Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Recognize the Signs of Trafficking

Recognize the signs of trafficking

Hidden in plain sight is how modern-day trafficking can often be described. Brothels next to family homes, farm workers and nannies brought here legally only to be exploited, and teens being trafficked for sex while still living at home are examples from right here in Canada. So how can we learn to spot these victims hidden in plain view?

Trafficked TeensTrafficking statistic

“Right from the beginning, he knew … I was the one that was, I guess, vulnerable,” said Vanessa, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity” in a recent news article from CBC. “I’m very kind of submissive to people.”

“He always kinda told me what to do, and I would do it.”

“One day, a car showed up with two men in it whom she didn’t know. Her friend asked her to get in, and she did. For months, Vanessa would get picked up from school almost every day and be taken to hotels on the Dundas East strip to have sex with clients arranged by her pimp. She was still living at home.”

Unfortunately, Vanessa’s story is typical. Teens are often trafficked by peers.

“Montia Marie Parker, 18, was a high school senior on the cheerleading team who was charged for trafficking a teammate in Minnesota. Parker was accused of creating an online ad for her teammate, taking her to see customers, and accepting money in exchange for sexual acts.”

signs of trafficking

Signs to recognize in teens

“Sometimes grooming for trafficking and exploitation can be masked in everyday conversations and latch onto individuals’ normal needs and desires. The signs to look for in your child or in your child’s friends include:

  • A new older boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • Suddenly has a lot of new stuff or seemingly has a lot of money spent on them (e.g., new clothes, new hair styles, manicures/pedicures).
  • Being secretive about who they are talking to or meeting.
  • Becoming more and more isolated from their regular friends (the groomer often does this to have as much control as possible over the child).
  • Responding to a job offer online for modeling/acting.

Signs that a child or young person may be the target of sexual exploitation online include:

  • Spending increasing amounts of time on the Internet.
  • Becoming increasingly secretive—particularly around their use of technology.
  • Shutting the door and hiding what they have on screen when someone enters the room.
  • Not being able to talk openly about their activity online.
  • Agitated behavior when answering their cell phone and needing to take the call in private.
  • Developing a pattern of leaving the home for periods of time with no explanation of where they are going.
  • Vague talk of a new friend but offering no further information

(Source: Love 146’s Guide for Parent’s and Caregivers. Read the whole guide for more info, including how to talk to your teens about trafficking.)

Signs of Trafficking

Natalie’s Story

“Natalie paid a Thai recruitment company approximately $12,000 to get a Canadian work permit, borrowing from a lender in order to do so. The recruiter lied to her about how much money she would make in Canada. She has been unable to pay the lender and is now locked into debt.

On arriving in Canada as part of the Low-skill Pilot Project, Natalie and 11 other Thais were taken to a small house with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a single bathroom. There were no beds so they had to sleep on the floor. There were no blankets, no washer or dryer, and no phone. The house was in the country, and not in walking distance of a telephone or store. The workers were each charged $300 a month rent (their contracts stated rent would be $30/ month). The workers were told they could not leave the house or receive any visitors.”

“Rather than being paid $9.30 an hour, our take home pay was approximately $4.62 per hour. We were monitored like children. We had to pay for cramped, cold living conditions that we had never endured – despite our poverty in Thailand,” says Natalie.

signs of trafficking


Forced labour exploitation can show up in many places; massage parlours, nail salons, restaurants, farms, factories, and even a neighboring home with a live-in caregiver. Here are some signs of trafficking to watch for:

(Source: U.S. Department of State)

  • Heavy security at the commercial establishment including barred windows, locked doors, isolated location, electronic surveillance. Women are never seen leaving the premises unless escorted.
  • Victims live at the same premises as the brothel or work site or are driven between quarters and “work” by a guard. For labor trafficking, victims are often prohibited from leaving the work site, which may look like a guarded compound from the outside.
  • Victims are kept under surveillance when taken to a doctor, hospital or clinic for treatment; trafficker may act as a translator.
  • High foot traffic especially for brothels where there may be trafficked women indicated often by a stream of men arriving and leaving the premises.

Signs to watch for if you are in contact with a potential victim of trafficking:

(Source: Homeland Security Blue Campaign)

  • 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 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?

Not all indicators listed above are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of the indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking. Also, be aware that many victims do not self-identify as “victims of human trafficking” because of a lack of understanding about the crime itself, power and control dynamics involved in trafficking situations, and normalization of abusive situations.

What to do if you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking

In Canada: If you think someone is a victim of human trafficking, call 9-1-1 or your local police. If you wish to anonymously report a case of trafficking, please call Crime Stoppers National Tipline at 1-800-222-TIPS(8477).

In the United States of America: Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline at 1-888-373-7888

Assessment Tools and Training

It is helpful to be prepared should you come into contact with potential victims of trafficking. Assessment tools are available to help identify if elements of human trafficking are present. If you are a health care provider, social worker, airline attendant, or other professional, there is also further training you can take to know how to identify and report human trafficking situations and assist victims.

National Human Trafficking Assessment Tool “The CCR (Canadian Council for Refugees) has developed a national human trafficking assessment tool that screens for elements that may indicate the possibility of human trafficking. This tool is meant to help guide first-contact service providers across Canada in identifying and responding to situations of human trafficking. We recognize that organizations and service providers face different local realities and made every effort to remain sensitive to this in developing this tool.”

Human Trafficking: Canada is Not Immune “This online training course provides information on how to recognize, protect, and assist a person who may have been trafficked in Canada. There are four modules in total. Each should take approximately one to two hours to complete. At the end of the course, you’ll have the opportunity to take a quiz and print a personalized certificate of completion.”

Human Trafficking Protocol in Healthcare Settings “This resource provides a framework for a human trafficking protocol for use in healthcare settings.  This framework provides a step by step guide recommendations for action once a potential human trafficking victim has been identified by a healthcare professional.”

Human Trafficking Assessment for Domestic Workers “A trafficking assessment tool for professionals engaging with domestic workers to identify and assist potential victims of trafficking.”

Airline Ambassadors International: Recognize It – Report It  “We provide a series of short, impactful online training videos focused on teaching employees in the airline industry how to spot and report human trafficking victims. Our training programs are delivered through a learning platform that provides an engaging learning experience, reinforces key concepts and measures learning outcomes. We make our training extremely convenient – all that is needed is an internet connection.”


Since human trafficking is such a huge issue in our country and yet so hidden, we are able to more effectively fight it when we can recognize it. Please share what you’ve learned. The more of us aware and watching, the better. Together, let’s walk the paths of justice.



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