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And it’s not just hotels, either. Convenience stores are a likely place for victims to be spotted, for instance. It’s also not just the sex trade. Vulnerable immigrants forced into what’s essentially slavery or close to it occur in the construction, restaurant, and agriculture industries, too, and they, too, are victims of human trafficking.

Real estate professionals can spot signs of trouble

Real estate professionals, including investors, in multiple segments of the industry are in a position to help in the fight against human trafficking. That’s because strip mall shopping centers can host businesses that use these tactics, and places like empty warehouses and vacant apartments are good places to “store” their victims while their exploiters aren’t making them work.

Residential sales agents also may run into signs of trouble. For instance, this published report of a Realtor who noticed a blanket and bucket of urine on a garage floor: “Police came and discovered a little Egyptian girl who had been abducted and was for sale.”

Businesses that knew can be held legally liable

And it’s not just the perpetrators of this human slavery that can be held liable. “Lots of victims are suing their trafficker and the places they were held at,” says Beams. He says his team has heard from attorneys representing victims, including some working pro bono, seeking to sue businesses that could have helped them.

He’s not alone. “Advocates across the country are trying to change this dynamic, taking down the crime by disrupting the crime scene and holding property owners or managers legally responsible,” BisNow reports in a 2019 article titled “CRE Is Ground Zero in the Fight Against Human Trafficking and Ignorance Is No Longer a Defense” [subscription required].

That article cites the work of Houston attorney Annie McAdams, who it says has launched litigation against major hotel chains and social media platforms alike for knowingly accommodating human trafficking.

McAdams tells BisNow: “This is really about changing the way a lot of these businesses are handling these types of situations. These are not cases where maybe somebody was raped or sexually assaulted in a room and there was no way for the hotel or business to know about it.”

Another thing to keep in mind, too, is that you could face criminal charges despite not being directly involved in the crime. Laws vary by state and localities, but in some places you can be charged as an accomplice if you were aware sex trafficking was going on and you did nothing about it.

The Millionacres bottom line

“I think they play as a much a role in this as we do,” Price, the Tuscaloosa police sergeant, says of hotels and other commercial real estate businesses in a position to spot possible human trafficking. “We can’t just sit in parking lots all day and watch. They have to be our eyes and ears.”

The U.S. State Department posted this list of signs to watch for and questions to ask, if you can. Even if you can’t, look for signs of force, fraud, and coercion, factors authorities say comprise major elements of human trafficking, for sex or otherwise.

There are also plenty of ways to find out the laws from place to place. For instance, the American Hotel & Lodging Association has a webpage devoted to the problem and sponsored this work by the ECPAT-USA anti-trafficking policy organization: “Unpacking Human Trafficking.” It’s an 82-page survey of laws targeting human trafficking in the U.S. hospitality industry. ECPAT-USA also provides a link to hotel tools and resources.

But the easiest way to help and to avoid any liability may well be this: If you see something, say something.


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