rate of human trafficking involving minors in San Diego. The San Diego County DA’s Office sponsors the educational program. 



What are the Community Initiatives and Resources in Place?

The San Diego City Human Relations Commission, alongside the DA’s Office, police, Sheriff, and religious organizations, has an initiative that implements Civil Code 52.6 of SB 1193. The law requires businesses to post notices informing human trafficking victims and the public of hotline telephone numbers. These establishments include:

  • Primary airports
  • Bus stations
  • Roadside rest area
  • Urgent care center
  • Truck stops
  • Privately-operated job recruitment centers
  • Farm labor contractors
  • Bus stations
  • Sexually or adult-oriented businesses
  • Massage spas
  • An emergency room within a general acute care hospital
  • Light rail station

The posting location should be conspicuous, near public entrances or in areas with a clear view of employees and the public. 

Additionally, the notice should be written in Spanish, English, and other widely used languages in your business. The DA’s Office has identified Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog for the county. 

The notice must indicate that “human trafficking victims are protected under California and U.S. law.” It should also state that hotlines are: 

  • Accessible round-the-clock
  • Toll-free
  • Operated by a non-profit, non-governmental organization
  • Confidential
  • Accessible in different languages
  • Can provide assistance, training, general information, and referral to various services

Moreover, AB 2034 requires businesses that operate intercity passenger rail, bus stations, or light rail to provide training to their employees who can interact with human trafficking victims. The training should give details on how to recognize human trafficking signs and how to report the signs to the relevant law enforcers.