How to identify and address human trafficking
How to identify and address human trafficking
18 OCTOBER 2012 6:58 AM

Hoteliers are in a unique position to identify and combat human trafficking, provided they are trained in advance and know the warning signs.


REPORT FROM THE U.S.—The nature and necessities of human trafficking—namely, the requirement for temporary places of lodging—put hoteliers in a unique position to identify and combat the crime.

But staff first needs to be trained to know the warning signs and how to combat them, according to experts during an American Hotel and Lodging Association-sponsored webinar titled “Child trafficking: Learn how to identify and address.”

“We are targets for this type of activity, and we need to know what to look for,” said moderator Nancy Johnson, executive VP of Americas development for The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group and chair of the AH&LA.

The first step is to understand what constitutes human trafficking, said Beatriz R. Menanteau, staff attorney for the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

While the official definition varies by federal and state law, in general the term refers to a situation in which “one person obtains or holds another person in compelled service,” she said. Or, “the buying or selling of other human beings for sex.”

This includes both sex and labor trafficking, Menanteau said, and accounts for the second largest criminal industry in the world, behind drugs. More than 12 million adults and children are in situations of forced labor, bonded labor and commercial sexual servitude at any given time throughout the world. And each year in the U.S., 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.

Risk factors for falling into the trap of human trafficking often overlap, Menanteau said. They include such things as poverty, youth, race, history of abuse, lack of resources, chemical dependency, history of prostitution in the family, lack of immigration status and lack of support systems.

“Traffickers will prey on anyone who is vulnerable for any reason,” she said.

They also will employ a variety of tactics to keep the victim under servitude, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse; gang rape and sadistic torture; inducing or enabling chemical addiction; withholding money or identifying documents; threats to family or children; and pressure and guilt by playing the “friendship/boyfriend” card.

Some common paths into the world of human trafficking include a relationship with someone involved in prostitution (e.g. family member or a significant other), homelessness, drug abuse, solicitation by an adult, or being lured by promises of work or benefits.

Menanteau emphasized the overlap between trafficking and prostitution.

“From a human rights perspective, sex trafficking and prostitution are from the same continuum of criminal activity,” she said. That is, they both involve the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Is it a choice? “Too often we view prostitution as a victimless crime. … In reality that is a myth,” Menanteau said. By definition, trafficking is controlled prostitution, she added.

Hotels at risk
The worlds of human trafficking and hotels are closely tied, said Mar Smith, executive director of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, or BEST.

A 2008 study of prostitution in New York found that 44% of sexually exploited youth said they used hotels throughout the city. An additional study that examined 67 police reports in King County, Washington, found that 63% cited hotels as locations were the crimes took place.

Criminal activity occurred across a varied spectrum of hotel products, Smith said. “Properties range from locally owned motels to luxury chain establishments.”

Therefore, every hotelier should be made aware of the potential risks associated with human trafficking at hotels. Smith cited four in particular:

1. Safety risks for guests and staff
Trafficking is often connected to gang activity and violent assaults that can put guests and staff in jeopardy.

2. Risk to reputation
Perhaps nothing can land a bigger blow to a property’s reputation than flashing police lights, news helicopter footage and other bad publicity associated with trafficking.

3. Financial risks
With hits to reputation can come subsequent knocks to the bottom line. Additional costs can come in the form of legal fees and property damage associated with trafficking activity.

4. Legal risks
Various state and municipal laws could hold a hotelier liable, at least in part, for any trafficking that occurs in their hotels. Smith pointed to one such statute in Washington that holds a person at fault if they are aware of such activity and do nothing to rectify it.

“It’s in your interest to prevent these crimes … these crimes pose numerous risks to your properties,” Smith said.

Warning signs
Through training efforts and other initiatives, hoteliers can learn to identify common warning signs that indicate human trafficking.

There are two types of trafficking, Smith said.

The first is “in-call,” in which a room is rented by a pimp or victim and buyers come to the room to purchase sex.

As a result, hoteliers might receive complaints from other guests about knocking on doors and doors opening and closing throughout the night. Hotel staff might notice a sudden spike in calls asking for a specific room number without knowing the guest’s name. And housekeepers and other staff might notice more dirty towels than usual, more requests for room service and children on property during school days.

The second type of trafficking is “out-call,” in which a victim is advertised online and travels to a variety of locations, including hotels, to perform sexual acts.

Warning signs might include an adult checking into a room with a child who does not appear to be related or has a different last name. The child also might appear very subdued and might refuse to make eye contact. Hoteliers also might notice the same person coming through the lobby several times without luggage. There might also be a second lookout person loitering in the lobby or bar.

Menanteau offered several other warning signs for hoteliers:

  • a guest frequently entering the property with no luggage or ID;
  • rooms paid for in cash;
  • anyone who appears fearful or disoriented;
  • anyone who shows signs of physical abuse;
  • anyone who is being restricted from moving or communicating;
  • young people made up to look much older; and
  • young people with significantly older boyfriends.

“It may not be one thing that you see … but rather it’s a few of these indicators together that make it worth contacting law enforcement,” she said.

Within guestrooms, hoteliers might notice:

  • refusal of housekeeping;
  • excessive porn or any child pornography, which should be reported immediately;
  • condoms, lubricants and sex toys;
  • multiple credit cards and excessive cash; and
  • different men coming and going.

“This doesn’t mean that you’re doing a search in the room by any means,” Menanteau said. These are things that are easily noticeable during room cleanings and other interactions.

Warning signs in common areas can include:

  • individuals loitering or soliciting;
  • individuals exchanging money;
  • use of hotel computers to visit adult websites;
  • requests that might signal possible illegal behavior—perhaps something as blunt as asking for an escort; and
  • individuals appearing to monitor common areas.

Taking action
The most important thing to convey, Menanteau stressed, is that hotel staff should not confront the pimp, buyer or victims themselves.

“Seek help in these situations,” she said.

That means immediately following any procedures hotel management already might have in place or simply calling 911. No concern is too small, Menanteau said.

“Police will then do their own investigation to determine whether or not to intervene,” she said.

Proactively seeking buy-in from law enforcement before an incident occurs is essential, the speakers agreed. “Care needs to be taken that the police in the area agree with (efforts to combat trafficking) and are onboard,” Menanteau said. If hoteliers plan to call them to report any and all suspicions, police should be briefed of their efforts to combat trafficking in advance.

Forming that partnership also might help hoteliers avoid the black eye associated with trafficking. Should illegal activity take place, law enforcement officials that have been contacted in advance might be better suited and more willing to handle the situation with discretion.

Furthermore, immediately seeking police involvement can mitigate a lot of risks associated with trafficking, Menanteau added.

Many of those concerns,” she said, “can be taken care of by a good partnership.”


  • Liza Mason October 25, 2012 5:15 AM

    Thank you for your letter. Absolutely tragic, It is good that you have brought this to everyones attention.

  • Babes Blocking Traffic October 25, 2012 7:32 AM

    We recently completed a cross-country bicycle ride to raise awareness about child trafficking. Along the way, as we stayed in hotels and motels, we witnessed some of these warning signs and were concerned. We discovered that hotel staff and management were not necessarily aware of human trafficking, or at least did not realize it could be happening there. More troubling, though, is the lack of information and understanding by many local police departments on the subject of human trafficking. Hotel and motel personnel are in an ideal position to begin the dialogue with police departments. I love what this article says about initiating the conversation with police departments ahead of time. The more aware all of us become about human trafficking, the sooner we can stop the cycle, and what you do - and don't do - can make a very real difference.

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