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Banks get tools to spot human traffickers moving illicit profits

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A set of sophisticated tools will help financial institutions uncover profits from human trafficking - estimated at $150 billion per year - that are moving through their systems, an anti-trafficking coalition said on Thursday.

Tools to detect suspicious transactions will allow companies to more easily spot traffickers using their banking or money-moving services to handle profits, said organizers of United States Banks Alliance.

More than 40 million people were enslaved around the world as of 2016, according to an estimate by the Walk Free Foundation and the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO).

Human traffickers play a key role in forcing many people into slavery, which includes work in homes and factories, sexual exploitation and marriages they did not consent to.

The human trafficking industry reaps some $150 billion each year in illegal profits, according to the ILO.

“Like any crime that creates revenue, they still have to figure out a way to conceal those funds,” said Mark Selby, special agent in charge for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of the alliance.

“They use the formal banking system to continue and carry out their activities,” he said.

The United States Banks Alliance, which launched the initiative, was put together by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.

It includes American Express , Bank of America, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, PayPal, Western Union, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s investigations arm, the New York County District Attorney, and the U.S.-based anti-trafficking group Polaris.

Financial records can be powerful weapons in prosecuting traffickers, especially when survivors find it too difficult to be strong witnesses in court, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“This kind of gathering of hard data, it shows dollar movement and who owns the credit cards, these kinds of things are the circumstantial and direct evidence, hard evidence that helps build these cases,” Vance said.

Traffickers need financial institutions, making cooperation with banks, credit-card companies and other such companies critical, said Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris.

“Traffickers see a very high value in managing their money using legitimate financial institutions,” he said. “They don’t want to be stuck with the burden of having too much cash on hand.”

The tools replace an initiative launched by the Thomson Reuters Foundation with the New York County District Attorney’s office in 2014, and another in Europe in 2017 that trained bank employees to spot and report signs of human trafficking.