Banks can help stop human trafficking, says Manhattan prosecutor

by Tim Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation

Banks and credit card companies can play a crucial role in shutting down human traffickers by flagging the electronic fingerprints they leave behind, says Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

An estimated 14,000 to 17,000 people are smuggled into the United States each year and forced to work as domestic servants, laborers or in the sex trade, according to estimates from the DA's office.

"All sorts of electronic and digital fingerprints are left when you have a crime committed or a business enterprise is being run," said Vance. "Financial institutions are in a unique position to spot red flags in banking activity and report them to law enforcement."

On April 25, Vance co-hosted with Thomson Reuters Foundation a roundtable discussion that brought together major financial institutions and law enforcement agencies to discuss closer cooperation in the fight against human trafficking, a global business worth $32 billion a year, according to the U.S. State Department.

The International Labor Organisation estimates almost 21 million people worldwide are victims of slavery or forced labor. Almost half are thought to be trafficked, either across borders or within their own countries.

The roundtable, held in New York, was part of a new initiative joined by JP Morgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc, Bank of America Corp, Wells Fargo & Co, Toronto Dominion Bank, Barclays, Western Union and American Express to fight trafficking.

The DA's office and the Thomson Reuters Foundation are coordinating the efforts of a working group set up by the banks, which will meet in early July. 

U.S. and European financial institutions already have a regulatory duty to report suspected illegal activity, but there have been few efforts to leverage methods used to spot money laundering, extremist violence and other crimes to hone in on human trafficking.

The first bank to do so was JP Morgan Chase, which on Thursday offered to share with the other financial institutions in the working group its model for monitoring transactions and partnering with law enforcement.