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When we think of human trafficking, we often picture Liam Neeson growling threats into a telephone. He’s got the situation under control – he’s a crusading hero battling bad guys to free his family.

By and large, that is not what trafficking looks like.

Worse, those who are trafficked do not often have Liam Neeson looking out for them.

The International Labor Organization estimates there are over 40 million cases of human trafficking globally, with “hundreds of thousands” occurring in the United States. While people of all ages, genders, and colors may find themselves victims of trafficking, a large number of them were first trafficked under age 18.

Hundreds of thousands. Let that sink in. Hundreds of thousands.

That’s a huge number.

How can we hope to make a dent in that?

Truckers Against Trafficking has an answer.

“TAT” is based entirely around the notion that truckers, who rack up thousands upon thousands of miles per year, and see arguably the best and worst of humanity, can be trained to spot something that looks out of place.

We recently caught up with Laura Cyrus, the Director of Corporate Engagement at Truckers Against Trafficking, and talked about the organization and how truckers, repair shops, and everyday people can take a stand against trafficking. This may not be the usual shop talk you’re used to on Fullbay, but it’s an important topic nonetheless – one our industry is uniquely positioned to combat.

One of TAT’s goals, Laura says, “Is to help people understand that it’s absolutely happening here in the United States. It’s happening to people in your own community.”

Today, we’re going to learn more about trafficking, how TAT is trying to put a stop to it, how repair shops and truckers can be of assistance, and even what you can do.

Yes, you. You can do more than you think.

TRAFFICKING

Most trafficking doesn’t go down the way it does in the movies. There are very few firearms involved. Thus, the question pops up more than it should: “If they aren’t being held at gunpoint, why don’t they just scream or run away?”

Something the population doesn’t always understand is that traffickers don’t need to hold a victim at gunpoint or chain them to a wall. Most often, victims are held by the “invisible chains” of force, fraud, and coercion.

Many victims even know their trafficker. They may have been groomed by someone in an online friendship or relationship, or even by a family member or intimate partner. When it comes to child trafficking, nearly half of all cases begin with family involvement.

WHY TRUCKERS?

In 2007, Marilyn “Lyn” Leeburg read “Not For Sale” by David Batstone and learned about the horrors of trafficking. She talked to her four daughters about how they could help stop something so widespread and deep-rooted.

As a result, the five women and a friend started a ministry to fight issues of injustice, including human trafficking. The ministry helped sponsor a conference in Denver the following year, put together by one of the daughters and a neighbor, that addressed human trafficking. One of the speakers happened to be an FBI agent, who spoke about training local gas station attendants to recognize the signs of this crime. The lightbulb went off over Lyn’s head: Truckers. Truckers covered thousands upon thousands of miles of road a year. They saw everything. What’s more, the ones she had met had all been fundamentally decent people.

Could truckers be trained to spot human trafficking?

Yes. They could.

Thus, Truckers Against Trafficking was born, first as an initiative of the ministry, and then becoming its own organization in 2011.

ON THE LOOKOUT

Truckers Against Trafficking believes that small changes can make a big difference.

You’ve probably heard the story about the starfish that wash up on shore, and the beachcomber (sometimes a kid, sometimes an adult) who throws them back one by one. A second person comes across a critic, who sneeringly says, “This is a long beach, and you can’t throw them all back. Thousands are still going to die.”

“Yes,” the beachcomber replies, “but not this one.”

Making a difference in the life of one trafficked person seems like a drop of water in a vast sea. But there are thousands upon thousands of truckers driving throughout the United States. If even half of them see something, and speak up, that’s thousands of potential victims rescued.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? Seeing something, and speaking up.

When you think about traffickers, what springs to mind? Big, tattooed dudes with machine guns and cigars? A lot of folks think that way. “The reality is traffickers can look like anyone,” Laura says. “They are master manipulators.”

They know how to blend in, and they’re good at it. Often you have to look for the victims, not the traffickers themselves. TAT provided us with some things to look out for:

  • Does the victim appear to know where they are?
  • Does the victim have their own ID or documentation?
  • Does the victim talk about making a quota?
  • Does the victim show indication of restricted communication? They may look to the alleged trafficker to answer questions, or be able to speak for themselves.
  • Do they appear unkempt, malnourished, or bruised?
  • Have you seen an RV or other large vehicle dropping off a group of girls or women, only to pick them up within a half-hour later?

There are many other signs, of course, as well as two even bigger ones: If a minor appears to be selling commercial sex, or any sign of a pimp in the area.

There’s one last piece to take into mind: Your gut. We’ve been somewhat trained to ignore gut instinct, but listen to it now and then. If something looks or feels wrong…well, it just might be.

SPEAKING UP

Learning to identify something that doesn’t look quite right is only part of the story. To that end, TAT educates truckers on how and when to speak up.

Often, that’s even more difficult than learning what to search for. A lot of us spend time in our own little world. “We’re all on our cell phone,” Laura remarks. “We don’t want to get involved – what if we’re wrong?” Potentially embarrassing ourselves or someone else is a strong deterrent against speaking up.

TAT drives home the point: Just ask.

Do not go up to the trafficker, though. Get in touch with local law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888). It’s manned 24/7, and is wholly dedicated to helping those who are being trafficked. They can help you determine whether or not a scenario is trafficking, and if it is, they can get in touch directly with local law enforcement.

If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. No biggie.

But what if you’re right?

Think about your own children, Laura advises. “If it was my kid that was missing, I would absolutely want somebody to take the risk of being wrong.”

REPAIR SHOPS

We love our truck drivers, but we spend the bulk of our time with and at repair shops – which, last we checked, are pretty much stationary. If they aren’t traveling all over the country, what can they do to help?

Education is key in so many things – including identifying trafficking. If you’ve got a dozen people working at your shop, and all of them obtain TAT’s training, that’s a dozen additional pairs of eyes out in the world, able to spot something out of place.

Shops are also a powerful home base for TAT materials. The organization provides posters, wallet cards, decals, and numerous other materials that you can place on your counters or walls. People can pick up these materials, take them home, read them while they’re waiting for a repair. If you’ve got television sets, TAT is happy to work with you to create a short video on a loop.

Remember the power of one.

If one person picks up a wallet card, that’s one more person looking out.

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

First, let us reiterate how critical it is to pay attention to your gut instinct.

Kevin Kimmel had just finished making his deliveries and parked his truck near a battered RV with black curtains. He glanced up from his paperwork now and then, idly noticing a middle-aged man knocking on the RV door and being allowed inside.

When he looked up again, he saw the girl peeking out the window.

Something about her didn’t sit quite right with Kevin; the way she abruptly vanished from the window, the way the curtains were abruptly drawn again. Sure, it could have been a family squabble, but something just looked…off.

Kevin made a call to law enforcement.

The girl had been kidnapped by a couple who kept her trapped in that RV. They deprived her of food and water, tortured her, and prostituted her. Every few days, they forced her to call home to tell them everything was fine. Her family believed she was on a trip. They didn’t think she was missing.

Thanks to Kevin following his gut instinct, the girl was rescued.

That’s what it takes, though: A willingness to speak up, to throw back that one starfish.

Even if a situation looks a little off, “We often don’t give [the trafficked] a second look or a second thought,” Laura reports. The general public, she adds, puts on blinders; “Oh, this person is ‘just’ a prostitute; we’re just gonna look the other way.”

Traffickers are counting on that mindset.

They are counting on the general public’s apathy.

They are counting on truck drivers being too busy, too tired, too consumed with their job to notice something off.

To date, Truckers Against Trafficking has trained almost a million people who are now aware of trafficking’s signs and can act if necessary. They know what language to use on the hotline or with police. The challenge that seemed so insurmountable has a million extra helpers. That’s translated into over 2,600 calls to the National Human Trafficking hotline, and the identification of over 1,200 victims.

Small changes make a big difference.

Remember that.

TAT’s program is completely free. Get yourself educated. Learn what to look for and how to report it. Share the materials. Make a donation. Get involved.

Traffickers skate by because they’re allowed to. Because for too long, too many of us have looked the other way.

When you stop looking the other way, they lose what power they have.

Look twice if something doesn’t seem right. Make that call. If you’re wrong, no big deal.

If you’re right, you might have just saved a life.

Suz Baldwin

Suz Baldwin got her start in the automotive industry, writing and editing for several motorcycle and classic car magazines straight out of college. In the years that followed, she’s written all sorts of copy for brands big and small while consuming enough coffee to paralyze a dinosaur.