By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - A data sharing scheme which has involved U.S. financial institutions helping New York prosecutors uncover human trafficking cases is to be extended to Europe, one of its organizers said on Tuesday.
The partnership has involved banks including JP Morgan Chase & Co and Bank of America Corp, as well as money-transfer company Western Union Co, highlighting suspicious transactions to law enforcement agencies.
"We will do the same in Europe as we did in the U.S.," said Monique Villa, chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable body which helped set up the scheme with New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance last year.
Forced labor in the private economy generates $150 billion globally in illegal profits per year, according to a report from the International Labour Organization. Villa said around 1 million people are thought to be living as slaves in Europe.
Vance said the U.S. partnership had so far led to more than 20 investigations, though he did not say if anyone had been prosecuted as a result.
"Sex trafficking is at heart a business," he told a London conference organized by the Foundation, which is part of Thomson Reuters Corp.
"The financial institutions are in a unique position to provide help, because they have the data that is so useful for us in terms of proving the cases ... credit card data, travel records, all of this is central to the success of trafficking investigations."
The banks worked with non-governmental organizations to identify customer traits and transaction patterns that may signal a higher risk of human trafficking for labor or sex.
"Red flags" identified as potential signals of trafficking included employees of a company all making money transfers abroad at the same time, indicating they could be paying a trafficker rather than sending money to their families.
One example which uncovered a case of sex trafficking was highlighted by a New York nail salon putting through a credit card payment at 2 o'clock in the morning.
Barry Koch, Western Union's chief compliance officer who was involved in setting up the U.S. program, is in discussions with European banks to adopt a similar approach, including potentially working with European law enforcement bodies such as Europol.
(Additional reporting by Liisa Tuhkanen Editing by David Holmes/Jeremy Gaunt)