The Link Between Organized Retail Crime and Human Trafficking

human trafficking

According to the Federal Human Trafficking Report, at its core, human trafficking is the act of exploiting—often dehumanizing—another person for financial gain or other benefit. The people who traffickers coerce and exploit are known as “victims” in the criminal justice system because they have been harmed during the commission of a crime. In laymen’s terms, “victims” refers to the many individuals who are no longer being trafficked and now identify as survivors. Of course, a single term can never adequately reflect or encompass the humanity and resilience of each person whose life has been impacted by the (often) devastating effects of human trafficking.

Capturing an accurate global snapshot of human trafficking data is virtually impossible. Human trafficking is now an estimated $150 billion annual industry, with 32 million individuals enslaved in labor and sex trafficking worldwide. With millions out of work due to the global pandemic, large numbers of men, women, and children are even more susceptible to exploitation. What we are seeing evolve at an alarming pace is the growing trend of in-store criminal activity fueling human trafficking.

The Retail Connection

Organized retail crime (ORC) refers to professional shoplifting, cargo theft, retail crime rings, and other organized crime occurring in retail environments. Make no mistake—these are not petty thieves stealing from a local store. These are career criminals who frequently move in highly organized groups from store to store, city to city, and state to state. The complexity of their “business model” only adds to the many obstacles retailers face when combating ORC.

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Although retailers can play a significant role in combating human trafficking, there are several challenges they face, such as sex traffickers purchasing and utilizing retail brand gift cards to fuel the underground sex trade, identifying traveling crews facilitating labor trafficking, or those addicted to drugs who are involved in labor trafficking. Many times, underinvestigated crimes occur because there is no nexus of crimes to ORC.

Yet, as complex as this may seem, retailers play one of the most critical roles in combating human trafficking, as they often have significant amounts of data that can be used in an ORC criminal case. For example, a retail establishment involved in an ORC investigation can utilize data and run it against its POS systems, ORC lists, and CCTV records. Using this multifaceted approach is how retailers can work to defeat organized criminals in what is now one of the most lucrative “business” operations in the world.

According to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it is estimated that the average price of a sex ad is sixty dollars. Multiply this by the 1.04 million sex ads that currently utilize retail gift cards as forms of payment, and you are looking at over sixty million annual dollars in potential laundered gift card expenditures. DHS also listed five of the largest retailers, whose names were excluded from the report for the purpose of anonymity, in its research. The list below outlines the actual revenue (in total funds) made via sex ads:

  • Real Company A: 44,500 sex ads = $2.67 million
  • Real Company B: 30,000 sex ads = $1.8 million
  • Real Company C: 20,000 sex ads = $1.2 million
  • Real Company D: 14,500 sex ads = $870,000

Unfortunately, organized retail crime is not given the priority and attention it needs, because it often lacks nexus (a connection linking two or more things) when under investigation. However, human trafficking is, in fact, the nexus between many organized criminal efforts including organized retail crime, fencing, fraud, and drug dealing.

Human traffickers create complex scams and frauds, border and security issues, drug cartels, human smuggling, and money laundering operations, in addition to supporting and financing global terrorism. If human trafficking is a nexus crime and human traffickers constantly publish targetable identifiers through their consistent need to post on the internet, then human trafficking information is one of the richest publicly available data sets for criminal network discovery. With the right protocols and investigative strategies, brands can begin to prove the connectivity of these crimes within human trafficking and ORC.

Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that participate in human trafficking are experts in moving “goods” through channels in the criminal underground. Like global transport companies, DTOs move “products” from point A to point B. Their specialization is trafficking, not the goods they are moving. To a drug trafficker, humans are just another “product” to move from point A to point B, with some interesting traits.

We often find labor trafficking organizations turning into full-blown commercial sex operations supported by sophisticated outcall protocols that frequently move employees through multiple locations. This allows criminals to keep “product” fresh for customers, and to keep those who are being sexually exploited “under control.” We also see labor trafficking criminals using new and creative ways to launder money. ATMs, closed-loop retail gift cards, and cryptocurrency are some of the tactics frequently used to move and conceal funds.

The Signs of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is, without question, an expanding criminal market, with trafficking and smuggling growing more intertwined with larger-scale criminal enterprises. Early identification of the signs of human trafficking is key in helping families, law enforcement officials, and retail brands tackle this issue.

Often, victims exhibit signs of fear, anxiety, tension, submission, and/or nervousness, in addition to signs of physical abuse, restraint, and confinement. Evidence of verbal threats, emotional abuse, malnourishment, poor hygiene, fatigue, sleep deprivation, untreated illness, injuries, and/or unusual behavior are also indicators. In other cases, we see victims traveling with an individual who appears to be a significantly older “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” or romantic partner. If in a group, they tend to lack a cohesive social dynamic, and often dress inappropriately for their age and/or weather. Identical tattoos in similar locations may indicate “branding” by a trafficker.

While intelligence firms can help retailers win the war against ORC through training, tighter protocols, and exploiting organized crime data, there are a few things retailers can do:

  • Train Your Team. Equip managers and ORC analysts with information and training to quickly spot human trafficking and transactions.
  • Verify Organized Crime Activity. Run vetted criminal data against guest and transactional holdings to identify nexus points for theft and fraud analysis along with building better typologies.
  • Build Cases That Win. Use intel from trained staff while working alongside law enforcement partners at Homeland Security to build a case linking retail crime to human trafficking for prosecution resulting in the return of millions.

In the end, while this is a large commercial retail issue, it is also a human one. If you observe suspected human trafficking, the details you provide in your tip to law enforcement can be crucial to locating the trafficker and victim(s). Be observant and try to collect as much information as possible about the situation and people. Every detail you provide can help loss prevention professionals and law enforcement officials combat organized retail criminals and traffickers, making our stores and communities safer.

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