Human Trafficking at Home

Reporting and Legislating in the United States

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery5 and a capitalization on an individual's vulnerability. Formally, it is:

    The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery;
    Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.2

The story we are telling here is not one of where human trafficking is necessarily happening, but of where and how people like you are recognizing the signs of potential human trafficking occurrences and reporting them by making calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. We are also sharing where a fraction of the human trafficking cases have made it to trial in the United States, thanks to the first-of-its-kind, publicly available collection of case law, emphasizing the stories and resolutions of human trafficking experiences within the United States.

Human Trafficking Hotline Calls

In 2016, 26,727 calls were made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Calls were made by people just like you.

1 Dot = 1 Call

4,522 of these calls were from victims and survivors. 4,905 were from individuals who noticed and reported on potential signs of trafficking, including 2,387 cases involving minors. 638 of these calls were to request crisis assistance.5

Each of these dots is a call for help.

How many suffer?

There are an estimated 45.8 million people held in slavery today. 57,700 of these people live within the U.S.6—a number just short of the entire population of Dubuque, Iowa, or enough people to overflow—by 15,000 people—Miller Park.7

Imagine all ticketholders and 15,000 others crowded onto the field of Miller Park being forced into slavery. These would be victims of human trafficking. And, unfortunately, these estimates do not reflect the true number of victims suffering in our modern world, including in every single U.S. state.

In fact, Polaris estimates that the number of human trafficking victims in America is in actuality in the hundreds of thousands.8

Amber* was a victim of human trafficking in the United States.

Amber, a mother with cognitive disabilities, lived with her cousin in St. Louis, Missouri. She was persuaded by two adult sisters to move in with them. The sisters had promised to take care of Amber and to help her to get her children back. Instead, they forced Amber into slavery, claiming that Amber must repay her own cousin’s contrived debt to one of the sisters. The sisters had threatened to hurt Amber’s mother and grandmother if she did not comply.

The sisters began stealing Amber’s monthly social security disability check. Amber was forced into prostitution on the street. She was also forced to do housework and suffered unspeakable acts of abuse from the sisters and another housemate. These crimes were hidden from the police on multiple occasions over several months.9

In 2009, officers from the St. Louis Metro Police Department discovered Amber tied up in the garage. One of the sisters—as the primary perpetrator—claims to have been subjected to the same treatment by her own mother, and has lived in a world of drugs, abuse, and her own mental challenges since childhood. The three perpetrators were sentenced to a total amounting to 27.25 years to be spent in prison after pleading guilty.10

*Name is a pseudonym (Case USA162)

Not all stories end in rescue and trial. But Amber’s did, as well as at least 181 other publicly documented cases seen in U.S. courts.

181 Case Examples

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime partnered with the University of Michigan host the Human Trafficking Knowledge Portal containing the Case Law Database on officially documented instances of trafficking in persons crime.

The map contains all 181 examples of successful prosecutions held within the database. The data is aggregated geographically by the Circuit Court in which the case was heard, allowing you to gain insight into the diverse and devastating examples of trafficking experiences within the U.S.

Amber's story is only one story, and she isn't alone. We invite to you to see what human trafficking in the US looks like for yourself:

Human Trafficking Court Cases

Filter by the court system a case was prosecuted within:

Check or uncheck boxes to filter by...

Scroll through the cases fitting your selection below...

Learn More

The U.S. is a source, transit, and destination country for victims of human trafficking.1 It occurs in small towns as well as large cities, online, along major transportation routes, at truck stops, at hair salons, at restaurants, to name just a few. It especially concentrates along borders, where legal jurisdictions vary. Human trafficking is a network facilitated through movement of individuals across borders at all scales, and victims are not static. Meanwhile, cybersex trafficking is without borders and astonishingly prevalent.11 It is occurring right down your street, now, seen or unseen.

Trafficking occurs in both legal and illicit industries, including:1

  • Hospitality
  • Sales Crews
  • Agriculture
  • Fishing
  • Manufacturing
  • Janitorial Services
  • Construction
  • Restaurants
  • Health and Elder Care
  • Fairs and Carnivals
  • Peddling and Begging
  • Domestic Service
  • Commercial Sex
  • Global Supply Trains, including Federal Contracts

Picture any face. Cases have been reported for every age, gender, sex, race, nationality or citizenship status. Learn more about particularly vulnerable populations here.1

Human trafficking occurs when an individual’s vulnerability is taken advantage of. This exploitation happens every single day.

Each of our lives is touched by it, every single day, through the businesses we support, the products we purchase, and our daily habits. Human trafficking is a market-driven criminal industry, fueled by a demand for cheap labor, services, and for commercial sex.4

From the enslavement and abuse of a modestly estimated 21,000,000 (21 million) people worldwide, including the U.S. 3, in 2014 the forced labour industry alone made an estimated:

  • $150,000,000,000 (150 billion) of illegal profits worldwide
  • $99,000,000,000 (99 billion) from commercial sexual exploitation +
  • $51,000,000,000 (51 billion) from forced economic exploitation:
    • $34,000,000,000 (34 billion) in construction, manufacturing, mining and utilities +
    • $9,000,000,000 (9 billion) in agriculture, including forestry and fishing +
    • $8,000,000,000 (8 billion) saved by private households by not paying or underpaying domestic workers held in forced labour.

Human traffickers perceive little risk or deterrence in their criminal operations. This is why the rate of identifying and prosecuting cases needs to increase. Each of us is an important part of the solution.


How am I helping already?

  • By engaging with this map story!
  • And by spending a few moments thinking about what human trafficking victims are experiencing and what it would mean or be like if you fell victim.

What else can I do to help?

Click here for videos of survivors sharing their stories.

U.S. Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign, the International Justice Mission, and the Polaris Project are also excellent places to begin. Be sure to check out their resources tabs for additional sources to learn about human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline allows you to search statistics, resources, and events by state. Also, see the U.S. profile for a full description of modern day slavery from the Global Slavery Index.

Be sure to note the differences in reported statistics, underlying how widely varying numbers are in trying to capture and sum up this complexly woven and constantly fluctuating worldwide industry.

Click here for informational videos on human trafficking.

  • The choices you make may be helping to drive the human trafficking industry4:
    • Know where the products you buy are coming from, who is producing the product, and under what conditions;
    • Use online tools such as Slavery Footprint to see how human trafficking exists in the services and products they consume;
    • Buy fair trade and survivor-made products;
    • Hold your favorite brands accountable for fair labor practices;
    • and
    • Don’t participate in the commercial sex industry, including watching pornography—a huge contributor to sexual exploitation worldwide.

Recognizing how human trafficking is occurring in your local community is vital to saving lives and helping victims. In fact, community members contribute the most calls to the Polaris hotline.5 Get to know your neighbors, those that provide you food and services, the people with whom your life is entwined.

The National Human Trafficking Directory is a great place to start for finding local organizations working to help victims and to combat human trafficking. Importantly, volunteering at any local organization can help decrease the vulnerability of individuals and the likelihood that they will be trafficked. Time spent caring for and being there for children, especially at-risk children, is especially valuable.

If you do not live in a city with a Blue Campaign, consider starting one by taking advantage of all of their free materials, trainings, and videos.

Cities with campaigns: Tucson, AZ; Yuma, AZ; San Diego, CA; Miami, FL; New Orleans, LA; Minneapolis, MN; Las Vegas, NV; New York City, NY; Bismarck, ND; Dickinson, ND; Fargo, ND; Minot, ND; Williston, ND; San Antonio, TX

You are the front lines. By recognizing the signs of human trafficking and potential victims, you are helping law enforcement rescue victims and you might save a life.

To report to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733). The NHTH is a national, toll-free hotline available to answer calls from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year.

The NHTH is not a law enforcement or immigration authority and is operated by a NGO funded by the Federal government.

Ending human trafficking requires constant vigilance, and legislation supporting this vigilance is not only essential but requires government funding to be successfully implemented. Require that your legislators represent your needs as well as the needs of the “invisible” victims of human trafficking. The U.S. government continues to make progress in addressing the prosecution, protection, and prevention of trafficking, and needs to continue to do so (for a list of recent actions and recommendations, see the 2016 Trafficking In Persons Report).

Also consider donating to any of the many non-governmental organizations that are combating trafficking and holding the government accountable in their efforts. The anti-trafficking model is proven to work, and donations fuel their operations. Highlighted as one of 10 non-profits "making a difference" by U.S. News and World Report, the International Justice Mission—the largest anti-trafficking organization in the world—is one of the many where your dollars truly do make a difference.

Better yet, contribute to or invest in a local shelter or children’s program.

“Do what you can with what you have.”

You can help, today, in ways that no one else can. Think creatively about how you can leverage your interests or skills in ways that also help to combat trafficking, such as by organizing a fundraiser through clothing donations, or by educating colleagues at work. Every little bit matters.

Remember: You matter.

This is in no way a complete picture of these data in particular, of the experiences behind them, or of the multiplicities of realities surrounding this worldwide and domestically-driven industry of human trafficking within the U.S. It is an attempt to provide a new form of engagement with a small selection of the incredible resources and initiatives that exist today in the efforts against trafficking, focusing on the stories of victims. It is important to note that—due to its “hidden” and complex nature—human trafficking in the U.S. is recorded only in estimates and proxies. An accurate extent of its prevalence is lacking. The statistics and numbers used here reflect the best possible efforts by agencies in their missions. No offences were meant by the cartographers and we happily welcome and encourage constructive feedback.


  1. U.S. Department of State (2016). Trafficking in Persons Report 2016. 387-389.
  2. U.S. Department of State (2000). The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
  3. International Labour Organization (2014). Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour.
  4. Polaris (2017). “Why Trafficking Exists”. Human Trafficking Hotline website.
  5. Polaris (2017).
  6. Global Slavery Index (2017).
  7. World Stadiums (2017).
  8. Polaris (2017).
  9. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2009).
  10. Case USA162, Human Trafficking Case Law Database.
  11. National Director Sam Inocencio, IJM Philippines.


Interactive created by:

Alicia Iverson, UW-Madison

Leanne Abraham, UW-Madison

Ross Thorn, UW-Madison

Cover Photo Courtesy of Forsaken Fotos