The global financial sector is not fully using tools it has at hand to help fight human trafficking, from reporting suspicious credit card activity to seizing assets, said a report released Tuesday by a United Nations think tank.
The United Nations University (UNU) said financial tools were a powerful means to disrupt the flow of money generated from human trafficking with the illegal industry estimated to be worth about $150 billion a year.
As many as 45.8 million people, most of them women and girls, are estimated to be enslaved globally, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.
They are typically forced to work in factories, mines and farms, sold for sex, trapped in debt bondage or born into servitude.
Money generated by human trafficking comes from crime and handling those funds can be considered money laundering or, in some cases, financing terrorism, the UNU report said.
"Human trafficking is both big business and a serious crime," said James Cockayne, head of the UNU Office at the United Nations and author of the report, in an accompanying statement.
"Disrupting the associated financial flows associated with these crimes will make a powerful contribution to improving these lives and preventing future crimes."
Financial institutions could help identify money couriers as well as so-called "straw men" used to conceal identities and cash-intensive businesses that typically play roles in human trafficking networks, the report said.
Risk assessment maps, due diligence procedures, information sharing and protecting whistleblowers are among the tools available to banks, private investors, credit risk agencies, institutional investors and regulators, it said.
Obstacles may include laws protecting privacy and confidentiality, technical issues or rules regarding defamation or libel, said the report, entitled "25 Keys to Unlock the Financial Chains of Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery."
In the United States, legislation was introduced in Congress in May that would boost financial regulations to help identify and report trafficking and help deny traffickers access to the financial system.