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Podcast: How bank data analysis helps fight modern slavery

Following the money to catch human trafficking criminals


Since 2014, more than 40 million people have been victimized by human trafficking. To understand how massive that number actually is, look at this map of Europe for a few seconds:

That’s right, no more Scandinavia. Croatia and Hungary are gone as well.

The number of human trafficking victims globally is as many as the inhabitants of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Croatia, and Hungary combined.

While human trafficking is often associated with (illegal) prostitution, about 25 million of these 40 million victims end up in labor exploitation situations — working in nail salons, nursery gardens, and restaurant kitchens, to name a few examples.

One unique characteristic sets this group apart from other victimized populations: Many people exploited in work situations, don’t realize they are victims. When nobody tells you about things like minimum wage and legal working hours, how can you be helped?

One solution is to detect such cases proactively, so law enforcement doesn’t have to wait for a formal victim statement. The University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands‘ Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, and Dutch bank ABN AMRO have created a one-of-a-kind partnership to analyze bank data for suspicious activity that could pinpoint human trafficking.

What’s it like to be a victim of human trafficking? Can technology and finance help develop a solution? For the very first episode of podcast Forensic Finance, we set out to answer these questions. And if you prefer reading, we added the full transcript below – but you’ll be missing out on some pretty epic music.

Transcript Forensic Finance, episode 1

‘How bank data analysis helps fight modern slavery.

Callum Booth: You’re listening to Forensic Finance, a podcast exploring if and how banks can help solve urgent global issues.

Forensic Finance is made by TNW an ABN AMRO and hosted by me, Callum Booth.

Worldwide, human trafficking is a huge problem. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: What we know is that from 2014, some 40.3 million people, men, women, girls, and boys are trafficked on a global scale.

Callum Booth: It’s a problem that’s hiding in plain sight, probably near you. 

Raila Abas: Since I’ve been doing this project. I’ve noticed that I think twice before I go to a nail salon to get my nails done. 

Callum Booth: You might not know about it, but many people who are trafficked might not know they’re victims either. 

Cora: Before, I didn’t know that I’m a victim of human trafficking. I didn’t know. 

Callum Booth: A solution to this enormous problem might be coming from an unexpected source: banks.

Jill Coster van Voorhout: If this model would indeed be used on an international level, we’d be solving the problem of a 150 billion US dollar industry. My name is Jill Coster-van Voorhout. I’m a sociologist and a lawyer. I work in the criminal law department at the University of Amsterdam.

We have developed a search strategy that tries to detect human trafficking and bank data before those victims are known to law enforcement or any other person.

Callum Booth: According to Jill, more than 40 million people have been trafficked worldwide since 2014. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: 24.9 million of those victims are in the labor exploitation sphere, so outside of sex trafficking.

Callum Booth: While many victims of human trafficking do end up being sexually exploited, a far larger number end up in labor exploitation situations, which include sectors like agriculture, horticulture, construction, tourism, and restaurants.

Jill Coster van Voorhout: So I asked a police investigator to please give me a tour of my hometown, Utrecht, and to go to all of the places in which they hadn’t identified human trafficking. So that could be a cafeteria, or a Chinese restaurant, or a factory building. And he took me on a tour to show where they found instances in my own neighborhood. Sometimes even two houses, next to mine.

Callum Booth: Many things we see day-to-day, we might not recognize as something illegal. These people are being used by criminals to work in unacceptable circumstances for low or no pay, or for much longer hours the law allows, you might not recognize some of these malicious practices. But even worse, the victims themselves often don’t know they’re being exploited at all. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: There are many reasons why victims don’t identify themselves as victims and why we might not find instances of human trafficking where victims are victimized by perpetrators.

Callum Booth: For instance, they may not be allowed contact with the outside world. They may also be paid far more than what they don’t at home, even though it’s much less than their country’s standard. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: I would say that one solution to that would be to identify victims who might not self identify as victims, by finding them through financial exploitation.

Callum Booth: Cora, who’s 66 now moved to the Netherlands from the Philippines. With seven kids and an unemployed husband, the only solution Cora saw was to leave her family and accept a housekeeping job in the Dutch town of Wassenaar, working for the Saudi Arabian ambassador and its family.

Cora: Before I don’t know that I’m a victim of human trafficking, I’d know. But because I know it’s only those working in prostitution; that is the only form of human trafficking. They are victims of human trafficking.

I came here in 2003. In 2004, my son came here and then in 2004, in December, my daughter came. And it’s so it’s nice that we are all together. We work together. And the salary of my son is $300, the salary of my daughter is $200. So 18 hours a day, seven days a week, we work for that [salary]. If you combine together, it’s big money for us, to help our family. So we just, we just work, work, work work. 

Callum Booth: After a few years, the excessive working hours took a real toll on Cora and even more so on her kids. 

Cora: And then, later on, my daughter said: “Mama, I feel crazy.” Because we are working so hard. Wake up in the morning, early morning, and then we finish the evening. And then sleep. Supposedly so we could take a rest. But we couldn’t take a rest. How can we take a rest; every time when they need us, we had to go down. So if we want to sleep we cannot sleep, because they will get angry.

Callum Booth: Cora is not allowed to leave the house which is guarded by security, except when she’s taking her employer’s kids to school, in which instances the driver is watching her closely. But she and her family do manage to get in touch with the outside world through a housekeeper who works at the neighboring home. Slowly, an escape plan forms in Cora’s mind.

Cora: The plan is: we need to escape on July 5th. We did that because we need the salary of June, so they can send it to the Philippines.

Callum Booth: Cora’s tragic story poses the question: How did we let this happen right under our noses? Why didn’t the teachers at school see the signals? Were there no other staff members who could help?  According to Jill, we need to do a better job in recognizing and reporting cases of modern slavery. And for that, we might need the help of technology and banks.

The financial sector has many ways in which they’re confronted with a crime like human trafficking. We started to think about one aspect of that, and that is to detect in bank data, human trafficking victims that we otherwise wouldn’t even have found. So Jill wanted to analyze bank data to discover cases of human trafficking. She just didn’t have access yet. Until Dutch bank ABN AMRO approached her.

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Raila Abas: Well as a bank, we have the corporate responsibility to make sure that our clients are protected and that human rights are protected. As a bank, we provide products and services to over five million people all over the world. So I think it is imperative that we look at all of our activities from a human rights perspective.

My name is Raila Abas, and I work as an intelligence specialist at the Security & Integrity Management department at ABN AMRO.

Callum Booth: As an intelligence specialist, Raila writes up reports on risks at the bank might have to deal with, but on the side, she’s now working with bank data to help identify possible victims of the human trafficking for labor exploitation.

Callum Booth: Raila is the person who actually applies the model Jill came up with, and does the investigative legwork to help identify victims. Jill kicks off how the model works. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: I tried to think about the ways in which a human trafficker would operate, what types of modus operandi human traffickers would use, in order to actually pretend to be that type of human trafficker and see how I would conduct my operation. The easy thing to do is actually to think about it as a normal business model or a network organization. 

We started with a public-private partnership with law enforcement and ABN AMRO Bank in June 2015. The reason was that we knew that neither the public sector nor the private sector would have sufficient information to do so on their own so they needed to partner up. We then started to think about what is it that a bank could do, if it has the right information to the tech to human trafficking victims in their data. 

Callum Booth: A whole bunch apparently. Jill identifies a couple dozen indicators of human trafficking, which she combines in one search query that runs on bank data. Some of these are financial, like an account where the full salary is always withdrawn right after it’s deposited. Others a contextual, such as several people in the same age group living at the same address.

Raila Abas: For example, if the data model has flagged, let’s say 20 clients of Polish descent, so if there are from a Polish nationality, and I find that they all have the same employer, let’s say a massage parlor…

Callum Booth: Raila then checks if the massage parlor has any suspicious activity like transactions after closing time…

Raila Abas: …on a regular basis, then that for me would be an indicator of perhaps that these employees have to work long hours, and especially if, for instance, the owner of the massage parlor…

Callum Booth: …has done anything criminal involving exploitation before, then should check for other things like if employees are registered at the same address, or if they withdrew their entire salary right after being paid.

Raila Abas: That, for me, are a lot of indicators. 

Callum Booth: Currently, the model uses 26 indicators of which Jill and Raila can only disclose a few. 

Jill Coster-van Voorhout: I’m not going to discuss more indicators, because we wouldn’t want to tip off human traffickers who by getting this information would actually have quite valuable information in their position to prevent our detection. So we want to make sure that we do explain, of course, what we’re doing. 

Callum Booth: The indicators seem to be working too. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: We have had instances where all 26 indicators were, indeed red flags and all collectively It was a sign of an allegation of human trafficking and those resulted in two investigations. So we know this works, because there’s a separate check by the Financial Intelligence Unit.

Callum Booth: The Financial Intelligence Unit is the Dutch financial crime authority, which checks if Raila’s findings are actually crimes and, if so, prosecutable. In other words, the bank itself doesn’t decide if something is criminal or not.

Raila Abas: I report my unusual activity reports, related to money laundering or terrorist financing, to the FIU. They have the sole mandate to declare any recordings as suspicious or not and they can check any subjects that I’ve mentioned in their own database to see if there are any ongoing investigations or not. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: So it’s not completely up to us, of course. We’ve had another organization look into those allegations and validate what we consider to be an important suspicion of such a crime was indeed seen as such, when then checked by a completely independent organization. 

Callum Booth: The model seems to be turning up solid results.

Jill Coster van Voorhout: We found 70 bank account holders that were related to those suspicious transactions. So this was as of, let’s say, June 2016, until February of 2019, resulting in two criminal investigations. One of them on a case that we didn’t even know existed.

Raila Abas: I’m very, very happy to be part of this project because proactively researching financial fingerprints of labor exploitation could actually help to prevent the crime, but also in the prosecution and protection of the victims because at the moment, a lot of court cases are based on victim testimonies and they’re heavily subjected to witness harassment. Providing some form of hard financial data…That’s something you cannot intimidate. You cannot intimidate financial evidence.

Callum Booth: Back to Cora and her escape. With the help of a compatriot who works the neighboring house, Cora is able to mobilize the Dutch-Filipino community to help her and her children escape. Her son, a mechanic, has disabled the security gate and when they finally leave the premises, their friends on the outside have arranged for a taxi to pick them up.

Cora: We rode the taxi at seven o’clock in the morning, and I said: “Oh my god, we look like birds that fly freely.” And I’m so very happy and then I give the man…It’s only 20 euros, but I said: “Okay, this is 25. The five euro is for you because I’m really happy.”

Callum Booth: Today, Cora and her son and daughter live and work in the Netherlands legally. Cora is an ambassador for FairWork, a nonprofit organization fighting labor exploitation. She offers support and advice to other victims of human trafficking.

Cora: I try to talk to people: “Maybe you know somebody [in a human trafficking situation]?” They say: no, no, no, no, (because they are afraid). No no, no, no. Maybe you know somebody? If you are not [a victim], maybe you know somebody, then we can help each other.

Callum Booth: Cases like Cora’s could have been detected with the model Jill and Raila are currently using. Their project was the first in the world that used bank data for the purpose of finding victims of human trafficking for labor exploitation. But, other banks have expressed their interest in the model. Jill is optimistic about the future. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout: If you use that financial information to prevent human trafficking from occurring altogether, because you can disrupt human traffickers‘ practices, and you can make sure that they can’t get to exploit the victims, that is the potential that financial information and financial evidence has.

Callum Booth: But just because the banks are now stepping up doesn’t mean you, the nail salon visitor, the maid employer, the casual passer-by, are off the hook. Don’t ignore the signals, report suspicious situations anonymously if you want, but take responsibility. 

Jill Coster van Voorhout:  It’s a disgrace that something like this happens in a civilized country, we should all be offended by it. And we should try and see if we can all be a part of the solution rather than the problem.

Callum Booth: This was the first episode of Forensic Finance, a podcast by TNW and ABN AMRO, exploring if and how banks can help solve urgent global issues.

We’d like to thank Cora, Jill, Raila, and FairWork for sharing their stories. Subscribe for more episodes or search on your favorite podcast app. I’ve been Callum Booth. Thank you for listening.

Creative concept and research: TNW
Audio production: Big Orange
Big thanks to: UvA, ABN AMRO and FairWork

Whatever your specialism, with ABN AMRO your talent and creativity will help build the bank of the future. Find out what it’s like to work for ABN AMRO and learn more about their exciting job opportunities.

Published August 26, 2019 — 13:29 UTC