This is one of the most commonly asked questions when I attend speaking engagements. Below is a brief article of some characteristics to look for if you suspect someone to be caught in the slavery cycle. It's an American article, so for Canadians — if you suspect trafficking (or any crime) call CRIMESTOPPERS at 1-800-522-TIPS.
A victim is, in a word: anybody.
It can happen to anyone, in any culture, in any socio-economic class or background. For the purposes of scope, I'll speak to Canadians (North Americans) who might encounter victims outside the realm of law enforcement in our own areas.
1. English or French may not be a victim's first language, but they might know "lines" — messages they are forced by their exploiters to learn in case of trouble or to promote business. For example, "I am eighteen years old" or "How can I be of service?" Do not assume either that because someone was born in Canada that they automatically know English or French.
2. They are usually accompanied by other people. By this I mean they are rarely left alone, if ever.
3. Fear does drastic things. Victims may be in the throes of escape and in a serious state of panic, or they may be mild and speak nothing but loving and wonderful things of their exploiters. Exploitation, by nature, demands that captors make ALL the decisions for their victims. Thus, the victims may not know what to do about you should you make contact. They could be confused, upset, closed off or calm.
4. This is my most strategic bit of advice… if you have made contact with someone you reasonably suspect is a trafficking victim, simply ask them: "Where's your favourite place to go for coffee?"
a. Desiring relationship with all our brothers and sisters in this world, this is a natural and honest question because you sincerely want to get to know this new person. Trafficking or not, we want relationship as part of who we are as humans
b. Trafficking is notoriously transient. It is common for victims to wake up in places and have no clue where they are. Also, if you have seen them at the same convenience store you work at and strike up a conversation after a couple weeks and the victim still doesn't know the best place in your neighbourhood, this could be a red flag
c. If the victim cannot answer you due to language limitations and/or is somehow shut down by the people they're with, this is another red flag. Trafficking or not, a person in a place where they don't know the language might need assistance in other ways
d. Victims can look ragged or strung out, but also can look like they've been dressed in a Holt & Renfew window. Be careful about judging based on clothing style.
Now… if you suspect trafficking, call the number above. Don't be a "brothel buster" and follow the person. You're only putting that person (people) in serious danger, as well as yourself. You're not being a hero or any kind of help. Call the police.
If the victim continues to make contact with you, keep up the relationship as best you can while keeping the both of you safe. Building up trust while bumping into each other at the playpark with kids, or making light chit-chat with the victim while they serve you coffee at the diner is so key. Once a victim is identified and is attempting to exit the slavery cycle, they will need sources of trust.
Know what supports are in your community, be calm, be a friend, and be humble. You and I can't save people. We help assist people in their bid to be free, and this needs to be honest and genuine and… once again… filled with the commitment of trust.