What to watch for: Signs of human trafficking could be right in front of you

It’s a prevalent but often misunderstood problem. This is what experts want you to know.
Signs of human trafficking could be right in front of you, experts say.
Signs of human trafficking could be right in front of you, experts say.(WKYT)
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 4:04 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - For a problem that is growing in prevalence in Kentucky and across the country, there is still a lot that is misunderstood about human trafficking.

“Folks literally think of the movie ‘Taken’ when they think about trafficking,” said Jani Lewis, executive director of Natalie’s Sisters, a faith-based nonprofit organization that serves women who are sexually exploited or sex-trafficked.

While a kidnapping by strangers certainly can be one way that people are trafficked, experts explained, most of the time that is not the case. Many times victims are lured into it by someone they already know and trust.

Related coverage via WKYT Investigates:

“It’s usually someone that you know well in the community,” said Heather Wagers, executive director of the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General’s Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution, or TAPP. “I’ve had certain people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, we’d know somebody if it was a stranger that came up in our community.’ And it’s not the stranger. It’s somebody that is exploiting someone in plain sight.”

What is sexual exploitation?

Natalie’s Sisters defines sexual exploitation as transactional sex in an exploitative relationship.

“Transactional sex refers to sexual relationships where the giving and/or receiving of gifts, money or other services is an important factor,” their website states. “Exploitative relationships consist of one party taking advantage of another, (or) using an imbalance of power to control another or to unrightfully benefit from another’s vulnerabilities.”

Read more about transactional sex and exploitative relationships here.

What is sex trafficking/human trafficking?

Kentucky law (KRS 529.100) states: A person is guilty of human trafficking when the person intentionally subjects one or more persons to engage in forced labor services or commercial sexual activity through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

(The commercial sexual activity need not involve force, fraud or coercion for victims under the age of 18.)

Commercial sexual activity means “any sex act, for which anything of value is given to, promised to, or received by any person; participation in the production of obscene material...or engaging in a sexually explicit performance,” according to state law.

Read more about the definition of “force, fraud and coercion” here.

What are the signs of human trafficking?

According to the attorney general’s office, a person may be subject to sex trafficking if they:

  • Appear submissive, fearful, or nervous.
  • Lack control of identification documents or money.
  • Have an inconsistent or well-rehearsed story about where they live, the relationship with the person they are with, or how they traveled to the current location.
  • Dress inappropriately for the weather, their location or age.
  • Are in the presence of an overtly controlling or concerned friend or boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • Possess multiple hotel key cards, prepaid credit cards, or cellphones.
  • Show signs of physical, mental, or emotional abuse.
  • Seem unable to come and go as they please.

A person may be subject to labor trafficking if they:

  • Appear to live at their place of employment.
  • Are transported in a group by the employer or someone who is part of the employer’s organization.
  • Experience restricted or monitored movement.
  • Do not control their identification documents.
  • Earn wages below the state’s minimum wage.
  • Are constantly indebted to the employer.
  • Show signs of physical abuse, isolation, and starvation.
  • Work long hours in poor conditions.

What is an illicit massage business?

Illicit massage businesses are one of the fastest-growing ways that human trafficking is perpetrated and perpetuated, investigators say.

An estimated 13,000 IMBs are operating across the country, Wagers said.

Since 2020, the number of IMBs in Kentucky has grown by 71%, according to The Network. That is nearly double the national average of 38%.

Signs of illicit massage businesses (IMBs) include, according to TAPP:

  • Security cameras positioned to see entrants
  • Late-night or unusual business hours
  • Storefronts obstructed by curtains or dark-tinted windows
  • Doors locked and opened only for customers
  • Business permit does not match actual activity of business
  • Mostly male clientele
  • Business prices below market
  • Guarded entrances

What should I do?

Never approach a human trafficker directly, TAPP says.

If it is an emergency or if you believe someone is in imminent danger, call 911.

“Tell the authorities that you suspect human trafficking is occurring,” the Your Eyes Save Lives campaign states. “Be sure to provide your location or address, a description of the individual, vehicle or conduct you witnessed, along with any other pertinent information.”

If you have questions about whether what you are seeing should be reported, call the Kentucky Human Trafficking Outreach Prevention and Education (H.O.P.E.) Initiative Hotline at 1-833-991-HOPE (4673).

If you see signs of human trafficking but it is not an emergency, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Note: By law, all Kentuckians with reasonable cause or suspicion of child abuse, sexual abuse and children involved in trafficking must report it. Call 911. You can also reach the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Child Protection Branch Statewide Child Abuse Hotline at 1-877-597-2331 (877-KYSAFE1) or 1-800-752-6200.

Learn more about the H.O.P.E. Initiative here.

Other resources

National Organization for Victim Assistance: 1-800-TRY-NOVA

The Office of Trafficking and Abuse Prevention and Prosecution (TAPP) offers trainings on how to recognize the signs of and report human trafficking. For more information or to schedule a training, contact the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General at 502-696-5300.