Red Flags of Child Trafficking

A vital part of trafficking prevention is being able to recognize the red flags of potential grooming and trafficking. We have broken down six major red flags into individual posts to give you more detailed information on each sign. As a trafficking survivor said, “If you can’t recognize the signs, you’re not going to be able to help.”

*If you suspect that someone you love is being trafficked or you need help getting out of the life, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, and call 911 in the case of an emergency.

Claim of an Older Boyfriend or Girlfriend

Trafficking often happens through a form of broken relationships in which grooming and manipulation is used to recruit someone into “the life”. Often, traffickers will act as a much older boyfriend or girlfriend, using a child's longing to be loved and accepted against them.  They often work to gain the child’s trust and devotion until the relationship becomes exploitative. If a child mentions having a much older boyfriend or girlfriend, if they act secretive about that relationship (for example, not introducing them to their friends and family), or the child does not have an explanation or consistent story for how they met this person, this could be a red flag of potential grooming or trafficking occurring. 

Evidence of a Controlling Relationship

Because trafficking often happens within broken relationships, a sign that someone may be in “the life” of trafficking is if they appear to be in a controlling or abusive relationship. Their schedule or activities may be dictated by another person (significant other, family member, etc.), they may be unable to make simple decisions without approval, or they may show signs of isolation from friends or family. If a child appears to be in a controlling relationship, this could be a red flag or potential grooming or trafficking occurring.

Sudden Appearance of Luxury Gifts or Items

Another red flag of trafficking is the sudden appearance of luxury gifts or items. If a child is being groomed, their trafficker may shower them with expensive items to solidify their affection. If a child is currently being trafficked, they may receive a small portion of the money and be allowed to purchase nice things, giving them a false sense of empowerment. Some specific items may be as follows: new high-end clothing, prepaid credit cards or gift cards, expensive manicures, rolls of cash, owning multiple cell phones, and possession of multiple hotel keys. If asked where these gifts are coming from or how they are able to afford these items, the child may avoid, lie, have inconsistent answers, or be unable to explain. The appearance of these items with no explanation could be a red flag of trafficking. 

Changes in Behavior or Appearance

If a child is being trafficked, they may start to exhibit a change in both behavior and appearance due to the trauma and grooming they’re experiencing. There may be a change in their school or work attendance, friend groups, vocabulary, and interests. The child's demeanor may change, perhaps exhibiting signs of depression, aggression, secretiveness, or isolation. The child’s appearance may start to shift as well, either wearing more revealing clothing or bulky clothes to cover themselves. If a child’s behavior and appearance drastically alters, this could be a cause for concern.

Unexplained Injuries and Health Problems

Because trafficking is a form of abuse and exploitation, children who are being groomed or trafficked may suffer injuries and health problems. When addressed, the child may have no explanation for how the injury occurred or give explanations that do not add up. If you believe a child is being abused, document what has happened and report to the proper authorities.

Branding or Possessive Tattoos

Another red flag that a child may be in “the life” of trafficking is if they have a tattoo that is possessive or appears as branding. A possessive tattoo may accompany the physical change in appearance and may be used by the trafficker to solidify the child’s bond and affection or to claim them as a part of their group.

Citations for the Red Flags of Trafficking Series

“Recognizing the Signs.” National Human Trafficking Hotline, 31 Aug. 2020,

“Red Flags for Minor and Adult Sex Trafficking.” Liberty and Justice for Texas | Office of the Attorney General,

“Signs of Trafficking and How to Report Suspected Trafficking.” Shared Hope International, 23 Jan. 2020, 

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