When we picture the women and men on the front lines of the fight against human trafficking, we usually picture police officers, social workers, and investigators. But, surprisingly, realtors may actually be able to fight human trafficking in ways police officers and other professionals can't. And one creative realtor is leading the charge. Earlier this year in California, a realtor was showing a house when she noticed something odd in the garage. In one corner of the empty space was a balled-up blanket and a bucket filled with urine. Concerned that something was up, she called the police. When they arrived, the police found a young girl from Egypt hidden in the house. She had been kidnapped from her home, brought to the U.S., and now was for sale. She was a little girl who might not have been found in time if a quick-thinking realtor hadn't acted.
Realtors are powerful allies in the fight against human trafficking because they have access to houses which are being sold or auctioned. Sometimes, traffickers use empty houses to store victims before moving them to another location. This is particularly true of foreclosed properties, which may be in disrepair and thus less likely to attract attention from buyers. Realtors are in a prime position to identify squatters, and whether or not those squatters are storing human cargo. Realtors may also pick up on clues that the prospective buyer intends to use the house as a brothel or holding place for trafficked people, or notice troubling details about the former owners of a house.
Maressa Fernandez, an agent with Millenia Real Estate Services in Claremont, California, has developed a strategy for using her realtor power to fight human trafficking. Whenever she goes to look at or show a house, she carries small slips of paper with information about how human trafficking victims can get help in several languages. If she sees someone she thinks might be being held against their will, she'll pretend to talk about the yard of the house or something similar and slip them the paper. It's an innovative way to use the access realtors have to identify and help potential victims.
Realtors who notice something unusual when showing a house, like signs someone is being held there, children or teens (especially foreign) working during a school day, or signs that large numbers of unrelated women or girls live there can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 or local law enforcement. And if you're a realtor or you know one, here's a big thanks for your role in the fight against human trafficking.