Experts Say It's Difficult to Spot a "Typical" Trafficker

Jan 8, 2014

SDPB Radio is looking at issues with sex trafficking this week. Monday’s report brought us to the Sturgis Bike Rally, where trafficking is suspected to be rampant. Tuesday brought a report on issues faced by law enforcement. In today’s segment, South Dakota Public Broadcasting looks for a profile of a typical trafficker, and finds out it’s not that easy.

When watching news on television, my father could size up a criminal suspect with six words. All my dad had to say was “He did it—look at him”—and in his mind, at least, that was the end of the matter. But, like all cases, it’s not that easy to spot someone involved in the trafficking trade. Elizabeth Talbot is a professor at U-S-D, who studies trafficking.

Talbot says,  “You know, I don’t know if we really have a type—there’s a lot of different kinds of people out there.

" You know, a lot of times pedophiles are involved as perpetrators; people involved in criminal activities--there may be drugs involved, and some people do it for the money.”

Talbot says there is no set stereotype for someone who would use other people for sex. But experts say perpetrators have two typical methods to lure their victims into their trust. Talbot says one group is known as “guerillas.”

“Guerillas," Talbot explains, "are your human traffickers who would basically kidnap someone and traffic them. And often, they’re involved with crimes such as drugs, they’re involved with organized crime, they’re involved with motorcycle gangs—you know, criminal networks. They kidnap someone off the street or against their will, set them up--whatever.”

But others take another approach, gradually grooming their victims and drawing them in. Sheila Alishouse with a faith-based group, Traffick Stop, based in Denver, describes “finessers.”

Alishouse says, “Kids—especially young teens, teens in foster care, even just high schoolers are really susceptible to being manipulated. And that’s what these traffickers do best—they manipulate these people into thinking they’re going to have an opportunity. That they’re going to be cared for. They use force. They use threats. They use coercion to lure these young people in—and once they’re in, it’s very, very difficult to leave.”

Just as there are different types of traffickers—there are also different reasons to get involved in the activity. Sex trafficking is a major reason—but Alishouse brings up labor trafficking.

She says, “For example—maybe a nanny. You may be offered a nanny job, and oddly enough, they’re paid exactly the same amount as they have to pay for their rent and their utilities and their food. So in reality, they’re not being paid for their services, because everything that’s coming in is going back out to their employers.”

The purpose of this series is to tell people—trafficking can and does happen in South Dakota.

Alishouse says, "But in reality, traffickers are going to go wherever they can. They move these people around, and that’s how they evade law enforcement. One of the ways—so I think it would surprise people that trafficking is likely happening around them and they just don’t know it.”

Really, according to Alishouse, it may be easier to determine whether someone is a trafficking victim, than it is to figure out a trafficker.

“They may display behavior that is not congruent with situations. For example, they may stay out late. They might be lying. They might be showing up in really expensive clothes because they have an older boyfriend who happens to be a pimp, buying them things. So those kind of behaviors should be triggers for us to ask more questions.”

Most experts say if someone fits those descriptions, asking a few questions is fine—but they’ll tell you in some cases, a straight answer won’t come easy. Kidnap and trafficking victims can fall prey to what’s called Stockholm Syndrome, an emotional condition where victims sympathize with their perpetrators.

USD professor Elizabeth Talbot says, “We have a hard time with them sometimes, because they believe they’re participating in something voluntarily. Even though they’re being beaten and coerced and forced, they see it as part of a relationship with a boyfriend.”

Talbot has a warning for anyone who suspects trafficking is going on—and she’s very serious when she offers it. If you think someone is a trafficker—do not confront that person.

“Traffickers are usually pretty vicious, and they would kill you as quickly as they would kidnap somebody else. Or they would hurt you—you never want to intervene in a situation where you think someone is being trafficked.

"The other side of the coin is it makes it very dangerous for the victim. Because the victim could pay the price for someone trying to rescue them.”

Talbot and Sheila Alishouse agree on that point—the safest thing to do for everyone involved is to contact a group such as Traffick Stop, or better yet, law enforcement.