How Private Investigators Fight Human Trafficking
- March 02
- by Stephanie Irvine
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, or need to report trafficking, get in contact with National Human Trafficking Hotline:
- Call: 1-888-373-7888
- Text: 233733
- Chat online
Human trafficking is a humanitarian crisis that is happening all over the world — including the United States. Recently in late January 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to combat human trafficking and online child exploitation. It is evident that human trafficking is a problem that is escalating.
While government officials, state, county and local law enforcement agencies, and victim advocates are working to combat this epidemic, the role of the private investigator is somewhat overlooked. Private investigators can make a difference when it comes to human trafficking and many have already made a huge impact. Here’s the information you need to get involved as a private investigator who specializes in investigating human trafficking.
What is human trafficking?
First, it’s important to understand exactly what “human trafficking” means. While many equate it to forcing individuals into the sex trades, it is not limited to that type of work. Human trafficking ultimately enslaves someone to do work against their will — any type of forced labor is considered trafficking, no matter the industry.
For some, slavery might seem like an issue that’s purely in the past, but the number of those trapped in modern-day slavery is actually growing largely due to lack of awareness and denial that such a problem could exist. Even for those who are aware that this issue exists, many are unaware that it is happening so close to home. But the truth is America is ranked as one of the worst, if not the worst, countries for human trafficking. So while this is an epidemic worldwide, it is also happening in your own backyard.
But the truth is America is ranked as one of the worst, if not the worst, countries for human trafficking. So while this is an epidemic worldwide, it is also happening in your own backyard.”
Human trafficking is the practice of recruiting, harboring, transporting, or receiving humans by coercion, fraud, or force for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation. The exact number of human trafficking victims worldwide is impossible to calculate since a majority of the crime goes unreported, but the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally — and 75% of this number are women or girls while 25% are children. The human trafficking industry is also estimated to be a $150 billion industry worldwide.
Dottie Laster, co-founder of Global Pursuit Investigations, began her career in 2003 after being one of only 80 people selected by the U.S. State’s Attorney for the first human trafficking training program of its kind. As a victim’s advocate, she trained alongside law enforcement officers to understand how to recognize human trafficking, how to handle victims, and how to understand the laws surrounding trafficking cases, as well as how to prosecute them.
After years of dealing with victims from all over the country, Laster recounted that “Trafficking has increased dramatically. When smartphones became interactive in so many ways, the bad guys have used that to their advantage. Teens and young adults are using these interactive applications. It doesn’t discriminate between age, gender, geography, socioeconomic status.” Anyone can be a victim. She told stories of victims who were incredibly affluent who were victims of human trafficking, of young boys, adult women — and they were all equally as horrifying.
Human trafficking is a very real, very prolific problem that is devastating families through the torture and killing of victims across the United States and the globe.
Can private investigators help human trafficking investigations?
Traditional law enforcement officers are not the only professionals involved in investigating human trafficking cases. In many cases, the FBI, victims’ advocates, law enforcement, and NGOs (non-government organizations) like private investigators, combine to create a colliation against sex trafficking . Family members who are searching for a loved one lost to human trafficking may feel they are not getting a strong enough response from local law enforcement, and as a result, they may seek out private investigators to help reinvigorate the investigation or conduct their own investigation and recovery effort.
Private investigators can absolutely aid in human trafficking investigations. The numbers and scale of human trafficking can feel overwhelming, but private investigators have unique resources and skills to help. This is especially true because local law enforcement is often overworked and unable to put the amount of time and energy needed to resolve human trafficking cases, let alone have dedicated units to work these kinds of cases.
Private investigators can absolutely aid in human trafficking investigations. The numbers and scale of human trafficking can feel overwhelming, but private investigators have unique resources and skills to help.”
According to an article, “Sex Trafficking: Can Private Investigators Fill Gaps Left By Police?” published in The Crime Report, private investigators have one of the most valuable resources when it comes to working human trafficking cases: time. They are not burdened by the need to protect the public and handle the volume of cases that local, county, and state law enforcement agencies handle.
The Crime Report article highlighted this capability through interviews with both experienced investigators and victims of trafficking: “Private eyes have the time and resources to focus on a specific case, and those that have experience finding missing children know what signs to look for.” When discussing how long it takes to solve a human trafficking case, Laster explained, “The process can be days, weeks, months years. It depends on the tenacity of traffickers and barriers in between.” Considering the strapped budgets, lack of resources and manpower that some law enforcement agencies experience, private investigators are often a welcomed asset. The Department of Homeland Security offers training for individuals — a clear indicator that both victims and law enforcement need help.
How PIs can help human trafficking investigations
Private investigators can help human trafficking investigations in a multitude of ways. Drawing from their skillset of finding missing persons, surveillance, and keen eye for evidence and details, private investigators are often able to do things that law enforcement can’t, whether it is due to time or other circumstances.
“We face several challenges when taking on human trafficking investigations — time, money, manpower, along with countless search warrants for social media and technology (cell phones). The transient nature of the crime makes it difficult to track both the victims and suspects, as they seem to disappear and reappear quickly,” according to an article published by human trafficking nonprofit, Thorn.
This sentiment was also echoed through our own interviews with experienced private investigators. During our interview with Dottie Laster, she explained that human trafficking investigation “Draws on many of the great skills that PIs have. They can fill in gaps that law enforcement can’t do.”
We also reached out to Kimberly Hamilton, owner of Female Agents, Inc., a PI who has been in the industry for more than twenty years. She explained that “Private Investigators are in a great position to both recognize and report human trafficking. PIs are in positions to ask questions, gather evidence, take pictures, and witness suspicious activities while knocking on doors, talking to people, and conducting surveillance. Social media networking sites are common recruit avenues for victims and investigators can come across a trafficking case if they know what to look for.”
Private Investigators are in a great position to both recognize and report human trafficking.” - Kimberly Hamilton
Hamilton told of one instance in which she was able to uncover a human trafficking incident: “I discovered a labor trafficking situation by serving a summons on a female at her place of employment. She worked in the kitchen of a restaurant and while talking to the manager, I picked up on some clues of trafficking. I asked key questions and reported it once I obtained enough information. PIs who know the characteristics of human trafficking, whether labor or sex trafficking, can play a vital role in reporting and stopping it.”
Many victim task force units focus on getting information to help track, locate, and recover victims, and to accomplish that, they partner with a variety of agencies. Private investigators can get involved by offering to track and find missing youth involved in the trafficking industry.
Private investigators like the investigator that recently accompanied a local CBS i-Team to identify several instances of human trafficking can use their keen sense of intuition to uncover evidence of human trafficking that is hiding in plain sight. Hotels, motels, gas stations, and truck stops are often common locations where human trafficking occurs, though it certainly is not limited to those locations. For example, homes frequented by various visitors at all hours may have some type of illegal activity and could be used for human trafficking. In homes, prominent indicators of human trafficking are heavy security cameras and windows that are barred shut or covered with non-traditional window coverings (we’re not talking about typical curtains - cardboard, tin-foil, etc. may be used).
Often, when surveilling a location that could be known for trafficking, identifying an individual who avoids eye contact, does not have control of his or her own funds, or has a lack of personal possessions may also indicate that someone is forced to work against their will. Obvious bruising, brands, or other markings are also signs of abuse that could be indicative of human trafficking.
Not all work is on the streets, however. Many private investigators specialize in deep dive internet searches, which is where many of the human trafficking predators are lurking — online and in smartphone apps. This technological skill paired with the savvy gut instincts of experienced investigators can lead to identifying victims and subsequently rescuing them.
Hamilton offered that PIs also have a lot to offer with regard to their surveillance skills “Surveillance is often done in areas such as gas stations, parking lots, and communities where trafficking may occur. Being aware of your surroundings, people watching, and recognizing the signs of human trafficking can make all the difference for a victim if it is reported.”
Beyond the basic private investigation skills, PIs can work with the family to continue to advocate for the victim by keeping much-needed attention on the case and working with local media, social media, and of course, private advertising.
How to Get Started Investigating Human Trafficking
While there is certainly a need for more investigators as human trafficking has exploded in the United States, it is important that private investigators take on specialized training — whether it is through a government agency or mentorship-like program.
Highlighting the unique nature of human trafficking investigations, Dottie Laster explained, “It’s like no case you’ll ever work. No matter how great of an investigator you are or what your field is, it’s all great, but the rules are totally different and there’s a learning curve. You have an unwilling protectee - it’s not that they don’t want to be rescued but there are a lot of barriers.”
She offered a word of caution, though she still encourages private investigators to get involved in these kinds of investigations: “Traffickers have written a rulebook that ends in the wrong people being arrested so you have to be very knowledgeable with this kind of case. You don’t want to break the law unknowingly or endanger the victims and family. There’s a lot of landmines and quicksand.”
One aspect of the investigation that many private investigators do not expect is how traffickers reprogram their victims to stay and not want to be found, which makes the job of investigators even more difficult. Laster explained, “The coercion around the victim is invisible. [...] The coercion keeps [the victim] quiet, willing to take prison over having their little sister trafficked. It’s the leverage that can be used in so many ways. There are so many out there. You can’t imagine because they just get buried literally by the trafficker or the court system.”
When asked if the work was worth it, without hesitation Laster affirmed “There’s no way to put a value to that other than that it’s inexplicable to say how satisfying it is. It’s a good journey. Been a lot of places seen amazing people that wind up being like family forever.”
It’s a good journey. Been a lot of places seen amazing people that wind up being like family forever.” - Dottie Laster
Laster now offers training for investigators interested in getting into human trafficking investigations: “My goal is with that training to utilize the skills of an investigator to effectively not just rescue the victims but serve their family. You’re literally dealing with every part of crisis management. Family members become volatile in efforts to rescue the victim, along with court and bad guys. My training centers around using those skills.”
Private investigators can also seek training from the United States Department of Homeland Security, which offers an online, self-paced training program to become a Certified Human Trafficking Investigator through The McAfee Institute. A number of outside organizations recognize the at-home online human trafficking certification program, including the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, National Institute for Cybersecurity Education, and the Missouri Department of Higher Education, among others.
There are a number of non-profit organizations that offer training and education on human trafficking. For example, The International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators (IAHTI), is a non-profit dedicated to human trafficking education that offers training and conferences in which investigators and other service providers who seek to learn more can learn from those experienced in the industry. Saved in America is another non-profit that hosts different events offering human trafficking education in addition to handling their own investigations; according to their website, they have assisted in over 200 recoveries since December 2014. Operation Underground Rescue also offers training; in five years, they have rescued 3,100 victims according to their website. These are just a few of the many, many organizations out there that offer training and assistance to victims and their families while working to raise human trafficking awareness and focus on prevention.
My point is you can gain invaluable information and insight by doing your own intense research and again attending conferences as well as networking with others.” - Cricket Gray, Crazy Cricket Investigations
You can also reach out to a number of government resources to seek additional education or assistance. For example, you can phone the FBI or ICE-HSI (Immigration and Customs Enforcement — Homeland Security Investigations) office that serves your jurisdiction if your case involves a foreign-national victim or suspect. Additionally, the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-3737-888 can tell you if there are federally funded task forces or other resources close by. It is important to note that the nearest task force may be several states away — but these task forces include local and federal law enforcement and victim services providers experienced with human trafficking. They can offer assistance or point you in the right direction.
The good news is that although human trafficking is an epidemic, fighting this scourge of our society is expanding as more organization establish themselves and their impact.
What to do if you suspect human trafficking
Whether you are someone interested helping human traffick victims or you’re already a private investigator, if you suspect that a human trafficking situation is occurring, you will want to reach out for help if you’re not yet trained to handle it.
Often, these are dangerous investigations that require multiple individuals’ cooperation and/or agencies to handle, perhaps most importantly including victim’s advocates experienced in handling the traumatized victim upon recovery.