by BEATRICE FANTONI
A made-in-Canada partnership between banks, police forces and the national financial watchdog agency is helping fight human trafficking by tracking suspicious financial transactions. “It’s all about doing your part,” says Joseph Mari, a senior manager in the Bank of Montreal’s anti-money laundering financial intelligence unit and a lead organizer on Project Protect. Human trafficking touches many industries – transportation, tourism, banking – so everyone has a duty to help the authorities, Mari says.
The initiative was launched in December 2015 to raise awareness about the connection between human trafficking and money laundering and to increase banks’ reporting to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC). Banks’ anti-money laundering departments report suspicious financial activity, which points to possible human trafficking to FinTRAC, which in turn analyzes and, if necessary, shares the information with law enforcement agencies. Project Protect’s organizers include representatives from Canada’s major banks, police, tech companies, non-profit groups and the federal public safety agency.
Human trafficking is broadly defined as coercing victims into servitude for financial gain, most often through forced sexual exploitation. The International Labour Organization estimates profits from forced sexual exploitation at $99 billion (U.S.) globally, but it’s not just a faraway problem. The Globe and Mail reported in 2016 that 94% of human trafficking cases identified by the RCMP involved Canadian citizens being trafficked within Canada’s borders.
Banks are in a perfect position to help spot human trafficking because they can detect suggestive patterns in financial transactions, Mari says. The potential warning signs include frequent cash withdrawals or deposits in the middle of the night; frequent purchases of plane, train or bus tickets in short time spans; or multiple hotel bookings on the same date.
Mari says banks are already required to report other types of suspicious transactions, such as possible money laundering or financing of terrorist activity, so Project Protect fits within that existing mandate. “It’s about trying to become better at what we do,” Mari says.
Commander Michel Bourque of the Montreal police service says his team has benefitted from the project. Since the information provided by FinTRAC is collected via an existing legal mechanism which respects privacy laws, investigators don’t have to apply for warrants or court orders to obtain it.
Project Protect has helped the Toronto Police Service’s human trafficking investigations immensely, says Detective Sergeant Nunzio Tramontozzi, who is in charge of the human trafficking enforcement team at the Toronto Police Service.Because there’s no paper trail in the human trafficking industry, the financial information can help corroborate victim testimony, he says.
The victims – mostly women and girls born and raised in Canada, some as young as 13 – are moved around the country by their traffickers, Tramontozzi says. If a victim can recall where and when she or her trafficker made certain bank deposits, the police can then check that statement against the financial information.
Thanks in part to FinTRAC reports and a tip from Crime Stoppers, Toronto Police investigated, arrested and charged two people in an international human trafficking investigation last year. Police followed the money and uncovered a trafficking ring that lured women from Portugal to Canada with false promises of clerical jobs and then forced them into the sex trade upon their arrival in Toronto.
Tramontozzi says investigators were able to see that some $3 million had been laundered through bank accounts. They located the massage parlours, identified the people associated with the trafficking and got the victims the help they needed. “[The financial information] assisted us in getting onto the right people quicker,” Tramontozzi says. “If it had taken longer there might have been more victims.”
Project Protect has caught the eye of jurisdictions abroad because of its unique approach. Mari and others from the Project Protect team have met with, or made presentations to, the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the FBI, Mexican federal police, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe and even INTERPOL.
Mari says he’s really taken aback by how many people across sectors have rallied around a cause like human trafficking. Reporting has increased significantly year over year, he adds. “We definitely have a much bigger impact this way than working in a silo approach.”