On Thursday, May 17, 2018, Thompson Reuters and ACAMS New York Chapter held an event in Midtown Manhattan entitled “What Financial Institutions can do to Identify and Prevent Human Trafficking.” The event was moderated by Howard Spieler, Executive Board Member of the ACAMS New York Chapter and featured Richard Lee, Director of Church Mobilization for International Justice Mission, David McLaughlin, Founder and CEO of QuantaVerse LLC, Tom Countermine, Group Supervisor at the United States Department of Homeland Security, and Peter Vincent, General Counsel at Thompson Reuters Special Services.*
The focus of the event was to discuss ways financial institutions can help to combat human trafficking domestically and globally. The four panelists agreed that when it comes to tracking human traffickers via financial transactions the markers are not determined by local, i.e. domestic or international, but by the type of labor they are trafficking. David McLaughlin stated that one trigger his artificial intelligence software looks for is the “lack of information.” For instance, lack of payroll for a fishing fleet when other expenses are being accounted for. They said this is not always going to mean trafficking is occurring, but it will facilitate an investigation.
Richard, Tom and Peter each had incredible stories of rescues and other operations they have executed globally to save hundreds if not thousands of men, women and children who were being trafficked. They stressed being victim-centric and prioritizing the victims’ well-being during and in the aftermath of a rescue. Understanding that there are varied levels of forced labor (of a sexual and non-sexual nature) they all agreed this is an industry nearing a trillion dollars annually with over 40 million victims. Trafficking operations are run by extremely sophisticated multinational corporations. These are not little companies run by a couple guys hatching a half-baked plan in grandma’s basement. They are large cartels, the Mafia and other well-funded bad actors.
It should be noted that an alternative way of discussing human trafficking was proposed. Westerners often use the term “slavery” to talk about human trafficking. We were told that in West Africa and other African nations they take exception to this. Yes, trafficking is horrible and often is a form of forced bondage, but the word “slavery” as it is used in this context denigrates the injustices of the transatlantic slave trade. We tend to be very ethnocentric when we discuss human trafficking and often believe we know what is best for the victims. This should be avoided, and it was a strong reminder that while we work to expose and punish human traffickers we should not impose our own sensibilities upon the victims.
There was some limited discussion about the decision to seize the Backpage.com website. Three of the four panelists felt this was a “feel good” move, that doing so had put consensual sex workers in harm’s way and potentially made it harder to track the traffickers. And they said that in very short order other websites were up and running and they are now tracking those. The overall sentiment was that this seizure and the FOSTA/SESTA act would not stop human trafficking and may likely do more harm because consensual sex-workers who were self-employed may now be forced to work for abusive pimps or even be trafficked themselves.
The panelists were all in agreement that there is no magic bullet solution and it takes a dedicated collaboration between local and international law enforcement and governments, NGOs, and the financial institutions to combat forced labor. International Justice Mission has worked with governments globally to enact laws and policy changes that lead to the arrest of the traffickers in nations that previously would not arrest them. They have seen repeatedly that if one “shop” is shut down and the trafficker is punished harshly enough, the others will start to clean up their act and at times cease trafficking. They have seen, for instance, a dramatic decrease in the brothels in Cambodia using under age children because of the arrest and prosecution of other brothel owners. There have been fishing fleet and brick factories that have ceased their abusive bonded labor practices because the owners of other establishments have been jailed.
Technology is now being used to assist law enforcement and financial institutions. The software looks for inconsistent flow of revenues, multiple deposits daily or weekly of small amounts, or a bar that is not getting a lot of traffic that suddenly has a dramatic spike in late night liquor sales. The technology might also be able to find that a bar is connected to a payment for an escort service. Banks track suspicious activity reports and look for other signs of money laundering and machine learning applications are then used to connect the multi-varied dots and help build a case.
In the end, the only way to eradicate human trafficking is through unwavering diligence, persistence and dogged efforts on the part of law enforcement and government. Banks and technology companies are now making a contribution as well and we assume we will see more industries following suit in future.
*Per the request of the panelists, there are no direct quotes included in this article.