By Eleanor Beeslaar and Maria Harkins, Family Service of the Piedmont

Though human trafficking often goes unnoticed and unreported, we can help change this by becoming more educated about what human trafficking may look like and recognizing potential red flags. Below are some warning signs that may indicate human trafficking (information sourced from the Polaris Project and the Nevada Attorney General):

  • The person exhibits signs of trauma and psychological distress (anxiety, depression, nervousness, paranoia, fear, submissive behavior, etc.).
  • The person shows signs of substance abuse and/or addiction; traffickers may force victims to use drugs/alcohol, creating dependency.
  • Appears nervous, anxious, and/or fearful around law enforcement.
  • The person shows signs of poor physical health, such as poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue.
  • They have few or no personal belongings.
  • They appear to be monitored frequently.
  • They avoid eye contact and uses scripted or rehearsed responses when engaging in social interaction or asked questions.
  • They are always accompanied by someone else in public.
  • Someone speaks for them.
  • They are isolated from friends and family.
  • They do not have control of their own money, financial records, bank account, or identification documents (passport, ID, visa, etc.).
  • They are unsure of their surroundings or appear to have lost sense of time. 
  • The person may claim that they are visiting the city they are in and is unable to clarify or provide specifics, such as an address.
  • The person’s story sounds scripted, confusing, and/or inconsistent.
  • The person is not free to come and go at will.
  • They are unpaid or only paid very little.
  • They work excessively long or unusual hours and do not receive proper breaks.
  • There are high security measures in their work or living locations (security cameras, boarded windows, barbed wire, etc.).

Below is a list of questions, created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that we can ask ourselves to be proactive and spot the warning signs of human trafficking in our community:

  • Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, or community organizations?
  • Has a child stopped attending school?
  • Has the person’s behavior changed suddenly or dramatically?
  • Is someone under the age of 18 engaged in commercial sex acts?
  • Is the person disoriented or confused? Are they showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
  • Does the person have bruises in different stages of healing?
  • Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
  • Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
  • Is the person often with someone seems to be in control of the situation (i.e., speaking for them; controlling who they talk to or where they go)?
  • Does the person seem to be coached on what to say?
  • Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
  • Does the person lack personal possessions or appear not to have a stable living situation?
  • Can the person leave or go freely? Do they live under unreasonable security measures?

DHS also created an easy to read infographic with many of the questions above. It contains a checklist to help you determine if someone is a potential victim of human trafficking.

Though many of the warning signs and red flags of human trafficking were covered in today’s blog, our list is not comprehensive. It is important to continue to educate ourselves about the indicators of human trafficking to ensure the safety of our loved ones and our community at large. 

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog, where we will be discussing what to do if you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, as well as what resources are available for victims.


Nevada Attorney General. (2012). Warning Signs of Human Trafficking. Retrieved from 

Polaris Project. (2019). Recognize the Signs. Retrieved from 

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (n.d.). Indicators of Human Trafficking. Retrieved from 

Maria Harkins has over a decade of experience working directly with victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. As a seasoned advocate she is passionate about human rights. A native to Puerto Rico and fluent in both Spanish and English, Maria worked directly with the Latino and immigrant population. With an extensive background in human services she is now the Human Trafficking Outreach Specialist for Family Service of the Piedmont. She holds an Associate Degree in Business from Boston University, and a Computer Engineering Certification from Control Data Institute in NYC. Prior to taking on the role of an advocate Maria worked for Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts where she was one of the first women to work as a Computer Engineer. 

Maria is a mother of two wonderful adult children. She loves music, art, dancing and travelling. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her partner of six years, Wayne Epperly a local artist, visiting galleries and enjoying art. Her favorite quote is “In the winds of change we find our true direction”.

To learn more about Maria, visit our earlier post, Human Trafficking 101: Not in My Neighborhood, where you can find her full bio.

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