Key factors in the industry’s fight against human trafficking

As the prevalence of human trafficking has become common knowledge in the past couple of years, the pertinent question is: Why have hotels become so vulnerable to these crimes? Aside from offering a space in which the guest retains legitimate expectations of privacy, the automation of hotel operations has made it much more difficult for hotel employees and representatives to spot and report potential human trafficking victims and their perpetrators. Automated hotel check-ins/check-outs, online reservation systems and do not disturb signs all limit interaction between hotel staff members and guests—thereby curtailing potential points of identification and intervention. So, in an age of anonymity and automation, how does a hotel work to both combat human trafficking and insulate itself from any potential criminal or civil liability? 

While the jury is still out on whether lawsuits brought by human trafficking victims against hoteliers will ultimately succeed, hotels can (and should) begin taking the steps needed to protect both themselves and their guests. There are myriad policies that a hotel can implement, but the appropriate steps for each individual hotel likely will depend on the size, geographic location and amount of foot traffic each experiences. Every hotel is different and there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to implementing the specific policies and procedures that will be most effective for a hotel and its employees. While nothing can completely insulate a hotel from liability or the threat of litigation, these best practices can be implemented at large and small hotels, as well as luxury brands and economy motels, to mitigate or reduce the risk of future litigation involving human trafficking allegations. 

Step 1: Create a Checklist

Creating a checklist for both management and staff to follow is an effective first step in achieving consistency in the identification and reporting of potential human trafficking ventures. ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit organization focused on ending the sexual exploitation of children, published its antitrafficking hotel checklist to ensure that all hotels have a guideline to follow in taking the appropriate measures to protect victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. While ECPAT-USA’s checklist includes some recommendations that take time to implement, some items can be executed almost immediately, including: 

  • Requiring vehicle information and a photo ID at check-in;
  • Discontinuing the renting of rooms by the hour; 
  • Blocking internet access to websites that run or advertise online sex ads; 
  • Registering for notifications when online sex ads on CraigsList or other websites reference your hotel name or include pictures of guestrooms; and
  • Changing Wi-Fi passwords in rooms and cafes regularly. 

These simple changes can eliminate a trafficker’s ability to coordinate a hotel rendezvous, as well as intercept any attempts to traffic someone using the hotel as a potential venue. By monitoring online postings for the hotel’s name or Google images of guestrooms, hotels can alert police upon notification, thereby potentially preventing the initial or continued trafficking of a victim. 

While not on ECPAT-USA’s checklist, another recommendation that can be quickly implemented is to discontinue the use of do not disturb signs. While not the intended purpose, a trafficker can utilize these signs to keep their victims hidden from sight for long periods of time. During these periods, otherwise common intervention points, such as maid service, roomservice or concierge services become nonexistent, thereby drastically limiting a hotel’s opportunities to detect and report trafficking on the property. Steps such as the removal of do not disturb signs have been implemented at both large and small hotels, including Disney Resorts. Disney, in dropping the use of these signs, has turned instead to the use of “room occupied” signs, which provides staff with the right to enter rooms for maintenance and cleaning. While discussed more fully below, allowing maintenance and cleaning staff to enter rooms on a daily basis provides opportunities for staff to observe potential signs of trafficking, such as an inordinate number of condoms in a waste bin or the existence of multiple cellphones or computers. It may also provide an opportunity for a victim to privately ask for help.

These intervention points can be further utilized with respect to late-night and early-morning check-ins. Specifically, forcing guests to check in at the front desk during late hours can be an effective tool in identifying human trafficking. This policy allows staff to inspect IDs, observe the guest’s demeanor, assist with luggage (or notice the lack thereof) and offer to assist the guests to their room. These opportunities present points in time that the identification of human trafficking can be observed or inferred, thereby allowing more time for the appropriate intervention to occur. 

Step: 2: Create a Written Policy Against Trafficking and Train Frequently

Properly training employees and staff on how to spot human trafficking and what to do in response is the only way to effectively combat trafficking. A company’s policy should be available to everyone, including maintenance, maid services, security and concierge services. Moreover, these policies should include detailed information regarding training requirements, identification, response to and reporting of any potential violations, and proper documentation. However, written policies are only as strong as the efforts put forth in training every employee. The more knowledge an employee is armed with, the better judgment they will have when faced with a situation that requires discreet and quick action. 

Entities such as the American Hotel & Lodging Education Institute have developed training programs, in conjunction with ECPAT, to assist hotels in ensuring their employees are trained appropriately. While automation has changed the hotel industry and guests’ expectations, the evolution of available technology can also be leveraged to ensure that staff have human trafficking protocols at their fingertips. The availability of online training can assist management in making certain that all employees participate in training while also providing routine reminders on what to look for to spot human trafficking.

Step 3: Watch for Warning Signs

Being aware of the telltale signs of human trafficking is increasingly important because it is the best way to combat trafficking. Knowing how human trafficking works and what to look for helps staff take notice of even the smallest warning signs and potentially provide much-needed assistance to a victim. Thus, training employees and staff on the signs of human trafficking is of the utmost importance because the signs can be innocuous and extremely difficult to identify in certain situations. Having a staff that is well equipped to spot and identify potential victims is the surest way to assist in combating and preventing trafficking at hotels. Based on the Department of Homeland Security, victim advocacy groups and sex trafficking victims, the following are common telltale signs of trafficking: 

•    Excessive number of men going to and from a room; 
•    Guests who do not have their own ID, money or luggage; 
•    Guests who are malnourished, do not make eye contact and appear fatigued; 
•    Older men controlling and monitoring younger females; 
•    Multiple cellphones, computers or other devices in a room or being used by a single guest; 
•    Large numbers of condoms or sex paraphernalia in waste bins; 
•    “Friends” or “relatives” of a guest who are unable to provide identification information for the guest they are visiting; and 
•    Excessive requests for clean towels and bed sheets. 

Step 4: Taking Action When Necessary

Employees and staff should be aware of the reporting procedures if they suspect a trafficking perpetrator or victim is on the premises. However, acting when there is a suspicion of trafficking can be tricky because there should be a fine balance between a guest’s expectation of privacy and their safety. Many hoteliers are weary of an overzealous employee misidentifying or calling authorities on a guest when no crime has occurred and no danger is present, putting the hotel in a tough position and potentially risking lawsuits alleging false arrest. Naturally, the backstop to prevent this from occurring is to train each employee on a regular basis and ensure that your staff is aware of and understands the protocols involved with reporting potential trafficking. 

Moreover, developing a healthy relationship with local authorities and nonprofit groups can be extremely helpful because these entities often employ experts or specialists who combat trafficking daily. The entities can range from your local police department to national nonprofits such as Polaris and ECPAT, as well as local organizations such as Guardian Group out of Bend, Ore., which has provided training to hotel workers for the past eight years on combating sex trafficking. Once these relationships are established, discussions regarding human trafficking can occur and be incorporated into existing protocols. 

Takeaways From Pending Litigation

Many hotels and large franchises were blindsided when lawsuits began to pop up around the U.S. in 2019, raising allegations of sex trafficking, as well as violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Even though some of these franchises have been on the forefront of developing new policies, procedures and training seminars for employees nationwide to assist in combating human trafficking, they were nonetheless named as defendants. Because almost all of these lawsuits are still pending, it is difficult to project how they will ultimately be resolved. However, based on the claims that have been brought by former victims of human trafficking, one takeaway from these lawsuits is that companies may want to re-evaluate their record-keeping policies. Notably, the statute of limitation under the TVPRA is 10 years. Many of the lawsuits brought in 2019 and 2020 involve claims that originated in 2010 or 2011, making it difficult to locate potential witnesses and relevant documents. 

Additionally, the nature of human trafficking creates a dilemma for hotels seeking to avoid exposure to a TVPRA claim. In many of the pending cases, plaintiffs do not plead that hotel defendants have direct knowledge of or directly associate themselves with traffickers, but rather, these defendants “knew or should have known” the plaintiff’s traffickers were participating in a sex trafficking venture while on the premises. However, the Southern District of Ohio has noted that plaintiffs must make a “showing of a continuous business relationship between the trafficker and the hotels, such that it would appear the trafficker and the hotels have established a pattern of conduct or could be said to have a tacit agreement.” Quite commonly, plaintiffs claim they were trafficked at a particular hotel on numerous occasions, sometimes for weeks at a time. The allegation of a continuous business relationship involving multiple stays has seemed to satisfy most federal courts, thereby dissuading the granting of early dismissals. 

While a hotel defendant may not be able to procure an early dismissal, whether due to federal pleading standards or the allegations raised by each respective plaintiff, implementing the appropriate policies and procedures to identify, prevent and combat sex trafficking can help insulate defendants from potential liability.

Sabrina Atkins is a litigation associate at Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers and Pamela Lee is a partner at the firm.