Human trafficking victims are typically part of an at-risk group. These people are more vulnerable to traffickers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), several risk factors make people more likely to be trafficking victims. Traffickers prey on people who live with these human trafficking risk factors.

Risk Factors of Human Trafficking

Poverty is a major risk factor for a person to be trafficked, and it bears connection to another high-risk category: prostitution. Needing money and being in a place where prostitution is common creates a very high-risk situation. As a result, a person gains employment by people who sell them into a system of traffickers. Furthermore, the illegality of prostitution in most places means that sex workers are not protected by law, giving their clients the upper hand.

Being impoverished or part of a group of stigmatized people are major risk factors in many abductions into trafficking. Having less of a chance to be productive members of society can lead to devastating situations. Minorities, including people who are LGBTQ+, tend to be more at risk for trafficking, especially if they fit into another risk factor category like having low income or a disability.

Once someone is a victim of human trafficking, their situation only worsens. Victims are forced to sell sex in various locations, including truck stops, hotel rooms, rest areas, street corners, clubs, and private residences. As a result of their victimization, trafficking victims face ongoing trauma, anxiety, instability, isolation, and fear as a result of the psychological, physical, and emotional abuse they experienced at the hands of traffickers.

Methodology of Human Trafficking

Human traffickers use many methods to lure their victims. Of the many tools of human trafficking, traffickers use violence, manipulation, coercion, deception, and even the promise of love and affection.

Exploiting Businesses and Services

No matter who does the trafficking, traffickers commonly exploit businesses and services to recruit and traffic victims, such as advertising, travel companies and industries, financial institutions, hospitality industries, labor industries, and landlords.

Travel companies, including airports, take bribes to transport trafficking victims while hotels take payment for rooms that hold trafficking victims in transit or trafficking victims trapped in sex slavery. Labor and agricultural industries take trafficked people as underpaid employees who sometimes do not realize they are trafficking or slave labor victims. Of course, throughout the process, financial institutions facilitate payment for people and services.

Exploiting People

The businesses and services are exploited for the purpose of exploiting a valuable resource: people. Businesses and organizations are built with a recognition of humans as resources, but human trafficking objectifies and abuses humans through exploitation.

Dr. Mellissa Withers identifies seven tactics used by traffickers to exploit people:

  1. Dehumanization: as traffickers view victims as commodities, they repeatedly tell and convince victims that the victims are no more than commodities, leading to low self-worth.
  2. Worst-case Scenario: through torment and manipulation, traffickers convince victims that their currently awful situation is a better alternative to being homeless, in jail, deported, or other undesirable situations.
  3. Distrust: traffickers convince victims that resources such as law enforcement and healthcare workers will betray them.
  4. Observation: traffickers appear unannounced or have victims live under supervision. Traffickers also frequently remind victims they are being watched.
  5. Mental Abuse: traffickers attempt to avoid physical abuse because it damages their commodity and can alert healthcare workers to the trafficking situation. As a result, traffickers resort to psychological torment.
  6. Threats to Call Police: in combination with the distrust tactic, traffickers threaten victims with reporting that could result in arrest or deportation. In many cases, traffickers confiscate passports, and victims do not speak the language of the current country.
  7. Hope: traffickers tell victims that they can leave after a timeframe of servitude and convince victims to focus on doing their duties to make their freedom happen in the future. Unfortunately, traffickers invent further debts that extend the debt bondage.

Types of Human Traffickers

Trafficking and exploitation occur in many ways, so traffickers take on many roles to recruit their victims. Furthermore, new technology and tactics have generated an even greater variety of roles for traffickers.

Usual Suspects of Trafficking

Most people are aware of human trafficking on some level. Brothels, massage parlors, prostitution, strip clubs, agricultural labor, gangs, and factories are some of the usual suspects for human trafficking. Unfortunately, trafficking occurs in many places beyond these commonly recognized trafficking avenues.

Familial Trafficking

Sadly, human trafficking can occur as close as one’s home. Familial trafficking occurs when family members are a part of the trafficking process. Traffickers usually pose as parents or family friends in the community who need money for their own families. The traffickers may themselves be poor and got into this way of life to support themselves. Accordingly, in 2017, family members facilitate 41% of child trafficking, many of whom are under twelve years old. That the parent is the caregiver and trafficker creates confusion for the victim, often resulting in a failure to develop and thrive.

Romeo Trafficking

Like familial trafficking that exploits a person’s emotional and even physical dependencies, romantic attachments can also draw someone into being trafficked. A Romeo is an adult acting as a romantic partner who often showers the victim with gifts or promises of a better life. Not surprisingly, Romeos tend to target victims with other risk factors of broken homes, low self-esteem, and troubled childhoods. Victims typically meet Romeos for the first time in places where victims are comfortable, such as public places, malls, neighborhoods, or online through social media and other platforms.

A Romeo pimp can be an older romantic partner, a school mate, or a parent of a friend. The most common type of Romeo is a man in his teens and early twenties trying to make the victim fall in love with them. As the Romeo manipulates the victim, the Romeo isolates the victim from family and friends to create total dependency on the trafficker and may use abusive measures if the victim is not compliant.

Social Media Trafficking

One way Romeos and other traffickers recruit victims is through social media. According to Fight the New Drug, Facebook was the online recruitment tool of roughly 65% of underage victims in 2020 in active criminal sex trafficking cases, compared to 14% through Instagram and 8% through Snapchat. To recruit victims, traffickers use catfishing, creating a fake online persona to lure a victim’s affection and trust. Using catfishing, traffickers find ways to meet with victims and take them by force.

Additionally, traffickers manage victims by limiting their access to social media. Cutting a victim’s access to social media allows traffickers to impersonate the victim or disseminate lies and rumors online.

Of course, as with any communication network, traffickers also use social media to extend their trafficking operations and maintain communication among trafficking ring members.

Purpose of Human Trafficking

Regardless of the method or type of human trafficking, the motivation of traffickers is always the same: money. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), forced labor, modern slavery, and human trafficking produce an estimated $150 billion in profits annually.

Traffickers value humans primarily as a resource to exploit for profit, so it is no wonder that about half of victims in forced labor are placed in debt bondage. Debt bondage means that the victims cannot leave their labor job until a certain amount of money is paid to their owner. Unfortunately, victims live in fear of repercussions for escape or speaking out and may be unaware that debt bondage is illegal in many countries. Traffickers in the United States are subject to fines and up to twenty years in prison as penalties for human trafficking.

At times, this debt can include promises of a better life. For instance, Love Justice International (LJI) recalls the story of Afi who was promised an education after being approached by a man. He was taken to a different region in Ghana and worked as a slave for four months until he was rescued.

In the same way, trafficking victims can be placed into unconsented, forced marriages. Sometimes these marriages last as short as an hour to as long as years, but someone along the way paid for that person to be in an unwanted marriage. In fact, 15.4 million people were reported to be in a forced marriage in 2017.

Like the twelve-year-old girl, Bimala, who was lured by a twenty-eight-year-old man, Daav, with the promise of love and marriage, females make up 71% of all trafficking victims, and 25% of victims are children (LJI; ILO). The younger the person is, the more money initially and over time the traffickers and slavers profit. Plus, if the child grows to know only the industry and sees no way out, the child may eventually take on a role in the trafficking ring. Female traffickers are especially desirable for their recruitment and management potentials. Ultimately, human traffickers and slavers profit immensely over the life of a trafficked child.

Locations of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking happens around the world with 24.9 million people. According to ILO, Africa led 2017 rankings with 7.6 people in modern slavery per 1,000 people. In Asia and the Pacific, 6.1 per 1,000 people were in modern slavery, and 3.9 per 1,000 in Europe and Central Asia. ILO warns, however, that these “results should be interpreted cautiously due to lack of available data in some regions, notably the Arab States and the Americas.”

Data collection about human trafficking arrests  in the United States is complex and not clearly reported, and NGOs are a significant source of intel for governmental organizations. One of the major NGOs for data on human trafficking reporting is the Polaris Project. From December 2007 to December 2016 from their hotline, the Polaris Project reported 32,208 contacts of human trafficking in the United States (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Polaris Project’s “Typology of Modern Slavery Summary,” p. 7:

Sadly, the numbers continue to rise. In 2020, the Polaris Project’s hotline, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, revealed 10,583 trafficking cases reported from 51,667 contacts.  California consistently leads in trafficking numbers (1,334 cases), with Texas (987 cases), Florida (738), New York (414), and Georgia (338) next in line.

Human Trafficking and You

It is easy to assume that trafficking is a crime that happens in distant, developing countries. It does, but it happens in developed countries, too. It happens at work, it happens next door, and it happens at home.

The extensiveness of human trafficking around the globe expresses the demand for greater awareness of human trafficking and how victims are targeted.

Join us at The Asservo Project in educating the public about human trafficking.


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