Big Banks Join Fight Against Human Trafficking

In one case, police rescued girls enslaved in brothels masquerading as nail salons. In another, investigators traced traffickers’ every step as they hauled their human cargo across the New York state line. Both crimes had one thing in common – the perpetrators left telltale clues among the hundreds of millions of financial transactions that oil the banking industry each day: a credit card swipe here, an ATM withdrawal there, checks written and received.

Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance co-chaired an unprecedented gathering of major financial institutions and law enforcement agencies. “Trafficking at its heart is a crime motivated by money, and we have seen over the course of our prosecutions that there is much to be made. Financial institutions are in a unique position to spot red flags in banking activity and report them to law enforcement,” said Vance.

JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, TD Bank, Barclays, Western Union and American Express established a working group to fight trafficking, under the coordination of the Manhattan D.A.’s office and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. U.S. and European financial institutions already have a regulatory duty to report suspected illegal activity, but until now there have been few efforts to leverage methods used to spot money laundering, extremist violence and other crimes to hone in on human trafficking.

Martina Vandenberg, president of the Washington-based Pro Bono Legal Center, which assists with criminal and civil cases against traffickers, welcomed the initiative as an important new weapon in prosecutors’ armories. “We have never before bridged this idea of financial crime and human trafficking,” she said. “Bringing these two worlds together will, I think, only increase the number of trafficking prosecutions that we see in the United States and also around the world.” She added that one of the hardest parts of building a case was developing evidence that doesn’t rely solely on testimony from often-traumatized trafficking victims.

Benjamin Skinner, an investigative journalist and expert in modern day slavery, said getting banks involved could help “turn the corner” in the fight against trafficking. “One of the key steps, however, is for those actors in the financial services sector to evaluate their own portfolio companies, to look at those entities that they invest in, to make sure that there’s no slavery anywhere in the supply chains of those companies,” he said.

“The commitments taken today by the financial industry represent a huge step forward in using innovation and shared knowledge to attack human trafficking,” said Monique Villa, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Learn more at Tim Large’s Thomson Reuters Foundation article: Big banks join forces to fight human trafficking.

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