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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > March 2012 > Don’t miss the ‘red flags’ of human trafficking

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Don’t miss the ‘red flags’ of human trafficking

The average person might see a “massage parlor” as a front for prostitution. A trained peace officer, though, could recognize it as the most visible aspect of an underground human trafficking ring.
By looking below the surface, you may be able to identify large criminal organizations that are trafficking in Ohio. Online and in-class trainings available through the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy can give you the tools to do so. The concepts discussed here provide a broad overview of the training available.
The most obvious “red flags” of a human trafficking operation are specific crimes such as prostitution, illegal operation of strip clubs or massage parlors, domestic violence, and crimes involving immigrant children with no guardians.
In these and other situations, look into the living or work conditions of the workers. Do they live and work in the same place? Do they appear to be confined to this living or work area? Are there signs of physical abuse such as bruising, bite marks, burns, or broken bones that have not healed properly?
Note whether these potential victims seem malnourished or have rotting teeth. Watch their behavior, as trafficking victims typically are very submissive and refuse to make eye contact. Finally, when encountering potential sex trafficking victims, look for specific tattoos on workers’ bodies, such as ones on their chests or necks that spell a man’s name or simply “Daddy.” 
If you see these signs, treat the suspect like a victim to build trust. Begin seeking more information with questions such as:
  • How did you get your job?
  • Are you getting paid for your work?
  • Do you get to keep the money you make?
  • Is your work different than what you thought it would be?
  • Where do you live?
  • How do you get to work?
  • Do you live and work at the same place?
  • Do you have keys to let yourself in and out of your home?
  • Do you have a phone or ID?
  • Who is your employer?
  • Have you ever been threatened or hurt by your employer?
Sex and labor trafficking are the most common forms of this crime. Almost 70 percent of the victims are women, and about 50 percent are juveniles. They frequently do not speak, read, or write in English, and some are mentally challenged. They often are recruited into trafficking by acquaintances, fake employment agencies, the Internet, and word of mouth.
Traffickers also make their victims false promises of better opportunities. They are almost never given money and are not in control of their own identification or legal documentation. This severe treatment causes the victims to develop depression, hopelessness, and self-destructive behaviors. They do not identify themselves as victims, but as criminals.
Many traffickers compound these mental stresses by telling victims they should distrust law enforcement because they will arrest or deport them. Peace officers should consider a trafficking victim’s past experience when investigating the crime.
It is important to be patient when asking questions of potential victims. They often do not know their location, and they probably can’t give a complete history of how they got there. They may be distrustful of law enforcement, so it’s important to make victims as comfortable as possible.
Let them know they are victims, they are safe, and that no one will hurt them anymore. Building trust will help the victims and increase the likelihood they will be cooperative witnesses if a case goes to trial.
Morgan A. Linn
Assistant Attorney General and Legal Analyst
Important resources 
  • Trafficking victims have very specific needs. Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888 to connect them with the nearest victim services provider. 
  • The Attorney General’s Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) can assist local law enforcement in investigating these difficult and time-consuming cases. The BCI hotline is 855-BCI-OHIO (224-6446).
  • Brent Currence, director of BCI’s Missing Persons Unit, can assist law enforcement with human trafficking investigations. He can be reached at
  • Emily Pelphrey, an associate assistant attorney general in the Special Prosecutions Unit, can offer guidance in the evidence necessary to prosecute a human trafficking case. She can be reached at
  • For information on OPOTA courses covering human trafficking, visit or e-mail
  • Additional resources are available at