Understanding the Four Stages of Human Trafficking


When most people hear about human trafficking, they think of someone being forcibly sold against their will, in many cases for sex. While this is an accurate depiction, it does not encompass the full picture.

In many cases, human traffickers are not grabbing strangers and dragging them into white vans. Traffickers tend to be meticulous and conniving when seeking out victims to exploit.

This is why understanding the four stages of human trafficking is so important.

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Stage One: Targeting vulnerabilities, fulfilling a need

Before human traffickers fully get their hooks in the person(s) they intend to exploit, they often suss out vulnerabilities to manipulate. This is common with Romeo pimps, who offer love, companionship, and romance to individuals seeking it.

After a trafficker finds a vulnerability within their target(s), they then move to fill the need. This happens to establish trust and also build rapport/bonds. Needs (temporarily) fulfilled by traffickers can be shelter, money, access to food, etc.

Stage Two: Turning up the temperature

The age-old story of the frog that gets boiled to death by water gradually heating up is certainly applicable to human trafficking.

Once traffickers have their hooks in someone; once they’ve established trust, they then move to break down any remaining barriers against full control.

This could mean isolating the target(s) from their loved ones. It could also entail introducing them to drugs or asking them to do compromising things for the sake of the “relationship.”

After a human trafficker has their target(s) dependent upon them, they now have the most leverage and control. This is subsequently where the worst abuses and exploitation begin.

Stage Three: Abuse and exploitation

Once a trafficker has control of someone, they let the victim know if they don’t meet certain demands, they’ll lose access to the resources or support they’ve grown accustomed to.

Human traffickers will often threaten to harm the loved ones of their victims as well. Years of study into this crime show that force, fraud, and coercion are the tactics traffickers employ to control victims.

Stage Four: Rescue?

Human traffickers will never voluntarily stop abusing and exploiting others. This is where collective efforts from the community come in.

While more work is being put into educating workers and other community members on how to report and spot human trafficking; as law enforcement increases sting operations to catch traffickers and their buyers, studies show that most victims of this crime remain trapped.

This has to change. 

Change to root out human trafficking demands the following steps:

  • More efforts on the end of law enforcement to capture human traffickers and their buyers
  • Educating the community, parents, and even children about the tactics of traffickers
  • Encouraging internet safety (especially for kids), as many traffickers use social media, video games, and chatrooms to locate victims
  • Holding buyers of human traffickers just as accountable as traffickers themselves. Without demand, human trafficking would cease to exist.
  • Informing the general public about human trafficking. Far too many people wrongly believe this is a rare, far-off issue.
  • Supporting organizations committed to fighting human trafficking, such as Operation Underground Railroad, Slavery Free World, A21.

Anyone who wishes to report what they believe to be human trafficking can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline via phone at 1 (888) 373-7888 or by text at 233733.