The role and responsibilities of banks to stop human trafficking and help victims

It’s arguably one of the world’s biggest tragedies that human trafficking still exists today. But unfortunately, it’s also not that surprising. This National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, it’s important to take a moment to understand how this horrendous crime still thrives in this day and age, as well as the role and responsibilities banks have to help victims and identify traffickers.

Faces of Global Human Trafficking

The sad truth is, criminals will always find ways to exploit economic uncertainty and use people’s desire for a better life to their own advantage. Advances in technology have only made it easier for criminals to reap profits from the buying and selling of human beings. As criminals realize the high stakes and risk from the crackdown in other crimes like illegal narcotics and weapons, they have turned to human trafficking as a new source of revenue. Victims come in many different forms, including sex trafficking and forced labor. But one thing they all have in common is they are all real people who suffer horrible consequences at the hands of traffickers. 

Victims include construction workers like Miguel, who need money to support his family. So he looks for a job in another country. Desperate for any opportunity he can find, Miguel takes a chance and trusts a man who promised to get him across the border for a price. But after arriving in their new country, the transporter (also known as a “coyote”) demands Miguel pay him a substantial sum of money. If he doesn’t, he threatens to send him back home or have him arrested. Or worse, he’ll kill him. Miguel ends up working in a sweatshop to pay off his debt. 

Miguel isn’t alone. Traffickers also frequently target young women like Anya. Anya was a college student who had dreams of becoming a social media influencer. In pursuit of these dreams, one night Anya visits her city’s hottest nightclub. A man at the club took an interest in her and said he’d help start her modeling career. Believing her opportunity has arrived, she follows the man’s instructions to meet him at his photography studio. Unfortunately, the photography studio turns out to be a front. Anya is kidnapped and taken to a different location where she doesn’t speak the local language and is forced into sexual exploitation. 

Human Trafficking by the Numbers

Miguel and Anya’s stories are just two common examples out of millions who have been touched by the horrors of trafficking. More than 40 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery, according to the latest data from the International Labour Organization. This figure includes almost 25 million people roped into forced labor and more than 15 million pressured into forced marriages.

Separate data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers more troubling insights into who human trafficking impacts. UNODC’s research found the number of children who fall victim to trafficking has tripled in the past 15 years, with the percentage of boys trafficked increasing fivefold in the same period. And that’s just the tip of a very disturbing iceberg. There are signs that, with the number of people being out of work and school due to the pandemic, trafficking is only poised to get worse. 

Human Trafficking Victims are Hiding In Plain Sight

These figures are, to put it mildly, alarming. But perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that even with more than 40 million people trafficked worldwide each year, it’s still extremely difficult to identify a trafficked person in a crowd. 

Other crimes such as buying illegal drugs, moving illegal guns, or violent crimes like robberies or burglaries, can be easily recognized. Trafficking, on the other hand, is a crime that can happen right in front of our eyes and go completely undetected. By simply walking down a street, you might not suspect that a construction worker is trapped in financial servitude or that a younger woman getting into a car with an older man is being forced into a life of prostitution.

A Rallying Cry for Banks

Money laundering tends to get an edgy, exciting treatment from Hollywood. TV shows like Breaking Bad and Ozark portray it as a thrilling endeavor perpetuated by society’s innovative underdogs or modern-day Robin Hoods. Of course, rarely (if ever) do these shows portray the harm that money laundering does to the Miguels and Anyas of the world. 

“Banks and FIs can play a significant role in thwarting human trafficking and saving victims by embracing strong anti-money laundering practices. By acting as financial gatekeepers, FIs can stop the flow of illegal money into the financial system, alert authorities to investigate potential human trafficking crimes, and make a positive impact on real people’s lives.”

Brian Ferro

Criminals treat people like Miguel and Anya as disposable assets. They monetize them as currency until they are of no further use. That’s where money laundering plays a critical role in enabling the traffickers to reap revenue from their crimes. When they’re ready to make the illicit money appear to be legitimate, they will inevitably need to get their funds into the financial system through well-established banks and financial institutions.

Banks and FIs can play a significant role in thwarting human trafficking and saving victims by embracing strong anti-money laundering practices. By acting as financial gatekeepers, FIs can stop the flow of illegal money into the financial system, alert authorities to investigate potential human trafficking crimes, and make a positive impact on real people’s lives.

The good news is many banks are already embracing this ethical and moral responsibility. In the United States, organizations like the American Bankers Association (ABA) have launched training resources designed to educate bank staff identifying red flags and taking action. Here’s what banks and bank personnel can do to take a more proactive approach to stop these atrocities.

Offer to Help Bank Customers

The people who work at banks are already used to acting as stewards responsible for protecting customers’ financial well-being. Therefore, asking about the safety of the people they interact with is a natural extension. When bank staff encounter someone who seems uncomfortable or in distress, they should ask how they’re doing or if they need any help. In other words, demonstrate your investment in people by being vigilant in your work surroundings and offering comfort or assistance to those who need it.

Use Visual Link Analysis to Be a Champion for Humanity

As mentioned earlier, technology has made it easier for criminals to profit from human trafficking. Technologies like remote onboarding and person-to-person transfers make it easier than ever for these bad actors to move money and evade detection. But banks can also use technology to uncover patterns linked to money laundering and disrupt traffickers’ networks. It’s also important for banks not to think of this as a cost function. If your bank’s efforts are only successful in rescuing two victims, such as Miguel or Anya, from others’ control or exploitation,  the surveillance investment is worth every dollar. Efforts like these will position banks and their people as champions of humankind.

Train Bank Tellers to be Alert for Human Trafficking

Bank tellers are usually on the front lines of anti-trafficking efforts. Banks should invest in training their tellers to understand and respond to signs that someone might be in danger or possibly a victim of trafficking. An older man accompanied by several scared-looking younger women or someone who wants to deposit cash that smells strange could be signs of trouble. Many banks have trained their staff to look for signs of similar crimes (like elder abuse) and offered a trafficking hotline to report them. Many trafficking hotlines allow tellers to make anonymous reports that can be used to open investigations. Empowering tellers with the training and tools can help them fulfill their responsibility to look out for customers’ (and people as a whole) best interests. 

Work with Law Enforcement 

Banks should already have open lines of communication with law enforcement both in their local communities and at a state or possibly federal level. If bank staff suspect they witnessed a human trafficking incident, they should consult with their police contacts. Law enforcement frequently partners with non-profit organizations and advocacy groups that support human trafficking victims and provide them with the resources to get out their current situations and take back control of their lives.

National Human Trafficking Awareness Day comes once a year. But that doesn’t mean the financial services community has to limit its anti-trafficking efforts to a single day out of a calendar year. Trafficking is a crime that requires financial institutions, law enforcement, and everyday citizens to remain equally (if not more) vigilant all year round.

Download our eBook, Anti-Money Laundering: How to Protect Your Bank’s Brand & Bottom Line to learn how banks can avoid some of the most common AML pitfalls.