PEORIA — Human trafficking is happening in the Peoria area, but it’s rarely reported because the signs are often overlooked.

Early Tuesday morning about 40 service technicians from Illinois American Water learned how to spot it during an hour-long class led by the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria. Illinois American Water took part in the training to help make central Illinois safer, said Eric Larson, the company’s Peoria superintendent.

“Can you imagine the impact?” he said. “If we could help just one person, the impact that we would have. We look for programs like this that match up with who we are, and ways we can serve our community.”

Service people have a unique opportunity to spot signs of human trafficking.

“It’s important that everyone in our community has a basic understanding of what human trafficking is, particularly those of you who may be going into homes or businesses in the course of your job,” said Sara Sefried, director of human trafficking services for CFPA. “And I also want to make sure you understand what resources are available to these victims.”

Statistics accurately depicting the prevalence of human trafficking are hard to come by, said Sefried. It’s under reported. But judging from calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888), Illinois ranks ninth in the country for the number of cases.

“We were selected by the Department of Justice for a three-year grant to provide specialized services to victims because of the number of calls in our area,” said Sefried. Now in it’s third year, the grant has provided comprehensive services to victims and training to help people better spot signs of human trafficking. Sefried has been training police officers across central Illinois, as well as hospital workers, teachers and students.

“We taught students what the common lures human traffickers use to attract victims,” said Sefried. “Last October we worked with Peoria Public Schools as part of our teen dating violence curriculum.”

Human trafficking is when individuals are compelled by force, fraud or coercion to provide labor or sex.

“There’s a big difference between prostitution, where someone willingly engages in sexual activities for money, and human trafficking,” said Sefried. “In human trafficking someone is forced.”

Force can be subtle, Sefried told the group. Human traffickers look for people who are vulnerable. An undocumented worker may fear threats of deportation, and often victims are forced to commit crimes by the human trafficker, who then threatens to report those crimes.

“People who are experiencing homelessness often fall prey to human traffickers,” said Sefried. “Or it may happen to someone because of drug abuse.”

While sex trafficking is the most common form, labor trafficking is also an issue. Industries include agriculture, manufacturing, construction and restaurants, but the most common is traveling sales crews — the people who go door to door asking residents to switch their energy provider, for example.

Human trafficking is the second largest crime in the world, second only to illegal drugs, said Sefried. In Peoria in the last year and a half, CFPA has seen 53 victims of human trafficking, with 85 percent involved in sex trafficking. Victims were 97 percent female, and 87 percent were U.S. citizens, said Sefried.

“There is a myth that human trafficking only happens to immigrants,” said Sefried. She told the story of a 12-year-old girl, “Molly,” who came from a rural community near Peoria. Her mother provided her to a sex trafficker for reduced rent, cash and drugs.

“She was groomed by her trafficker for sex abuse, which turned into forced pornography then sex trafficking,” said Sefried. “Through all this she attended school in spite of the abuse. No one in the school recognized the signs of sex abuse.”

Another victim was a 62-year-old woman, an Indonesian immigrant who came to the U.S. legally through an employment agency. She was placed with a family with the promise of $700 a month with room and board.

“She did earn a salary, but only $100 a month, and the room and board was a yoga mat on the laundry room floor,” said Sefried. “She wasn’t allowed to leave the home unsupervised, and they monitored her phone calls home. She was physically and verbally abused.”

Neither victim was chained — they were coerced with threats. It’s not uncommon for victims to develop an attachment to their abusers, said Sefried.

“Victims won’t run to you,” she said. “They are often scared to talk to anybody, and they feel shame. They might try to protect the trafficker, who might be a boyfriend or husband or mother, like Molly. She did everything to not let people know what was happening to her. She was afraid of being separated from her family.”

Service providers can spot incidents of human trafficking by looking for telltale signs. Often multiple victims live in the same home. Few furnishings or personal items, multiple mattresses around the residence, or high security, like bars on the windows or padlocks on interior doors, could be signs. Lots of cash or condoms laying around could be signs of sex trafficking. In businesses victims may be forced to live in the building where they work, or they may be transported to and from the job site by their trafficker. Workers who are afraid to answer questions or look malnourished or in ill health could also be a sign, said Sefried. Another sign is branding - a woman who has unusual tattoos is a place where women don’t usually get tattoos could be mean she's being trafficked. One of the CFPA’s clients had her trafficker’s name tattooed on her forehead and cheekbone.

“More common brandings are bar code signs, the king’s crown, or dollar signs,” said Sefried.

Anyone who suspects human trafficking should call CFPA at 1-800-559-SAFE (7233), which provides all services to victims free of charge, from housing, to counseling and legal services.

“Most of the victims we have helped have broken free and found us,” said Sefried. “They found us by word-of-mouth. Someone had told them ‘there is a place that can help you.’”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or Follow her on, and subscribe to her on