Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month update: Even as U.S., international allies better collaborate to crush trafficking rings, criminals respond by recruiting for scams, enlisting ‘VISA brokers’ for new victims
- January is Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month, a dedication designed to annually refocus the fincrime compliance fighting lens anew on a crime with soaring human and financial dimensions – millions of souls tainted for billions of illicit dollars reaped.
- While organized trafficking groups are always adapting and adjusting to evade compliance controls and avoid law enforcement traps, there have been some more recent trends rising to the fore to victimize humans for their bodies – and in a sense, their minds.
- Although many individuals are still trafficked for illicit sex, some groups are using people as forced labor to feed other profitable scam vectors, such as call centers for “pig butchering” farms. Human traffickers are also enlisting the aid of corrupt “VISA brokers” to lure women by dangling hope in the form of fake job and schooling opportunities.
By Brian Monroe
January 31, 2024
January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a dedication designed to annually refocus the fincrime compliance fighting lens anew on a crime with soaring human and financial dimensions – millions of souls tainted for billions of illicit dollars reaped.
While organized criminal groups engaging in human trafficking are always adapting and adjusting to evade financial crime compliance controls and avoid law enforcement traps, there have been some more recent trends rising to the fore to not just victimize humans for their bodies – but to also, in a sense, corrupt and monetize their minds.
Although many individuals are still trafficked for illicit sex, some criminal groups are using people as forced labor to feed other profitable scam vectors, such as call centers for “pig butchering” farms – a hybrid tactic melding romance, investment and social engineering methods.
Human traffickers are also enlisting the aid of corrupt “VISA brokers” to lure women by dangling hope in the form of fake job and schooling opportunities.
The conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas and the interwoven tit-for-tat attacks between the United States, the Iran-backed Houthis and groups like Hezbollah have also displaced millions of people – providing a new pool to victimize who are already at their lowest point.
There are even media reports of trafficking groups working with countries like Russia to traffic men from as far away as Cuba to fight its battles in Russia.
In this updated primer story for Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Thursday January 11, ACFCS will share insight culled from recent government reports, events, webinars and interactive training sessions.
To read ACFCS’ 2023 story tied to Human Trafficking Prevention month, click here.
To read a special ACFCS Training Corner sidebar story detailing many of the complex and nuanced red flags of human trafficking, please click here.
In annual proclamation, U.S. reminder to fincrime compliance teams around the world: tackling trafficking still a priority
Despite more countries sharing patterns on geographic trafficking routes, updating financial red flags and crafting campaigns geared toward prevention protecting victims, trafficking – including sex trafficking, forced labor and more – remains a multi-billion-dollar challenge.
“More than 27 million people around the world endure the abhorrent abuse of human trafficking and forced labor, including thousands of people right here in the United States,” said President Joe Biden in a proclamation to highlight the day and month devoted to countering trafficking.
“It is a threat to global security, public safety, and human dignity,” he said, adding that this is critical annual reminder for the country to “reaffirm our commitment to ending these predatory crimes at home and across the globe."
To read the full proclamation by President Biden, click here.
Presidential proclamations not only raise the profile of the issue, but are also snapshots of global trends and challenges, and significant U.S. anti-trafficking policy achievements.
Some highlights include:
- In 2012, the issuance of the Executive Order ‘Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts‘;
- In 2016, the first convening of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking;
- In 2017, the State Department’s launch of its largest anti-trafficking program, the Program to End Modern Slavery; and
- In 2021, the release of the updated National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.
- To read the full “U.S. National Human Trafficking Prevention Month Fact Sheet,” created by the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, click here.
The crime has also more forcefully demanded attention from bank anti-money laundering (AML) teams for a host of reasons, including recent updates at the Congressional, federal investigative and regulatory levels – key details that could and should be woven into AML compliance risk assessments.
At the start of 2024, Congress has crafted several bills tied to human trafficking including:
H.R.7107: To amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to expand to State, local, Tribal, territorial, and educational institution law enforcement the availability of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers' human trafficking awareness training.
The goal would be to better equip frontline first responders across multiple agency levels with the knowledge to recognize and properly respond to potential human trafficking situations, and for other purposes.
- Sponsor: Cammack, Kat [Rep.-R-FL-3]
- Cosponsors: (8)
- Status: (Introduced 01/29/2024)
- Committees: House – Judiciary
- Latest Action: House - 01/29/2024 Referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
H.R.7089: “Global Anti-Human Trafficking Enhancement Act.” The act is designed to bolster and expand protection and prosecution efforts of domestic and international human trafficking cases at the U.S. Department of State.
In short, the bill, if passed, would broaden the investigation authority when the department is working transnational violations of chapter 77 of title 18, United States Code, which relates to a variety of trafficking offenses, in which part of the illicit conduct occurred outside the United States or involved one or more foreign nationals.
Human trafficking for skin and scams – lured to a farm for pig butchering
Just as the U.S. and partner countries create new laws, rules and resources to uncover and cripple human trafficking syndicates, these criminal groups find ever new ways to dupe, deceive and denigrate victims.
While historically groups have engaged in trafficking for what is essentially slave labor – forcing individuals to work for low or little wages in often menial and physical work, like construction – at least the jobs themselves were not illegal.
That is changing as illicit trafficking groups are branching out and, in some cases, partnering with organized fraud operations, such as offering a “lucrative online job” and then trapping individuals on what are called “pig butchering” call center farms.
That is one of the conclusions of longtime fincrime compliance thought leader Alison Jimenez at a Congressional hearing in November titled: “Crypto Crime in Context: Breaking Down the Illicit Activity in Digital Assets.”
The term “pig butchering” refers to the practice of “fattening a hog before slaughter but in this context signifies a scamming technique of creating sense of intimacy with the victim before exploiting the victim via a cryptocurrency investment scam,” she said in opening statements and prepared testimony.
To watch the full hearing and review witness statements, click here.
“Scam victims are often contacted via social media or ‘errant’ text messages,” said Jimenez, an economist and the president of Dynamic Securities Analytics, Inc., a private fincrime compliance-focused consulting firm founded in 2003.
But in the ever-evolving world of fraud, in some cases the scammers are victims themselves – perpetuating a scheme pilfering billions of dollars from the lonely, desperate and greedy.
“The scammer on the other end of the message are often human trafficking victims who were lured to fake call center jobs, held against their will by organized crime groups, and forced to scam under the threat of violence,” Jimenez said.
Homeland Security Investigations described Pig Butchering as an “increasingly prolific financial fraud scheme, which combines elements of traditional romance and investment fraud whilst also targeting people trafficking and modern slavery victims.”
The pig butchering typology – a term that originated in China – generally is “controlled by organized criminal gangs operating from Southeast Asia, including Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand,” Jimenez noted.
In 2022, U.S.-based victims alone lost approximately $3.3 billion dollars to crypto-related investment frauds, according to government estimates.
Imitation immigration: the human trafficking vice of the VISA
When it comes to fighting human trafficking, fincrime compliance officers need to look for more than just a business that might be directly trafficking or a victim that needs saving.
Why? There is also an expanding universe of professional human trafficking “brokers” who have made it their business to try and keep the supply of individuals to victimize moving.
These immigration seekers, typically women, historically move from one origin country, like China or South and North Korea, to places like the United States and Canada.
Those are some of the insights shared by a speaker on a human trafficking-focused session in August during ACFCS’ annual event, Fincrime Virtual Week.
These illicit human trafficking brokers – such as VISA or immigration facilitators – bear similarities to other “professional” illicit operators like professional money launderers and professional services firms, who create shell companies to hide beneficial ownership details.
But that begs the question: how can you tell a bad immigration facilitation operation from a legitimate one?
One key red flag: their advertising.
Potentially illicit VISA brokers say things like: foreign workers don’t need any experience, any skills and that the target company will even pay their entire tuition to a higher education institution of their choosing.
“Who offers to pay for your entire tuition, just to come work for them from another country?” said Youngbee Dale, head of Dale Consulting, during the session. “No one, unless you are doing something shady.”
To read the full story recap of the event, click here.
Resource snapshot: key resources for 2024 to review, reshare with your fellow fincrime fighters
Here is a list of resources about human trafficking:
Conflict zones: some flee war right into the claws of traffickers
The conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and Yemen have made an already challenging situation to stop human traffickers even more difficult, with individuals – in many cases mostly women and children – leaving areas wracked by war, violence and insecurity.
“Today, in Gaza, Ukraine, Yemen and many other places in the world where there are ongoing conflicts, women are facing appalling violence and suffering,” according to one published report.
“Women and children make up around 80 [percent] of the world’s displaced people due to conflict, and are more likely to be victims of trafficking.”
There are also direct connections between Ukrainians fleeing war and higher risks to be targeted by traffickers as thousands had gone to Israel – which was attacked by Hamas in October in a wide-ranging assault that killed and kidnapped scores of innocent civilians.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, “approximately 14,000 Ukrainian refugees and asylum-seekers ineligible for immigration based on the Law of Return were in Israel as of March 2023,” according to the latest U.S. Trafficking in Person’s report, released in June.
“Most of this population arrived on tourist visas which have been regularly renewed and are working under a ‘non-enforcement’ government policy,” the report noted. “NGOs reported this unstable situation and unclear work permit policy has increased the vulnerability of this population to sex and labor trafficking.”
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