Taking Trafficking out of the Shadows: A Brilliant New Approach

– By Mitzi Perdue

Human trafficking thrives in the shadows. Victims may be unwilling or unable to get help, with the result that we never learn about their plight.

The problem is that traffickers are skilled in manipulating their victims into silence. The wide variety of strategies they use fall under the categories of force, fraud, and coercion.

What Can Society Do? 

Margaret Henderson, Lecturer at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is part of a novel and successful approach to building awareness about trafficking. She and her colleagues are leveraging the fact that employees of local governments regularly conduct their work in or near homes, businesses, construction sites, and public spaces.

They’re there for such activities as ensuring building codes are met, reading utility meters, collecting trash or recycling, or doing environmental health inspections. As Henderson points out, “These every-day activities give them opportunities to spot signs of human trafficking.”

However, experience shows that when an individual doesn’t know the signs to look for, he or she will miss them. Henderson’s project is intended to inform local government officials about the red flags that indicate human trafficking might be taking place. 

We’ll get to just what those red flags are in a moment, but first, keep in mind that it’s not the job of these particular employees to investigate or confront the trafficking.  Instead, their responsibility is to alert law enforcement and others who are trained to deal with it.

What Are the Red Flags?

Interestingly, most of the signs of trafficking are ones you might never pay attention to unless you’ve trained to look for them.   A few indicators that local government staff might commonly see are these:

  • Evidence that people are living in their worksite, such as bunk beds in the back of a restaurant or clothes drying on the dumpster.
  • Individuals are not allowed to hold their own identification papers.
  • Individuals seem timid, fearful, or submissive
  • One person insists on speaking for or controlling the movements of others

You’ll find the full list at the end of this blog.

Henderson emphasizes that ” One of these indicators alone doesn’t prove trafficking, but the presence of several of them warrants additional attention from authorities.”

 Why This Awareness Training Works So Well

The Polaris Project, one of the major anti-trafficking organizations in the United States, has identified 25 business models of sex and labor trafficking. These include workplaces as diverse as the hotel industry, truck stops, massage parlors, and restaurants. You’ll find the complete list at the end of this blog.

Interestingly, local government staff has the potential to interact with 19 of those 25 business models of trafficking in the normal course of their work.  Therefore, it makes sense to build awareness about the indicators of trafficking among these public employees.

First responders and inspectors of any kind are the primary positions that might intersect with the greatest variety of trafficking situations.

 An Example of Success

Henderson jokes that “Fire Marshals are going to become my new best friends!”  They are one example of public employees who work across homes and businesses, in this case, to enhance fire safety.  

Recently one fire marshal encountered a suspicious situation while inspecting businesses for fire alarms.  A large poster in a bookcase was hiding an entry into a hidden room, which contained a bed, refrigerator, microwave, and a woman who appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The staff person and the woman were vague about who owned the business and why she was there.  Because the fire marshal had recently attended basic training about the indicators of sex and labor trafficking, he knew this was a suspicious situation that warranted a report.

What about you?

If you come across signs of trafficking, Henderson recommends any of the following actions:

 Report to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 888 373-7888.

 Report directly to local law enforcement. 

 If it a situation seems to involve immediate danger, call 911, the same as you would for any other critical situation.

 If you see something that makes you suspicious, do not try to get more information. Instead, report the situation that gives you concern, and also the factors that make you uncertain. Err on the side of making the report.

If you would like to see the resources developed for local government staff and elected officials, explore the Human Trafficking Resource Page at sog.unc.edu or contact Margaret Henderson at margaret@sog.unc.edu


Red Flags:  Behaviors and physical characteristics of the victims: 

 Fearful, timid, or submissive actions; avoid eye contact 

 Appear to lie about their age, identity, or relationship with others 

 Matching tattoos 

 Bruises indicating abuse or restraint 

 Malnourishment; extreme fatigue 

 Drug use 

 Have injuries that should have been treated earlier 

 Are not allowed adequate food or sleep 

 Repeated pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases 

 Are not allowed control of their own finances or identification documents 

 Are not allowed to contact friends or family 

 Are not allowed to come and go as desired 

 Have a large debt that cannot be repaid 

 Claim to be ‘just visiting’ or are unable to clarify where they live or where they are 

 Might not know exactly where they are, how long they have been there, or what the date/day is. 

 Appear to be living at their worksite 

 Have little personal property 

Twenty-five Business Models of Sex and Labor Trafficking


1. Escort Services

2. Illicit Massage

3. Health, & Beauty 

4. Outdoor Solicitation 

5. Residential Domestic Work

6. Bars, Strip Clubs, & Cantinas 

7. Pornography

8. Traveling Sales Crews 

9. Restaurants & Food Service 

10. Peddling & Begging 

11. Agriculture & Animal Husbandry 

12. Personal Sexual Servitude 

13. Health & Beauty Services 

14. Construction

15. Hotels & Hospitality 

16. Landscaping

17. Illicit Activities

18. Arts & Entertainment 

19. Commercial Cleaning Services

20. Factories & Manufacturing 

21. Remote Interactive Sexual Acts 

22. Carnivals

23. Forestry & Logging 

24. Health Care 

25. Recreational Facilities 

About The Author

Mitzi Perdue is a businesswoman, author, and Founder of Win This Fight, Stop Human Trafficking Now. She holds a B.A. degree with honors from Harvard University and a Master's from George Washington University. She's a past president of the 40,000 member American Agri-Women, and she was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. She was also a Commissioner for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Her Scripps Howard column, The Environment and You, was for years the most widely syndicated environmental column in the U.S.

She is the founder and president of “Win This Fight! Stop Human Trafficking Now,” an organization that raises funds and awareness for other anti-trafficking initiatives.