Human Trafficking: What Landlords & Property Managers Must Know
| 5 min. read

A Real-World Scenario: Human Trafficking in Berkeley, CA

In 2000, 62-year-old Lakireddy Balireddy (sometimes written as "Bali Reddy") was one of the wealthiest landlords in Berkeley, California. Reddy Realty, his company, owned over 1000 rental properties, on top of a thriving restaurant downtown. He was bringing in over $1 million in income each month; and his Berkeley properties alone were worth $60 million.

However, all of that fell apart. A resident in one of Lakireddy's buildings spotted a group of men hurriedly carrying a rug out of a unit and loading it into a Reddy Realty van. She noticed that a young girl had followed the men to the van and seemed unusually distraught.

To the neighbor's horror, she noticed a leg sticking out of the rug. The situation escalated before her eyes: One of the men tried to pull the girl into the van, and she resisted with all of her might. The onlooker ran outside, stopped them, and instructed a bystander to call the police immediately.

Wrapped in the carpet was 15-year-old Lalitha Vemireddy—still alive, but just barely. Her sister, Sitha Vemireddy, wasn't as lucky: Her body was found at the bottom of the stairwell of the apartment building that the men had just exited. The other survivor at the scene was 18-year-old Laxmi Patati, who lived with the two sisters.

According to the coroner, Seetha had been killed by a carbon monoxide leak caused by a blocked heating vent in the girls' residence. The accident brought an end to a decades-long scheme that may otherwise have continued unimpeded for many more years.

Investigators discovered that Lakireddy had imported the three teens from his hometown in India and had forced them into prostitution. Seetha had been "given" to Lakireddy by her family when she was just 12 years old, ostensibly under the guise of a better life in America.

When it came to Lakireddy's despicable crimes, however, this was just the tip of the iceberg. Authorities arrested Lakireddy in January of 2000—just two days before he was scheduled to leave for India with another human trafficking victim.

Ultimately, the Department of Justice discovered that the landlord and his family had imported dozens of young women each year from lowest-caste communities in India to be trafficked in the U.S. The women were sexually abused by Lakireddy, his sons, and his brother and sister-in-law. In addition, they were forced to work on his properties and in his restaurant for little or no pay. This sexual slavery in California was a continuation of similar atrocities that had occurred on his property in Velvadam, India for years.

One of his former victims stated that she had been "given" to Lakireddy when she was nine. "The day I was given to him, my childhood ended and my misery began," she said.

Ultimately, Lakireddy served just eight years in prison and paid $2 million in restitution to Sitha's family, as well as Laxmi Patati, the third human trafficking victim in the apartment.

A San Francisco Gate article on the arrest of Lakireddy (who they refer to as Reddy) provides more information.

Human Trafficking: What It Is & How to Spot It

In 2014, an estimated 21 million people were being held in what Human Rights First describes as "modern-day slavery." It's believed that 22% are victims of sex trafficking, and the remainder are forced into mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and other hard labor industries. 55% of victims are female, and 26% are children. Traffickers earn a profit of about $150 billion each year, $99 billion of which is a result of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, there were only 18,930 prosecutions and 6,609 convictions for human trafficking around the world.

Landlords and property managers may be surprised by how much they can do to help vulnerable women and children, and assist law enforcement. For example, one Oregon landlord's suspicions were aroused when he noticed the delivery of an unusual number of mattresses to a house that he was renting out—and a later installed stripper pole. After keeping an eye on the property for a time, he was ultimately able to evict the tenants.

Be on the lookout for the following signs. These indications may seem odd but innocent upon first glance, but in combination, they may be a sign of human trafficking:

  • A dwelling has too many people living in it
  • The property garners an unusual amount of traffic
  • The tenant installs interior locks on doors and windows—to keep people in, not to keep people out
  • A tenant or applicant does not have access to her own personal documents
  • An adult tenant does not appear to be allowed to drive herself or travel alone anywhere
  • A tenant or resident always seems to need someone else to speak for her, though the two don't seem to know one another well
  • Individuals appear fearful or show signs of abuse or malnourishment
  • A group of people is picked up, taken somewhere else, then brought back at around the same time every day
  • A tenant is unusually anxious after mentioning law enforcement
  • A tenant avoids eye contact
  • A tenant or guest lacks of knowledge of her whereabouts—even about what city she's in. This is because human trafficking victims rarely leave their residences, except to be transported to a new location.
  • Conversations always seem to be scripted or rehearsed.

In a more recent case involving a motel in Philadelphia, the owners and management of the Roosevelt Inn are facing personal civil liability. Investigators discovered that traffickers had used the hotel to sexually exploit a young girl for two years to over a thousand different men starting when she was just 14.

The girl, now 17, is suing the hotel's owners, management company, and hotel manager Yanga Patel personally. Patel denied knowing that anything illegal was happening, citing that he was in his office and didn't see anything wrong. The victim's attorney responded, citing that Patel would have noticed over 100 men showing up over a period of a couple days. The cleaning crew came into the room and oftentimes found boxes or waste cans full of used condoms. It would have been impossible for the front desk to not recognize the influx of men and an extraordinary amount of linen service, all going to and from one room.

As one example of potential landlord or property manager liability, Pennsylvania passed an anti-trafficking law in 2014 that gives state officials broad latitude to seize all assets "derived from, involved in or used, or intended to be used" to conduct human trafficking, as well as all assets of individuals or organizations involved in committing or planning these crimes.

Can Landlords Be Held Liable for Human Trafficking?

Some jurisdictions have passed laws that potentially hold landlords criminally and civilly liable for allowing the use of a property for prostitution or human trafficking.

Some human trafficking advocacy resources advise landlords and property managers to ask tenants about where they're from and what their relationship is to one another. This is spectacularly bad advice that can easily lead to illegal housing discrimination. You'll face an uphill battle in court, in addition to thousands of dollars in fines for each incident. If you're a licensed real estate professional, you could also jeopardize your license.

Law enforcement officials do not recommend attempting to rescue a human trafficking victim by yourself. Traffickers can be violent and dangerous, and they may well retaliate against the victim you're trying to help.

If you suspect human trafficking on your property or a property that you manage—or anywhere else, for that matter—contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline. They'll work with law enforcement to investigate the situation and ask the questions that you can't. Additionally, law enforcement can prosecute offenders simply for lying to them—something that you can't do when you're questioning a tenant about human trafficking or other illegal activities. You can learn more about residential brothels and other sexual trafficking scenarios on the National Human Trafficking Hotline's website.

To report suspected human trafficking, call 1-888-373-7888, or text "HELP" or "INFO" to 233733.

Jason Van Steenwyk
Writing about personal finance and investments since 1999, Jason Van Steenwyk started as a reporter with Mutual Funds Magazine and served as editor of Investors’ Digest. He now publishes feature articles in many publications including Annuity Selling Guide, Bankrate.com, and more.
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