Expert warns students about human trafficking

Sydney Thompson
Staff Writer

PC: Sydney Thompson

On Monday, February 24, a luncheon inside the Faculty Building was hosted for students and staff. Accompanying the luncheon was the presentation by Maria Harkin on human trafficking and what college students should watch out for.

Harkin is an expert of over a decade on human trafficking and is involved in a task force to help victims in the Piedmont area. 

“College students need to know the risks of human trafficking because it is the most under-reported crime in the United States,” Harkin said. “Anyone can be a victim.”

Human trafficking, as defined by the Trafficking Protection Act is the recruitment, transportation, transfer and/or harboring of individuals through abduction, fraud, coercion and deception. Any individual of any race, gender, orientation or creed can be a victim of trafficking.

“Traffickers don’t discriminate,” Harkin said.

Younger people are in danger of sex trafficking in particular. College students can be lured in with promises of student loans being paid off or fulfilling relationships, but it can quickly spiral out of control. 

One aspect where this has become prominent is on the internet, with apps such as Tinder and Bumble. While dating apps are frequented by the college population, the app can be a recruitment tool for traffickers. 

“Dating apps are not safe,” Harkin said. “It can start with innocent messages, but when you meet in-person, it can quickly turn into something else. Groomers can use the internet to create an identity meant to attract you, and you wouldn’t know.”

Harkin cautioned against excessive use of other apps such as TikTok and Instagram. She suggested that discretion be shown when posting about locations or daily life, since that can make it easier for groomers to target and find you.

“If you do meet up with someone you met on one of these apps, do not go alone to meet them,” Harkin said. “At the very least, bring a friend with you.”

Harkin warned that college students should be on their guard during concerts, music festivals, bars and clubs. 

“A common misconception is that trafficking only happens in places like Raleigh or Charlotte,” Harkin said. “But it’s happening in our own neighborhoods.”

Harkin emphasized that victims of human traffickers will not at first know that they are being trafficked and do not self-identify as victims. This is because of the shame and guilt that the groomers have placed on the victims, as well as various other reasons. 

Harkin advises students to stay alert to signs that a person may be trafficked or for red flags that a location may be a trafficking site.

Victims may repeatedly attend locations such as school or work, but they will always go with someone else. This other person may speak for the victim and make decisions for them. Victims may also refuse to make eye-contact or answer questions about themselves. A more obvious clue is if the victim has a tattoo or brand of a name on them. 

Locations with barbed wire and many cameras could be locations where trafficking is occurring. This may also be the case if there are children that do not come out often, or if there are cars and people coming in and out of the location at odd hours.

There are several resources Harkin advises that anyone who is concerned that human trafficking is taking place use. However, she also reminds that you should never ever attempt to confront a suspected trafficker or alert the victim about your suspicions. Doing so could put you and/or the victim in danger. 

Tips can be filed by calling 911 or texting “HELP” or “INFO” to BeFree at 233733.  Tips can also be submitted at For more information or to report suspected trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Hotline can be called 24/7 at 1-888-373-7888. 

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