Sex Trafficking Red Flags

Sex trafficking is one of the few crimes that interacts with society in such a manner that its victims can walk down the sidewalk next to everyone else and no one knows the horrors they are facing. They can walk into your place of business or sit next to you on public transportation, and you may not realize it.

The general lack of understanding of how traffickers control their victims and how they operate their business is allowing this crime to continue to exist in our society. Learning these 10 red flags will give you an edge up on these predators and ensure that the next time you are in contact with a victim of this crime you will not miss it.


Red Flag #1 – Brands

These tattoos are used by traffickers to “mark” their girls as their property. This serves the same purpose as a farmer’s brand being placed on an animal, it signifies who the owner is. The tattoo may be of a crown, a rose, the trafficker’s name, a dollar sign or have some indication that they are in fact for sale. Often these tattoos are placed on the neck, wrist, or collarbone area but not always.

Victims are often coerced into getting these tattoos. They are told this is how they belong and are cared for in the same way a military member or group of siblings may get a tattoo to portray their connection to each other.

Red Flag #2 – Clothing

A young person that is not dressed appropriately for their assumed age or the weather. This can be a strong indicator of trafficking, especially in larger cities. However, in more rural areas or places that victims need to fit in a little better they may be dressed appropriately and have their more inappropriately sexual clothing stashed in a plastic bag or backpack.

Red Flag #3 – Time of Day

A young person alone or with someone that does not appear to be their parent during school- hours or late at night. They will likely not be able to give you an explanation of who they are with or what their plans are.

Red Flag #4 – Controlling Individual

Evidence of a relationship where the young person is being demeaned or controlled by another individual. They may default to this person to answer questions, or this person may speak over them not allowing them to give an answer. They will likely appear fearful of this person.

This may not always be the trafficker, sometimes it can be another female known as the Bottom. The Bottom is the most trusted girl the trafficker has, and she is often given the role of helping recruit new victims and controlling existing.

Red Flag #5 – Basic Information

Trafficking is a transient crime by nature, meaning that victims often move from town to town or on a circuit between places. A victim of trafficking may not be able to tell you why they are passing through your town or where they were last. Not sharing this information with victims is a form of isolation and controlling mechanism that some traffickers use.

Victims are also coached on how they speak to law enforcement, hotel employees or other individuals they may come across in a variety of situations. They are given right and left limits of what they can say so if asked a question they may struggle to give you basic information such as address, name, and birth date. Their story may sound scripted or inconsistent.

Red Flag #6 – Eye Contact

A severe lack of eye contact. Victims of trafficking are not allowed to make eye contact with another trafficker so they will often stare at the ground in a drastic avoidance of eye contact. This may be seen more if the victim is a female, and she is interacting with a male.

Red Flag #7 – Physical Abuse

Victims may have bruises, cuts, and other signs of physical abuse. However, remember that they are a product that their trafficker is selling so this abuse may be hidden. Survivors report being hit on the back of the head so their hair would hide the bruising.

Food and sleep deprivation are also used as forms of control so an individual that appears malnourished or sleep deprived may be experiencing this trauma as well.

Red Flag #8 – Demeanor

Sex trafficking victims are experiencing an unfathomable amount of trauma daily so they may appear fearful, anxious, nervous, paranoid or tense. They may even become hostile when asked a question. Remember victims are often given a script and if you ask something outside how they have been coached they may turn hostile as a means of getting themselves out of the situation.

Red Flag #9 – Unexplained Wealth

Their may be signs of wealth such as jewelry, expensive clothing and shoes, multiple phones and other electronic devices without much explanation of where the wealth is coming from.

Red Flag #10 – Language

Trafficking has its own language associated with it. Listen for words such as “daddy” or “boyfriend” from a young female to an older male as this may indicate trafficking. Other words may include: the Life, the Game, Bottom, square, trap, stack, date, John, trick and other language around royalty or family.


How to Report

One red flag is rarely enough to determine if a situation is trafficking so if you notice one start to look for others. If any part of you believes the situation is trafficking report it.

Call local law enforcement -tell them everything you saw in detail, mention the word trafficking to the dispatcher. If the situation leads you the believe the victims life is in immediate danger call 911, however, if you do not feel there is an immediate threat you can contact the local non-emergency line. When in doubt call 911.

Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline and report what you saw. 888.3737.888

We never recommend that you approach a victim as this puts both of you in danger. However, in some situations you may already be speaking, if the opportunity allows for you to safely ask if they need help then do it.


For a deeper dive into how trafficking works and what to look for enroll in our online Community Intro Training course.