Last updated: 21.02.22

How to Spot the Signs of Human Trafficking?

One of the biggest sources of criminal activity across the world is human trafficking. Millions of individuals are manipulated and trapped in exploitative labour every year, and whilst there are plenty of estimates as to the scale of these kinds of criminal organisations, the true impact and reach of human trafficking is impossible to know.

Understanding how to recognize human trafficking and how to spot a human trafficking victim are some of the most important ways that individuals can help to make a difference in the fight to eradicate trafficking. Those who work in industries such as education, social care and healthcare are more likely to be exposed to victims of trafficking and therefore have the opportunity to highlight signs of human trafficking and prompt investigations that can lead to the liberation of large groups of people.

In this article, we cover some of the most common types of human trafficking and then explain how to spot the signs of human trafficking by listing many of the behaviours or situations that indicate exploitation.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is defined as the process in which people are trapped through violence, coercion or deception and then exploited for either financial or personal gain. It’s a form of modern slavery, and is a problem in almost every country across the world.

In simple terms, human trafficking involves the movement or recruitment of an individual through deception or coercion for the purpose of exploitation.

Human trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of their background. However, data from the International Labour Organization, 71% of victims are female and 75% are eighteen years of age or older.

When most people think of human trafficking they think of individuals being kidnapped and taken to a different county, but there are plenty of cases where individuals remain in their country of origin and are exploited there. Many people may end up as victims of trafficking because they have no other choice to survive, but there are plenty of cases where individuals are abducted and relocated.

The exploitation involved in human trafficking can take a variety of forms. If you want to know the signs of human trafficking, it is first important to understand the different ways that victims can be taken advantage of.

Labour Exploitation

The exploitation of labour is one of the most common forms of human trafficking and involves individuals being forced to work for very little or absolutely no payment. They are often threatened with violence or punishment if they refuse to work, or may be manipulated through debt, the retention of identity papers, or threats of exposure to immigration authorities if they are undocumented.

Labour exploitation can take place in any industry, but is particularly common in hospitality, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, factory work, and places such as nail bars and car washes.

Sexual Exploitation

Sexual exploitation is another of the most common forms of human trafficking and is the focus of many charities to try and help child victims in particular to escape from sex trafficking. This kind of exploitation involves the coercion, deception or force of an individual to take part in sexual activity, whether this is in-person through brothels, strip clubs and escort agencies or virtually through pornography, webcam sex work or phone sex lines and chatrooms.

Forced Criminal Behaviour

Forced criminal behaviour is a kind of exploitation where an individual is forced or coerced into carrying out illegal activity for the profit of whoever is trafficking them. This may involve selling or producing drugs, pickpockets and stealing, selling goods that are counterfeit or social welfare fraud

Domestic Servitude

Domestic servitude involves a victim of human trafficking performing tasks within their employer’s home for limited or no pay, under cruel working conditions, for extended hours or whilst being physically and sexually abused. This can happen in private households or community living situations like communes.

Forced Marriage

Forced marriage is a kind of human trafficking that tends to affect female victims more than male ones, and involves an individual being threatened or pressured to marry someone they don’t want to. It may be done to gain access to a country or receive benefits, and often involves young victims of trafficking being trapped in marriages with much older adults.

Child Soldiers

Child soldiers are a huge human trafficking problem in certain countries experiencing war and civil unrest, targeting people under the age of eighteen who are used for military purposes. They may be indoctrinated into the military at a very young age and then used in frontline combat or auxiliary roles, often because they lack access to education and have no family to stay with or raise them.

Organ Harvesting

Organ harvesting is a type of human trafficking where organs such as the liver or kidneys are taken from victims to be sold illegally. This may happen because a victim desperately needs money and is forced into surgery for an unfair price, traffickers may pretend to diagnose a victim with an ailment and remove their organ as ‘treatment’, or a victim may be extorted and have their organs harvested without their consent.

What are the Warning Signs of Human Trafficking?

Understanding and knowing how to spot the signs of human trafficking is one of the best ways to prevent this illegal activity and keep vulnerable people safe from being exploited. Below are some of the most significant signs someone is being trafficked, which can indicate any of the above forms of exploitation.

Acting Without Autonomy

One of the key signs of trafficking is an individual who appears to be acting as though instructed by another person and does not demonstrate any real sense of autonomy. They may seem as though they are being forced or coerced into doing certain activities, and will not have a clear or reliable response if asked what their motivations are.

‘Scripted’ Responses

Another of the signs someone is being trafficked is if they reply to questions about their behaviour or actions with what seems to be a ‘scripted’ response. Human traffickers often give their victims fake stories to try and cover up their behaviour and may force their victims to rehearse these responses as a way of ensuring that their illegal activity isn’t found out.

Marks of Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is one of the significant ways in which someone may be forced into human trafficking, so one of the warning signs of human trafficking is individuals who have marks of abuse such as scars, bruises and untreated injuries. They may give vague responses as to how they gained these injuries when questioned, or reply with an answer that has obviously been rehearsed. 

Symptoms of Psychological Abuse

The abuse that goes on in human trafficking may not always be physical; often victims are psychologically abused through intimidation and manipulation as well. A victim may show signs of this kind of abuse in ways such as appearing overly anxious, flinching at sudden movements or noises, demonstrating very low self-esteem or showing trouble having normal social interactions.


Victims of trafficking may be kept in very poor conditions by the people who are exploiting them, so an obvious human trafficking sign is malnourishment. A victim may appear to be worrying thin and pale, seem tired all the time or suffer from unexplained dizziness or weakness. If offered food they may eat without any kind of restraint or try to take more than they can consume.

Unexplained Debt or Salary Deductions

A more subtle way to spot a human trafficking victim is by noticing unexplained debts or a relationship where someone appears bound to another because of debt. You may also be able to identify human trafficking through unusual deductions from their salary that cannot be explained, which can indicate that someone is taking their money through manipulation or coercion.

Lack of Personal Possessions

Many human trafficking victims come from vulnerable backgrounds such as being homeless or a migrant from another country, so one of the important signs of trafficking is if someone appears to have no or very few personal possessions. They may wear the same clothes every time you see them, never appear to be carrying a bag, and lack basic items such as a phone, wallet or things like a coat and waterproof shoes.

Limited Social Contact

One of the key signs someone is being trafficked is if they appear to be having very limited social contact with anyone outside of their place of work. Victims tend to be cut off from their family and friends, so if an individual doesn’t ever speak about any social contacts or appears to spend all of their free time on their own, they may have been trafficked.

Distrustful of Authorities

Human traffickers often scare their victims into fearing the consequences of trying to seek help, so one of the significant human trafficking indicators is if an individual appears to be distrustful of the authorities or actively avoids having any contact with them. They may avoid eye contact and social interaction with people involved in law enforcement, and be uncooperative if asked to speak with them.

No Legal Documentation

One of the most obvious signs of human trafficking is if someone has no legal documentation illustrating their identity, their background and their place in a country that is different to their place of birth. This may be because they have been taken from their home and therefore cannot get this documentation back, or the traffickers may be withholding this documentation to stop their victim from leaving the country or trying to travel elsewhere.

Tattoos or Branding

When it comes to specific types of exploitation, one of the key sex trafficking signs is if someone appears to have a brand or tattoo on either their neck or lower back. These placements suggest that they are a victim of a large trafficking organisation that keeps track of individuals by marking them, and are particularly common amongst those who are being forced into sex work.


Who is vulnerable to human trafficking?

Anyone can become a victim of human traffic, but research has found that certain groups are a lot more vulnerable to being exploited by traffickers. Migrants, especially children, make up a large portion of the population who are trafficked, as do homeless adults and children.

The reason that these groups are so vulnerable is that they don’t have the same network of connections as UK residents and those with a permanent home, which means that it is much easier for traffickers to prey on them without fear of someone following up on disappearances or realising that something is wrong.

Where is human trafficking most common?

The 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report found that Afghanistan, Burma and China were the top three countries whose governments had a documented “policy or pattern” of human trafficking, where citizens end up forced or coerced into trafficking because of systematic problems.

What is being done to stop human trafficking?

The fact that human trafficking is illegal hasn’t been enough to stop it from happening, which is why there is a huge number of charities and organisations across the world working hard to end the problem. Approaches range from campaigning for legislative change to educating communities and helping those who are most vulnerable to avoid ending up in situations where they might be trafficked, as well as increasing awareness of the signs of human trafficking so that more people can get involved in preventing the crime.


The scale of human trafficking can make it seem like a problem that will never be eradicated, but by growing awareness of the warning signs of human trafficking and ensuring that people speak out when they suspect something might be wrong, more victims will be helped and this kind of criminal activity will be reduced.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic and find out some of the best ways to help, we offer an online ‘Modern Slavery and Trafficking’ course aimed at those who work in education, healthcare and social care who may have contact with victims of human trafficking.