Red Flags: A Quick Guide to Victim Identification

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A few years ago my daughters treated me to my first ever manicure. When I went to the nail salon, something seemed strangely wrong, but I had no idea what. Today I do. I was served by a hostile and unskilled young Asian woman, always under the watchful eye of an older woman who did all the speaking. Looking back, I feel almost sure the young woman was a modern day slave. But at the time, I didn’t know such a thing existed, so I didn’t know how to correctly interpret the suspicious signs.

Victims of modern-day slavery may be found in legal, legitimate businesses, or in underground markets. They may be locked behind the closed doors of a brothel or factory, or in plain view. Widespread lack of awareness leads to low levels of victim identification, even by those who come in contact with them. Let’s change that! By learning the red flags for victim identification, victims will be more readily rescued and saved.

Here are some indicators which may raise a red flag that a person may be a victim of human trafficking. You may want to take a second look at situations where a person(s):

  • Appears to be under someone else's control. They appear to be under surveillance at all times. All or most contacts with family, friends, and professionals are controlled and monitored.
  • Does not manage their own money or money is largely controlled by someone else.
  • Is not in control of their own identification or travel documents.
  • Work excessive hours.
  • Is unpaid for their work or paid very little.
  • Lives with multiple people in a very cramped space.
  • Lives with their employer.
  • Has little/no English language skills or knowledge of the local community.
  • Appears to have little privacy or is rarely alone.
  • Has visible injuries or scars, such as cuts, bruises, or burns. May have injuries around the head, face, and mouth from being struck in the head or face.(Sex slaves’ scars tend to be hidden, as on the lower back)
  • Has untreated illnesses or infections. Ex: Diabetes, cancer, TB.
  • Has general poor health and/or diseases associated with unsanitary living conditions.
  • Has STDs, HIV/Aids, pelvic pain/inflammation, rectal trauma, urinary difficulties, abdominal or genital trauma
  • Uses drugs- victims are often given drugs to keep them dependent.
  • Exhibits submissive behavior or fearful behavior in the presence of others.
  • Exhibits emotional distress such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, confusion, phobias, disorientation, self-inflicted injuries or suicide attempts.
  • Engages in prostitution or lives in a brothel.
  • Is sexually exploited in strip clubs, massage parlors, pornography.
  • Is branded with a tattoo of a man’s name or “Daddy.”
  • Exhibits feelings of helplessness, shame, humiliation, shock, denial or disbelief
  • Is pregnant as a result of rape or prostitution.

Additionally, for minors, if they:

  • Talk about an older boyfriend or sex with an older man/boyfriend 
  • Use words associated with the commercial sex industry
  • Hang around commercial sex businesses like strip clubs, massage parlors, adult book/video stores
  • Have stunted growth, or poorly formed or rotting teeth

Anyone under 18 who engages in commercial sex (porn or prostitution) is legally a severe trafficking victim. Force, fraud or coercion does not need to be present as in the case of someone over 18.

If you suspect a case of human trafficking/slavery, call the national hotline number:


  • It is important to talk to potential victims in a safe and confidential environment. If the victim is accompanied by someone who seems to have control over them, discretely attempt to separate the person from the individual accompanying him/her, without arousing suspicion, since this person could be the trafficker.
  • As needed, enlist the help of a professional who speaks the potential victim's language and understands his or her culture.
  • Do not collect more information than you need! In depth interviews with the potential victim should be conducted by mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals or legal experts. Multiple interviews may confuse and/or re-traumatize victims and may put you at risk of being subpoenaed as a witness.