What is Human Trafficking?

This page was last updated November 10, 2022. 

Human trafficking is a crime by which people profit from the control and exploitation of others for the purposes of commercial sex acts, labor or services. Human trafficking is happening in all parts of North Carolina. 

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

If you would like to report information about a trafficking situation, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline:

Anti-trafficking advocates are available 24/7 to receive tips about potential trafficking situations and connect survivors of trafficking to services and support. All reports are confidential and callers can choose to remain anonymous. 

Click through the topics below for a broad overview of human trafficking both in North Carolina and nationwide. To learn more, visit our resource library, which contains infographics and links to helpful web pages.

Human Trafficking: The Basics

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The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines human trafficking as:

  1. Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or,
  2. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(9))

Contrary to popular belief, a victim does not have to be physically transported from one location to another for it to be considered human trafficking.

It can be tricky to determine when an exploitative situation moves from something like a violation of labor rights to the crime of human trafficking. A useful tool for determining if a situation is a case of human trafficking is the Action-Means Purpose (AMP) model.

To utilize the AMP model, consider if the potential trafficker undertook any of the following Actions:

  • Recruiting
  • Harboring
  • Transporting
  • Providing
  • Obtaining

....by any of the following Means:

  • Force
  • Fraud
  • Coercion

...for any of the following Purposes:

  • Exploitation
  • Involuntary Servitude
  • Peonage
  • Debt Bondage
  • Slavery

The one exception to the model is the sex trafficking of minors. If the individual induced to perform the sex act is under the age of 18, the use of force, fraud, or coercion by a trafficker need not be proven nor present for it to be considered human trafficking. 

Trafficking is typically divided into three categories: sex trafficking, labor trafficking and domestic servitude.

Sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to induce someone to perform a commercial sex act such as prostitution, pornography, stripping, or erotic massages. If the individual induced to perform the act is under the age of 18, it is considered sex trafficking regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion was used.

Many perpetrators of sex trafficking employ a “grooming” process to gain a victim's trust and dependence while drawing them away from their support networks. This process involves initially acting loving, kind and attentive and providing the victim with gifts, attention and praise. As the relationship progresses, the trafficker becomes more demanding, asking for things in return, such as sexual favors for their friends. They begin employing various power and control tactics such as abuse, threats, violence, intimidation and coercion.

What began as a harmless or even positive-seeming new relationship can then become a trafficking situation. Youth, particularly those who are homeless, who identify as lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer/intersex/asexual+ (LGBTQIA+), or who are both, are especially vulnerable to this recruitment technique.

Labor trafficking is most prevalent in industries requiring large amounts of manual labor, such as agriculture, manufacturing, restaurants and construction. Sales crews are also a known industry for trafficking.

Traffickers often rely on deception, economic desperation and immigration status to entrap victims. They use tactics such as threatening to report individuals to immigration authorities, illegally withholding wages and debt peonage to keep victims locked in a cycle of abuse. Because these industries are usually either geographically isolated or out of public view, labor trafficking is extremely difficult to detect. 

The third type of trafficking, domestic servitude, is sometimes considered a form of labor trafficking.  In these situations, individuals hired as live-in house cleaners or childcare workers find themselves working unreasonably long hours for little to no pay. Many of these workers are immigrants, brought over through a visa-sponsorship program. Employers use this status as blackmail, withholding identification papers and threatening deportation to prevent victims from contacting law enforcement or even from leaving the house. Because this type of trafficking occurs in a private home, identifying and reaching out to victims can be next to impossible.

However, an observant community member can sometimes make a difference in helping victims leave their trafficking situation. Read on to the next section to learn more about who is vulnerable to human trafficking and how you can spot the signs.

To learn more about the different types of trafficking, visit our Resource Library or follow the link to the Polaris Project's website.

Vulnerable Communities 

Anyone can be a victim of trafficking, regardless of gender identity, citizenship status, sexual orientation, race, or any other factor.

However, certain communities experience a greater risk of trafficking. Some of these vulnerable communities include:

  • Women
  • Youth
  • Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC)
  • Members of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer/intersex/asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) community, particularly trans individuals
  • Immigrants
  • Homeless individuals
  • Children in the foster care/child welfare system
  • Persons with histories of trauma and abuse, particularly sexual or domestic violence

Many victims of trafficking identify as belonging to several of the above communities. All of these communities have specific experiences of marginalization. Traffickers are adept at exploiting these experiences, using an individual's vulnerability as leverage in forcing them into a trafficking situation.

Warning Signs

Victims of trafficking often interact with members of the public while being trafficked. Law enforcement and healthcare workers are most likely to encounter victims of trafficking. But, they are not the only ones capable of identifying victims. Friends, neighbors, and even strangers have helped victims escape trafficking. Knowing and recognizing the signs can help a victim connect to the services they need to get out.

Signs for Individuals
  • Avoids eye contact and appears depressed, anxious, or submissive
  • Sudden, unexplained change in attire, behavior, or friend group
  • Sudden acquisition of new and/or expensive possessions
  • Inconsistent story or memory gaps
  • Unaware of date, time, or physical location
  • Not in possession of ID or personal documents
  • Possess hotel keys or excessive amounts of cash
  • Frequent travel to other cities
  • Unexplained injuries such as bruises, burns, or cuts
Signs for Youth
  • Significantly older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Sudden change in interests or friend groups
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Declining academic performance
  • Displays advanced sexual knowledge for their age, uncharacteristic promiscuity or sexual behavior
  • Often appears tired or exhaustive
Signs for Businesses
  • Employees live at their worksite
  • Long work hours with little or no pay
  • Employees not allowed breaks
  • High security measures that are inappropriate or unusual to the industry (opaque/boarded windows, security cameras, etc.)
  • Employees arrive and leave work all together by the same means of transportation

Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States with North Carolina among the most affected states. Major interstate highways, a large and transient military population surrounded by sexually oriented businesses, numerous rural agricultural areas with a high demand for cheap labor, and an increasing number of gangs all contribute to making our state a hotbed for human trafficking. 

In 2020, 260 cases of trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, ranking North Carolina No. 9 among the 50 states in cases reported. However, because human trafficking is a crime which hides in the shadows, the true number of cases in North Carolina is likely much higher. In 2020, 390 victims of human trafficking were served by victim service agencies that receive state funding. This number does not fully account for cases of human trafficking in North Carolina either. 

In North Carolina, human trafficking of an adult constitutes a Class F felony for cases with adult victims and a Class C felony for cases with child victims. Convictions carry sentences of jail time which can stretch to several years.

In addition, the North Carolina State Legislature has passed several laws intended to protect and aid victims of trafficking as well as to prevent future victimization through education. A few of these laws are summarized here.

Safe Harbor/Victims of Human Trafficking (GS 14.430-20)

  • Provides protections and avenues of aid for minor victims of human trafficking
  • Decriminalizes prostitution-related offenses for minors
  • Ensures child welfare system retains jurisdiction over child trafficking victims

GS 115C-81(el)(4a)

  • Boards of Education must address sex trafficking awareness and prevention in schools
  • Mandates reproductive health and safety education for 7th graders
  • Mandates sexual assault, sexual abuse and risk reduction awareness education

SL 2019-245

  • Mandates child sexual abuse and sex trafficking training for all school personnel
  • Expands rights and protections for child victims of sexual abuse and trafficking
  • Expands rights and protections for all victims of sexual assault

SL 2019-158

  • Creates a civil cause of action for survivors of trafficking to recover damages from perpetrators of trafficking
  • Further criminalizes buyer conduct to aid in order to reduce demand for human trafficking
  • Expands the range of expungable offenses for survivors of trafficking

Myth: A person must be transported across a border for it to be considered human trafficking.

Victims do not have to be moved across international boundaries, or even moved at all, for it to be considered trafficking. In fact, while human trafficking is often perceived to only afflict immigrant communities, a large portion of trafficking situations involve domestic victims being trafficked either in, or close to, their home towns.

Myth: All trafficking victims are physically unable to escape.

The most powerful tool in a trafficker's arsenal is not typically physical constraints but rather psychological manipulation. Victims may feel unable to leave for a variety of reasons including debt, immigration status, fear of physical harm, lack of access to resources to make escape viable, and even feelings of being unworthy of a life outside of trafficking.

Myth: A person being trafficked will always accept help to get out.

As mentioned above, the reasons keeping someone in a trafficking situation are complex which makes helping someone escape an even more complicated process. Some victims form trauma bonds with their traffickers, intense and powerful connections reinforced by cycles of trauma and abuse. Other victims may distrust law enforcement, fear retaliation, or feel a life outside of trafficking is just not possible. Helping someone escape trafficking requires patience and persistence. It may take multiple offers of help and survivors may even return to their trafficking situation many times before finally escaping.

For more myths and facts about human trafficking, visit the Polaris Project's page.

If you suspect or have confirmed a situation of trafficking and the victim(s) are not in immediate danger, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline:

•    Call 1-888-373-7888
•    Text 233733
•    Chat online with a Hotline representative 

Anti-trafficking advocates are available 24/7 to receive tips about potential trafficking situations and connect survivors of trafficking to services and support. All reports are confidential and callers can choose to remain anonymous. 

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.