Recognize Warning Signs and Ways to Prevent Human Trafficking

Awareness and education are protection keys.

Human Trafficking and related issues might be taboo subjects or uncomfortable subject matter for some parents to discuss with the entire family.  But parents and youth should be aware of the dangers that lurk both in-person and online to protect their family and community members.  

We interviewed Lieutenant Brian Oleksyk, the First District Public Information Officer, and the Hometown Security Team with the Michigan State Police, including the Ann Arbor area. We also interviewed Special Agent Sarah Pettey and Victim Assistance Specialist Diane Siegel with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) at the Department of Homeland Security, Detroit. 

This article outlines prevention, possible targets, tips, statistics, and other helpful information for parents and community members. 


Brought to greater awareness with the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking ring, experts agree that trafficking is much more pervasive than reported cases. The popular HBO series “Euphoria” is said to depict some of the criminal activity that occurs in an association, such as drug use, rape, grooming, and social media’s role. 

The definitions concerning trafficking are essential to keep in mind. According to the Department of Homeland Security, labor trafficking involves using force, fraud, or coercion to obtain exploited work. According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats trafficking, sex trafficking involves using force, fraud, and pressure to perform sexual acts.  

According to the United National Office on Drugs and Crime report, 71 percent of those trafficked are women and girls, and almost one-third are children.

Prevention is Key 

One of the critical aspects Lieutenant Brian Oleksyk stressed was for parents to maintain honest, open, and available communication channels with all family members. 

“Keep an open dialogue with your kids,” Oleksyk outlined.  “The trend we see generally starts with the ‘grooming’ process, a process to slowly acclimate an individual to a certain behavioral expectation. Generally speaking, we see a vast majority of victims that are female, so we tend to see the ‘boyfriend’ situation in which a male will become the female’s boyfriend first before the manipulation starts.” 

Trafficking can occur in association with the exploitation of forced work or sexual acts. Photo by Jake Nackos

Pettey agreed that communication is vital for everyone.

“Talk to your children, parents, extended family, and friends,” Pettey explained. “Human Trafficking should not be taboo. Age-appropriate conversation can be had at every age. Discuss the difference between labor and sex trafficking and how they are different from other crimes. For parents, let your children know that they will make mistakes and that you will still love them, that they can come to you with ugly details. You, too, have made mistakes. This also goes for adults.”

Experts agree that proper prevention of these heinous crimes requires everyone’s involvement.

“No one agency, group, or community alone can eliminate human trafficking and meet survivors’ needs,” described Pettey. “We must all take steps to raise awareness about and join the fight against human trafficking. We encourage the public to start with becoming well-informed.”

According to the Polaris Project, one of the most potent myths about human trafficking that people believe is that it is always or is usually a violent crime that involves kidnapping or physically forcing someone. The reality is that most traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating, and threatening victims. 

Also, according to the Polaris Project, many people in active sex trafficking situations do not recognize themselves as victims because a trafficker has expertly groomed them to believe they have chosen to participate in commercial sex. 

Prevention Tips

  • Help your child and teen develop strong, positive support networks. 
  • Perpetrators often use social media and gaming platforms to initiate contact with children and youth. Therefore, regularly ask about and do your best to know what your children are doing online. 
  • Encourage open communication with your child.  Have age-appropriate conversations with your children and teens about what human trafficking is, healthy friendships, sexual health and consent, and intimate relationships.  
  • Inquire about new people in your child’s life and with whom your teen spends time.
  • Explore opportunities for your child to participate in sports, after-school and volunteer programs, youth groups, and part-time employment.  
  • Discuss myths and misconceptions that glamorize the commercial sex industry (social media, movies, television, and music)

Who is a Target?

“Any person who feels more alienated, alone, embarrassed, afraid or feels they have ‘secrets’ to hide may be more susceptible,” according to Pettey. “It is irrelevant if these beliefs are real or perceived. If the person does not have the support, they are at higher risk.”

According to Siegel, human trafficking can happen anywhere to anyone. Human trafficking victims can be of any age, race, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, and socioeconomic background. 

However, children and adults from marginalized communities, including people of color, LGBTQ+, non-citizens, and those experiencing economic hardship or housing instability, are disproportionately affected by trafficking. 

In addition, perpetrators often seek out other vulnerable individuals, such as runaway youth and people with drug or alcohol dependency, and this involves the justice or child protection systems.  

Not only do significant others or romance interests get teens and even children into these dire situations, but other kinds of personal relationships do as well.

Also, according to the Polaris Project, it is a myth that traffickers target victims they don’t know. In reality, trafficking occurs between romantic partners and even family members, including parents. 

“We also see a lot of ‘friending’ into these situations where female friends are getting their friends involved with the acts either as a diversion so they themselves don’t have to do as much work anymore, to make more money, or to simply have someone they trust that can understand their situation,” Oleksyk warned.

Parents are encouraged to take an active part in what is going on with every aspect of their child’s life and always have a safe, listening ear for them. 

“Be curious about your children’s friends and their home life/family life,” Oleksyk instructed. “Be involved with their life and engage their interests.” 

Social Media and technology usage, such as Facebook and even online video games, are of particular concern because many sex traffickers prey upon their victims in many online situations, such as through chat rooms. Here are some essential technology tips.

Technology Tips

  • Most social media websites require the age to be at least 13 years or older—make sure teens follow these rules. 
  •  Require teens to share with parents their username/passwords to all social media/emails/etc
  •  Parents should join every site/app their teen has joined (primarily for education and monitoring)
  •  Parents should advise their teens to be aware of their “digital footprint” on the Internet
  •  Parents shouldn’t hesitate to require their teens to remove inappropriate pics or comments
  • Parents should also be aware of the following warning signs from their teens, according to Oleksyk.
  • Be aware of unexplained money, new hair/hairstyle/hairdos, fake nails, new wardrobes/clothes, new phone/multiple phones.
  • Keep an eye out if their teen is hanging out with an older person who seems controlling (this person can be male or female).
  • The child’s demeanor has changed: they appear fearful, depressed, submissive, nervous, unable to make eye contact (especially with authority figures like law enforcement).
  • Injuries or signs of physical abuse, branding, markings, jewelry, or tattoos
  • Frequently running away/disappearing for long periods of time

Other Warning Signs for Sex Trafficking

  •  Abruptly disconnects from family and friends. Stops engaging or participating in activities they used to enjoy.  Is isolated from a support network.  
  • Significant changes in behavior, including online activity
  • Appears overly frightened, annoyed, resistant, or belligerent toward authority figures
  • Lies about their age and identity has a secret online profile, uses hidden apps
  • Has a secret cell phone and/or multiple cellphone numbers.
  • Uses language or emojis often associated with commercial sex
  • Is not allowed to speak for him/her self or be alone with others.  Avoids answering questions and responses appear scripted and rehearsed.  
  • Tattoos or markings showing “ownership”, indicating money, that is reluctant to explain 
  • Has a close association with an overly controlling adult
  • Has developed a fast-moving, intense relationship with someone who begins to shower them with money and gifts 
  • Are present at locations known for commercial sex
  • Has newly acquired material items, money, and/or prepaid cards unable to be accessed before
  • Is couch surfing or frequently missing from home.  Involved with juvenile justice and/or child welfare system. 
  • Travels with people that are not relatives.  Talks about going to other cities or states when they were missing from home
  • Drug abuse or frequent use of “party drugs” such as GHB, Rohypnol, Ketamine, MDMA (Ecstasy), or Methamphetamines
  • Unexplained absences from school, constantly sleeping during class

What to do if you Suspect Trafficking

First and foremost, make sure you stay safe when reporting or gathering information.

“Never put yourself in danger,” explained Pettey. “Be the best observer you can and obtain as much information as possible while maintaining your safety.” 

If someone suspects that someone is being trafficked, Siegel recommends this specific action should be taken.

  • Coercion of illegal trafficking is not always physically violent, but more commonly psychological. Photo Credit: Salman Hossain Saif

    In any emergency situation, please call 911. 

  • To report suspected human trafficking, please call the HSI Tip Line at 1-866-347-2423.
  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline also provides help for survivors and the public 24/7/365 by calling 1-888-373-7888 or texting HELP or INFO to 233733 (BEFREE).

“Report it to law enforcement right away – sometimes it’s dangerous to tell the parents of the children, especially because those that abuse and harm children the most are often times their own parents,” Oleksyk stated. “So make sure you’re getting an authoritative neutral party involved. Maybe even school counselors, if that’s an option.” 

Demographics and statistics 

Regarding the pervasiveness of trafficking, Siege said it is difficult to know the true extent of human trafficking as it remains an underreported crime. 

The reason the crimes are underreported is varied.

“Traffickers often silence victims by threatening them, their family members, and other loved ones with physical harm,” described Siegel.  “Some victims do not trust that law enforcement and/or the courts will help them.  Some offenders force victims to commit other crimes, such as theft or drug offenses, and victims worry about being arrested and prosecuted.  Victims may fear that people will not believe them.  Some survivors have shared that feeling shame, guilt, and blame prevented them from reaching out.  Other victims might have close relationships with the trafficker.  They may not see themself as a victim until they are separated from the offender, safe, and supported.”

Trafficking is not limited to big cities or urban areas but to every demographic. Some reports that college towns, like Ann Arbor, are more susceptible to trafficking efforts, but larger cities like Detroit have higher numbers.

“Clearly, we are going to see a larger number of cases where the population is denser,” he detailed. “However, victims are everywhere. They are in rural settings, suburban areas, villages – anywhere and everywhere.” 

The officer also cited vital statistics for keeping in mind, such as average age. 

“According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the age a child enters into sex trafficking is 16 years old,” the officer cited. “However, our Michigan Missing Children’s Clearinghouse sees this age in Michigan much earlier, as do a lot of other states throughout the nation. One theory for the discrepancy is that by the time a child has their first encounter with law enforcement, they are about 16 years old, but the abuse has been happening for years at that point.” 

The amount of time involved is also essential to recognize. 

“The life span for a child involved in sex trafficking is roughly seven years,” he cited. “There’s a myth that Michigan is #2 in child sex trafficking: that statistic came from an Operation conducted with the FBI where Michigan Law Enforcement worked hard to uncover the most child sex trafficking cases based on several factors with kids. The result was then that our state had the most cases for that operation for that time frame; we came in only second to Nevada (Vegas). The Polaris Project estimates, based on the number of tips they receive, that Michigan is actually 11thth in the nation for sex trafficking.” 

Overall, the best advice is to stay aware and informed.

“Talk to your children; keep an open dialogue,” he reiterated. “Know the signs. Have a vested interest in your children’s friends, activities, et cetera.”

The extent of sex trafficking may not be entirely known.

“Truthfully, we do not know the extent of human trafficking,” the officer admitted. “We know what’s reported to us, and what is available to us in the criminal justice process. However, as long as there is the internet, social media, and various other apps to use, that’ll be the medium used to traffic individuals. It doesn’t erase or negate all the previous methods of trafficking; it just adds another avenue of approach.” 

It is important that everyone cares for those involved because it does affect us all as a community.

“Too often, we as a society have discarded those that are seen as a ‘burden’ to us: the ‘junkies’, ‘degenerates’, the prostitutes, the runaways,” he described.  “It’s easy to see them as ‘less’, but they are the victims. No one is born with aspirations to become a victim. The Polaris Project has a great quote: ‘It’s not knowing the signs, it’s knowing the story’ – the best way to help is to pay attention to people you actually know or interact with – students, tenants, children, patients, coworkers, et cetera.”  

Helpful Resources:

DHS Blue Campaign

National Human Trafficking Hotline

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)

OJJDP Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program 

US Department of State

USDHHS Office of Refugee Resettlement

Resources for Victims of Human Trafficking