Human Trafficking: Closer Than You May Think
with Megan Cutter of the National Human Trafficking Hotline
Many people believe that traffickers have no relationship to their victims, but this is often not true.
Megan Cutter, Director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a program operated by Polaris, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share how personal relationships can often lead to human trafficking.
Jan 02, 2023
Anderson: Imagine not having a say in how you choose to live and work. Well, that's the case for nearly 28 million people around the world. It's known as human trafficking and quite often it's hidden in plain sight. Each year, tens of thousands of human trafficking cases are reported through the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Now lawmakers are pushing to require the posting of the hotline in the restrooms of every airport, bus station, rail station, and all ports of entry in the U.S. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Despite what many of us may see or hear about human trafficking victims being kidnapped by strangers, that's not always the case. In fact, recent data shows that victims are often preyed upon by people they know and people they trust. Here to help us understand the scope of all of this is Megan Cutter, director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It's a program operated by Polaris and Megan, thank you so much for being here.
Cutter: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Anderson: I want to start out with some perspective on this issue over the last few years. I know that your numbers show that calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline jumped during COVID like lots of other things jumped. But unlike these other issues, those numbers didn't go back down post-pandemic. What's going on?
Cutter: Absolutely. So there's a few reasons for this and the first I think is increased awareness and understanding of what human trafficking is. And the more discourse there is about this crime in the public, the more calls, and texts, and chats we receive to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. But the second piece I think is more nuanced and more important, which is that human trafficking is a crime that inherently impacts the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. And that's because traffickers identify vulnerabilities and exploit them. And what we know about the COVID-19 pandemic is that people who already were vulnerable became more vulnerable for economic reasons or other factors. And then there were folks who maybe weren't struggling before the pandemic who had their lives changed by the pandemic. And maybe became more vulnerable or their vulnerabilities were increased during this time.
Anderson: So you're talking about the whole vulnerability aspect which speaks to the human part of all of this. And that speaks to relationships. And I know that these personal relationships often lead to this human trafficking, right? Explain that for us.
Cutter: Yeah, as you mentioned at the beginning, you know, a lot of folks really have this misconception that human trafficking is a crime that happens at random perpetuated by strangers. And what we have learned through the National Human Trafficking Hotline is that actually most often, the trafficker is someone who is known to the victim in some way and has built trust with that person. They've identified a vulnerability that the victim may have, and exploited it, and used that to gain control over someone. So maybe they were chatting with them online and realized that the victim was really lonely and they kind of capitalize on that loneliness in order to build trust. And groom that person in order to later take advantage of that trust through either forcing them to have sex for money or forcing them to work, whatever the case may be.
Anderson: There's a whole technological and social media aspect to this recruitment, as well. And I'm wondering how the online aspect is changing the game when it comes to battling the rise of those recruitment numbers that we heard about earlier.
Cutter: Absolutely. I think a really key piece here is helping people understand online safety and what it might mean to meet or connect with someone online. And especially if we're thinking about children, you know, parents don't always have visibility into what their children are doing on the Internet. And when we talk about those relationships of trust that get exploited, if those are starting online in a place that feels invisible to a caregiver. Then we're already kind of further down the road to a issue, or a danger, or a vulnerability than we would be. If the caregiver was able to understand, you know, those relationships that a child or a vulnerable person was having. And so really thinking about the ways that moving things online makes them a little bit less visible to others.
Anderson: And that's just not the only challenge that you guys have. I mean, there's the issue of misinformation, all the misinformation that's out there about human trafficking. What are you seeing when it comes to that and how is that impacting your work to combat all this?
Cutter: So there are many challenges with this, but the two key ones that I want to highlight are first that when there's misinformation about human trafficking out in the public. It impedes the way that people who've experienced human trafficking, victims, survivors, can see their own stories in that public discourse, and realize. "Oh, human trafficking. That actually sounds like what I've gone through." And it can impede their understanding, and as a result, their ability to reach out, and get assistance, and get help, and know that help is available. So that's one piece. And then the second piece is that when there's viral misinformation happening on social media or in other sources. Those - that misinformation results in increased calls, texts, chats to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and other resources from people who are really well-intentioned. But are reporting publicly-available information and that can overwhelm resources like the trafficking hotline which makes it more difficult to serve the people that we serve every day. Victims, survivors, their family members, their friends. So it's really important that the media and that the things that we share online are accurate.
Anderson: And, Megan, I know that people are going to have a lot more questions. If they do, what's your website? Where can they go look?
Cutter: Absolutely, so there are two places that folks can go. To learn more about human trafficking, I would go to polarisproject.org. And if you're interested in learning more about the human trafficking hotline here in the United States, humantraffickinghotline.org is the right website.
Anderson: Megan Cutter of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Thank you so much for being here.
Cutter: Thank you for having me.
Anderson: And thanks to you, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.