It is Time to Arm Financial Institutions with Weapons to Fight Human Trafficking

Today’s technology enables people to do more in one second than most could have ever imagined. With the click of a button, money can be transferred, users can search billions of websites, and messages can be sent instantaneously around the world. Access to knowledge, people and resources is truly within the touch of a screen.

While these advances in technology have vastly improved the lives of billions, they have also made it easier than ever for criminals to launder money and traffic people. Although it is not always making headlines, human trafficking (HT) is rampant. It is estimated that in 2016, about 40.3 million people were victims of HT worldwide. The presence of trafficking is not limited to developing countries. According to estimates, the U.S. population living in modern slavery today reaches 403,000 people or a sobering one in every 800 individuals.1

As a $150 billion dollar “industry,” the perpetrators of trafficking rely on banks and credit unions at each step of their value chains. From capturing a victim to monetizing her or his labor, traffickers are constantly transferring and storing funds.

Financial institutions (FI) are uniquely situated to disrupt these value chains—more importantly, committed to doing so. To do it effectively, this requires a shared infrastructure that can detect the cunning techniques traffickers employ. Traffickers are experts at evading detection by becoming familiar with banks’ automated red flag systems and finding ways to work around them. The only way for FIs to take measurable strides to catch and stop traffickers is by investing in and digitizing their collaboration. By doing so, they can expose suspicious and malicious activity with the speed and accuracy required to match traffickers.

FIs have an extremely difficult time identifying traffickers and their behaviors when they work in a silo. Traffickers take advantage of the independence of U.S. banks by diluting their activity and spreading it thinly across institutions. This makes it harder for any one institution to detect emerging trafficker profiles or patterns of suspicious activity. In addition, traffickers are constantly shifting their profiles and patterns—known as typologies—and they take advantage of limited technical infrastructure of any one single bank to spot crimes across their products and services.

Over the last few years, FIs have increasingly demonstrated their commitment to combating trafficking—as well as the realization that advancement requires teamwork—by organizing into industry groups to share information and discuss strategies. Collaborations such as the United States Banks Alliance from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Stop the Traffik, Liberty Asia and the Mekong Club include FIs as well as governmental organizations like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and nonprofit organizations (NPOs) like Polaris. These unions feature working groups to crowdsource financial patterns and incorporate external intelligence, such as labor and crime data to build clearer typologies. These partnered efforts signify excellent progress and institutions’ acknowledgement that information sharing is the only way to address this crime.

The goal is to see a larger impact of these cross-industry partnerships on trafficking—especially with the development of technology and data. Those same tools that give traffickers new avenues should be leveraged by those fighting against them. Instead, there have only been a few instances where FIs, law enforcement and NPOs were able to band together in an attempt to keep up with traffickers. The fact is modern slavery is thriving today. The number of human trafficking cases being reported is even growing.2

Part of the reason for the lack of collaboration is that the output is not complementary to banks’ workflows. The effort to unify the diverse insights and put them into a format institutions can actually use is quite robust—making it incredibly difficult to coordinate the necessary parties consistently. In addition, there is a need for something more than the incredibly willing participants that take action. An empowering start is access to tools and people with cross-institutional knowledge who can help translate across the various landscapes of FIs, law enforcement and NPOs.

While industry-working groups have created channels for cross-institutional communication and lists of new typologies, there is still a struggle to consistently organize and incorporate industry knowledge seamlessly into bank programs. Deeper and broader data will only help organizations move the dial if it is accompanied by infrastructure that makes it usable. As a collective, the financial community must enhance its digital sophistication.

At a personal level, our respective journeys in the fight to end HT mirror the experience of FIs. We, too, have become increasingly data and collaboration-focused. While one of us comes from an NPO, the other comes from law enforcement and financial services. We both recognize that combating HT requires cross-cutting partnerships. Today, we find ourselves sitting in data-centered roles driven to address the crime at a macro scale and knowing an industry-wide digital investment is the only way to achieve it.

We are happy to share that we are developing a resource that fills this gap. Standing Together Against Trafficking (STAT) was created with the mission of helping FIs access the most recent, straightforward knowledge of HT indicators through a technology platform. STAT will facilitate and enrich the sharing of typologies by organizing and mapping them for financial crime professionals. The platform will make it possible for members to adjust, add flags and alert other institutions about discoveries in real time.

We need to redefine collaboration to inherently involve technology and the infrastructure that puts our intelligence to use. We are excited to help expand collaboration for the financial services industry. Together, we are getting closer to putting an end to HT.

Angel Nguyen-Swift, CAMS, vice president of compliance and financial crimes solutions, Enigma, New York, NY, USA, angel.swift@enigma.com

Bradley Myles, executive director and CEO, Polaris, Washington, D.C., USA

  1. “Country Data: United States,” Global Slavery Index, 2018, https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/united-states/
  2. “National Human Trafficking Hotline Cases Jump By 13% in 2017,” Polaris, March 14, 2018, https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/united-states/

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