COLUMBIA, Mo. - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says human trafficking is a $32 billion enterprise and the most profitable transnational crime behind drug trafficking.
The crime happens in rural towns, suburbs and cities, the agency says.
The FBI says victims come from all walks of life.
“There is nothing typical when it comes to a human trafficking victim,” FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said. “Whether boys, girls, men or women, human traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable who they can exploit and profit from.”
In 2018, The Missouri General Assembly passed a law requiring hotels, nightclubs, airports and a host of other establishments post a sign in plain view displaying the state’s human trafficking hotline number.
Establishments that fail to comply can get a written warning on the first offense and an infraction each time after that.
The Department of Public Safety, which is charged with making the posters available, has sent out nearly 14,000 of them, department spokesman Mike O’Connell said.
O’Connell said enforcement of the new law is left up to local law enforcement.
DPS said it doesn’t have the data on how many posters have been downloaded from its website.
About 70 percent of human trafficking cases the bureau investigates involve sex trafficking, which typically happens when victims are forced to perform sex acts as a marketable service.
The pressure for victims to participate can come in many forms, according to the bureau, from a personal financial crisis to threats from another person.
“Psychological coercion is often used to control the victims,” Patton said. “The tactics could include anything from threats against their family members, threatening to use photos and instilling fear with law enforcement. So, sometimes … victims are afraid to come forward.”
One of the main consistencies found in victims is a vulnerability factor.
“People we might not identify as vulnerable,” said Nanette Ward with the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition. “It could be someone looking for a job, looking for a way to get money, quick money and you can be lured into something that you think might just be for a while or something that’s harmless for now.”
The Missouri and federal governments offer various resources for victims to get help.
The Missouri attorney general’s website offers email alerts for users to receive updates, notifications for volunteer opportunities, information on human trafficking training and information about nearby events.
The AG’s office also produced a series of training videos about how human trafficking happens and the indicators of the crime.
According to the Missouri Attorney General's press secretary, Chris Nuelle, the department has trained approximately 2,947 people since the Task Force’s inception in 2017.
"Our audiences have ranged from law enforcement, social service providers, healthcare professionals, educators, social work and criminal justice students, business owners, emergency responders, substance abuse centers, transportation professionals and the general public," said Nuelle.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists indicators of human trafficking as part of it’s Blue Campaign aimed at ending the practice:
- Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
- Has a child stopped attending school?
- Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
- Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
- Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
- Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
- Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
- Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
- Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
- Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
- Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
The department said that a victim may not present all or any of these symptoms, and that these indicators don't necessarily mean that a person is a victim.
Patton said that victims are often difficult to identify due to the emotional manipulation they've undergone and the stigma that is seemingly placed upon them by society.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.