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Child sex trafficking is a form of child abuse that occurs when a child under 18 is advertised, solicited or exploited through a commercial sex act. A commercial sex act is the exchange of anything of value – such as money, drugs or a place to stay for sexual activity. Traffickers can be anyone who profits from the selling of a child for sex to a buyer, including: family members, foster parents, gangs, and perceived trusted adults or romantic partners. In some cases, there is no identified trafficker, and it is the person buying sex from the child who is exploiting the child’s vulnerabilities. For instance, if a child runs away, a buyer may exploit the child’s need for food and shelter by offering to provide that in exchange for sex. Not every report NCMEC receives involves a missing child. Some reports include children being exploited while still living at home and going to school, sometimes by their own family. Other children who are particularly vulnerable to trafficking include homeless youth who have been kicked out due to lack of acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In many situations, due to the trauma and manipulation from the trafficker, survivors will feel as if they are responsible for their own victimization, in some cases even defending their abuser. It’s important to remember to meet survivors where they are at in understanding their victimization while also ensuring their rights and access to services as a victim of a crime are honored.


Child sex trafficking victims often are unable to self-identify as victims or disclose their abuse because of fear, shame or loyalty to their abuser(s). It is not a child’s responsibility to ask for help. It is up to the professionals and trusted adults in these children’s lives to recognize the signs associated with child sex trafficking, so they can intervene and help them get the support they deserve. These red flags or indicators should not be considered a checklist or an assessment tool.


  • Signs of sexual or physical abuse

  • Symptoms of neglect such as malnourishment

  • Unaddressed or chronic medical/ dental issues or STIs

  • Close association with an overly controlling adult

  • Recovered at hotels, street tracks, truck stops, or strip clubs; or other locations where trafficking or commercial sex is known to occur

  • Has secret cell phones or apps providing multiple cellphone numbers

  • In possession of material goods, inconsistent to the child’s access to money or socioeconomic status

  • In possession of bulk sexual paraphernalia (such as bulk condoms or lubricant)

  • Living out of suitcases, at motels, or in a car, or other evidence of housing insecurity

  • Unexplained access to large amounts of cash, pre-paid credit cards, or hotel keys

  • Tattoos or branding, such as those indicating money, matching those of other known trafficking victims or that the child is reluctant to explain

  • References traveling to other cities or states while missing or lack of knowledge of their current whereabouts

  • Drug dependency or frequent abuse of “party drugs” such as GHB, Rohpnol®, Ketamine, MDMA (Ecstasy), Methamphetamine


  • Chronically runs away from home (especially 3+ missing incidents)

  • Unexplained absences from school

  • Constantly sleeping during class

  • Stops engaging in activities they previous enjoyed (such as athletics or clubs)

  • Abruptly disconnects from family and friends

  • Significant changes in behavior, including their online activity

  • Avoids answering questions or lets others speak for them

  • Appears frightened, annoyed, resistant, or belligerent to authority figures

  • Reluctant to disclose true identity or personal information and/or has a secret online profile

  • References online escort ads or dating websites/apps

  • Uses language or emojis often associated with prostitution, such as “Trick,” “The Life,” “The Game”

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