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Sex trafficking in the short-term rental industry: Part 1

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Know the warning signs

Sex trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal activities in the world, with short-term rentals becoming a prime venue for traffickers. Autohost worked with human trafficking experts to find out more about sex trafficking in the industry and how property managers can help put an end to it. Here’s what we found out:

When you hear about sex trafficking, you might think of the plot to some Liam Neeson movie where a foreign child is kidnapped and smuggled across borders to be sexually exploited. But the reality of sex trafficking is much scarier—and closer to home. Children from your own backyard are just as vulnerable.

And many property managers could be contributing to the problem without realizing it. The hospitality industry is a prime location for sex trafficking. To make sure your properties aren’t being used as a venue for criminal operations, here’s everything you need to know about sex trafficking and the signs to watch for.  

Sex trafficking in the hospitality industry

The buying and selling of people is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, according to the State of California Department of Justice. Sex trafficking alone generates over $99 billion USD in profits every year with an estimated 4.8 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation, according to the International Labor Organization.

And the hospitality industry plays a prominent role. Approximately 75% of U.S.-based human trafficking survivors report having some contact with a hotel or motel during their trafficking experience, according to Polaris, a non-profit organization devoted to stopping human trafficking. The prevalence of  hotels and motels in sex trafficking is well-documented, but stats on short-term rentals are still vague. 

That’s because much of the data about sex trafficking comes well after the incident’s occurred, when survivors feel willing to share their experiences. Since the short-term rental industry is still relatively new, few survivors trafficked through short-term rentals have come forward.

But due to the private and anonymous nature of short-term rentals, experts are confident that they’ve become popular venues for sex trafficking.

Compared to hotels, short-term rentals are a low-risk option for traffickers, according to Elaine McCartin, Associate Director of Corporate Partnerships at Polaris. For starters, there’s no front desk in short-term rentals, allowing the trafficker to avoid face-to-face interactions or the watchful gaze of employees who, in the hotel industry, are often trained to detect trafficking.  Plus, law enforcement isn’t proactively looking for sex trafficking in residential areas.

The location and the layout of the property can also play into their favor, according to human trafficking expert Dr. Judy Osterhage, who provides courses for hospitality employees on how to detect trafficking. The trafficker can book a property with multiple bedrooms instead of having to book multiple hotel rooms. This makes operations easier to monitor and control. Especially as extra “guests” cycle in and out of the property. 

Flexibility coupled with anonymity makes short-term rentals perfect for traffickers.

Who's at risk

There’s no single profile for trafficking victims. They can come from any background and any neighborhood, even your own. In the U.S., anywhere from 240,000 to 325,000 children are at risk of being victimized each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 

While anyone could be targeted, traffickers like to take advantage of vulnerability. The majority of trafficking victims are marginalized people—undocumented migrants, homeless teenagers—who are more likely to take greater risks in order to provide for themselves and their families. A common target is children in vulnerable situations, including those in foster care. The average age of a sex trafficked victim is 13, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline

Signs of sex trafficking

With the anonymous nature of short-term rentals, property managers need to be looking for signs of sex trafficking from booking to checkout. While one red flag on its own could be harmless, a combination should raise an alarm. We’ve broken down the signs at each stage of the reservation: 

In the booking

In hotels, employees are trained to look for visual signs of sex trafficking, including young guests who are inappropriately dressed for their age, avoid eye contact and are accompanied by an older, dominant figure. But without face-to-face interactions, short-term rental operators need to examine the booking itself, paying close attention to any discrepancies.

Multiple bookings

Especially during big, city-wide events, pay attention to guests who book multiple properties all in the same area. Traffickers are likely to book multiple properties in close proximity so that they can better monitor operations. If you manage properties across multiple cities, check with other property managers in the area to see if they’ve noticed  similar patterns.

Mismatching information 

Check to see if the name of the person booking matches the name on their ID and credit card. The trafficker will avoid using their real name so that they can’t be traced, relying instead on a fake ID or the victim’s ID. That’s why you need to make sure everything lines up. 

Be wary of guests booking properties that are too big for them. A single person doesn’t need a four-bedroom house. Check the guest list to make sure the number of guests staying matches the size of the property. If it doesn’t, follow up with the guest to find out why they chose your property.

Underage guests

Most online travel agencies (OTAs) don’t allow individuals under the age of 18 to book a rental, but in case they manage to slip through, keep an eye out for underage guests booking reservations, as a disproportionate number of sex trafficking victims are children. It could be a trafficker using the victim’s ID.

Prepaid credit cards

Paying with a prepaid credit card (or any anonymous payment method) could be a sign that the guest is trying to mask their identity. Make it your policy to only accept payments from registered credit cards.

Guest list

If the guest has booked a large property, find out who else they’re traveling with. A trafficker will be hesitant to provide names of the other “guests.”

Bad credit score

Running a credit check will show whether the guest is in good financial standing—and can also reveal a possibility of trafficking. In trafficking situations, it’s common for the trafficker to force a victim to use their own credit card, ruining their credit. 

Get started screening your guests

In your guest communications

A trafficker will want as many details about your property as possible, but they’ll be reluctant to share their own information. In communications with your guest, take note of any suspicious or overly assertive behavior.

Odd/specific requests

Keep an eye on guests making odd requests. This could include asking for extra linens despite a short stay, asking for multiple sets of keys to the property, or even asking for a virtual tour of the property before check-in—traffickers might do this to plan out their operations.

Communication discrepancies

Discrepancies in communication are never a good sign. If the guest is genuine in their intentions, there shouldn’t be mismatching information. Be wary of anyone who changes their story when it comes to their purpose of stay.

Suspicious concerns

When booking, traffickers will be looking for a short-term rental that offers self check-in and is located in an area with minimal law enforcement. If a guest brings up any of these concerns, flag their reservation for further review.

During the stay

Bad reservations will, occasionally, slip through. To prevent them from causing harm, you should always be monitoring your property, whether that be through noise sensors or video surveillance. 

Limit any video surveillance to the property’s driveway. This keeps the experience comfortable for good guests, while still monitoring traffic (and license plates) in and out of your property.

Multiple cars

If you do monitor your property via camera or are able to do a driveby, check how many cars are parked in the driveway and on the street. This is especially important if you see a rotation of different cars parked outside the property. 

Unregistered guests

While it’s difficult to know which guests are on the guest list, a telltale sign of sex trafficking is guests who visit the property for short periods of time and don’t stay overnight. If the property is being used for escort trafficking, you’ll see different customers cycle in and out during the stay. Keep your cameras on the building’s exterior and watch for multiple guests making quick visits.

Who to contact if you suspect sex trafficking is happening at your properties

If it’s an emergency situation, where there’s a threat of imminent danger, contact your local police. Otherwise, reach out to the trafficking hotline in your region:

Canada: Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline

U.S.: National Human Trafficking Hotline 

Europe: National Hotlines 

Trafficking hotlines are better equipped to deal with situations involving sex trafficking. The hotline can contact the appropriate law enforcement and service provider, making sure the victim gains an advocate who can help them navigate the criminal justice system. 

For tips on preventing sex trafficking in your properties, check out part II of our blog series.For training resources for your team, check out www.traffickingawareness.org.