Recognizing signs of human trafficking in King County

A young woman introduced herself to me as “M” after following me to my car at the end of my closing shift in Factoria Village. M had been sitting outside my work for over four hours and appeared to be friendly and normal at first. She handed me a business card, explaining that she’d been watching me work and was looking for an assistant to help at her cleaning company. I had a gut feeling the business was illegitimate after looking it over and seeing no name on the front, along with a confusing list of “services” on the back that included nicotine and graffiti removal, retail, marriages, divorces, fights, and “trash-outs.”

The fraudulent job opportunity and M’s noticeably strange behavior reminded me of similar stories I’d read on social media from girls who’d been propositioned by human traffickers, mostly in the Seattle area.

Human trafficking, a form of modern slavery that typically exploits victims through prostitution or forced labor, is a crime that often hides out in the open. In 2017, The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that Washington State ranks thirteenth in the nation for active human trafficking cases in its federal courts.

“There are between 300 and 500 youth at any given time in King County who are experiencing trafficking, so it is absolutely happening here,” says Sarah Shin, senior program manager at nonprofit Washington-based group Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking.

The victims of human trafficking are often hidden away, but it is possible that you or someone you know will encounter situations and individuals of concern. Knowing how to spot the indicators of human trafficking could potentially save lives.

This is a non-exhaustive list of common indicators put together by The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Common Work and Living Conditions: The individual(s) in question

  • Is not free to leave or come and go at will
  • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
  • Is living and working on site
  • Experiences verbal or physical abuse by their supervisor
  • Is not given proper safety equipment
  • Is not paid directly
  • Is forced to meet daily quotas

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Shows signs of substance use or addiction

Poor Physical Health

  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is frequently monitored
  • Is not in control of their own money, financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)


  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where they are staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Appear to have lost sense of time
  • Shares scripted, confusing, or inconsistent stories
  • Protects the person who may be hurting them or minimizes abuse

To request help or report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 or text “help” to 233733.