Human trafficking: Know the clues

Law enforcement says community can help in spotting possible cases

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



Learn more

• To find resources to help stop human trafficking, learn how to volunteer and see related state laws and statistics, visit and click on the map of Washington.

• The Polaris Project has a National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888.

• Recovering victims may contact Lutheran Community Services’ 24-Hour Crime Victim Crisis Line: 1-888-425-1176.

After Multnomah County sheriff's Detective Keith Bickford joined the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force, the first call he received came from a mother whose 16-year-old daughter had disappeared two weeks after starting a relationship with a new boyfriend.

Bickford called him the "phantom boyfriend" because the mother had never seen him and didn't know his name. He would drive up to her house and honk his car horn. Her daughter would then run out and take off with him in his car.

At the time, the daughter had a 4.0 GPA at school and seemed responsible.

But there were multiple signs that something was wrong, Bickford said. He spoke about human trafficking Thursday at a brown bag session at Lutheran Community Services in Vancouver. The organization offers information, referrals and advocacy for crime victims.

Parents and community members can help prevent, spot and stop human trafficking by recognizing the signs of it, said Bickford, who works with federal agencies to target the crimes.

"Unfortunately … law enforcement can't do it all," he said. "There are limitations: budget, burnout, overtime issues, manpower issues. It's really important that the community is involved and is caught up with what law enforcement does."

Possible signs of human trafficking

The mother told Bickford that she had started to notice her daughter's grades were slipping. Her daughter would run away with the boyfriend for two to three days at a time. She started wearing heavier makeup and more provocative clothing, and she lashed out at her mother.

"The mother continued to allow this to happen, hoping that her daughter would make good decisions," Bickford said.

Then her daughter ran away with the boyfriend to Las Vegas, Nev., where he forced her into prostitution.

Six months after her disappearance, she was dead. Her boyfriend killed her after he found a letter she'd written about how she wanted to stop being his prostitute.

"He beat her to death in front of other girls (prostitutes) to make a point: You don't cross me," Bickford said.

About nine out of 10 human trafficking victims are female. The crimes may include sex trafficking, such as being forced into prostitution, or trafficking in which victims, mostly undocumented immigrants, are forced into labor. (Under law, a minor is a victim of sex trafficking regardless of whether the minor agreed to go into prostitution.)

Human traffickers may transport undocumented immigrants into the United States and force them to work unpaid or with minimal pay, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-slavery, anti-human trafficking organization. Victims may want to immigrate into the United States, or they may be recruited with false promises about the nature of their work or conditions.

The majority of sex trafficking victims have been sexually abused in the past, possibly by a family member or an acquaintance, Bickford said.

They may appear fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense or paranoid, avoid eye contact and exhibit no or nearly no emotional expression, according to the Polaris Project.

Victims may lack control over their own money, bank account or identification documents and often aren't allowed to speak for themselves. Sex trafficking victims are often "branded" by their pimp. That can be an actual brand or a tattoo with the trafficker's name. Victims may claim to be just visiting the area, don't know the address where they're staying or seem to not know their whereabouts.

Keeping watch

Astute neighbors can help in the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking, Bickford said.

One neighbor contacted him because she noticed suspicious activity at a house across from hers. Men were frequently escorting scantily-dressed young girls to waiting vehicles. The residence turned out to be part of a sex trafficking operation, Bickford said.

People who notice similar suspicious activity are encouraged to contact law enforcement, even if they're uncertain whether they're actually witnessing human trafficking, he said.