Vice President Kamala Harris is back to making misleading statements about human trafficking. In a speech to the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Harris—who has a long history of dishonesty about sex trafficking—said that “in 2020 alone, there were 11,000 instances of human trafficking that were reported in the United States.”

Where did Harris get that figure? From calls to the Polaris Project’s national human trafficking hotline, a source of misleading statistics that I’ve been warning about for years. Media and politicians routinely cite Polaris’ numbers as if they accurately reflect instances of human trafficking (a category that includes forced prostitution and forced labor in other categories), and they use these numbers to push for all sorts of policies. But the large numbers Polaris puts out are not—thank goodness—verified cases of abuse and criminal activity; they’re jusr a tally of contacts to the hotline. That includes pranks, cranks, and people reporting sightings of consensual sex work.

It’s refreshing (and all too rare) to see a major news outlet acknowledge this reality, as like The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler did in a column last week. Kessler calls out both Harris and Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, who in a recent executive order stated that “according to Polaris…there were 179 cases of trafficking and seventy-seven traffickers identified in Virginia in 2019 alone.”

Kessler—who has previously tackled other false or misleading claims about human trafficking—points out that the Polaris numbers are mostly anecdotal:

Polaris derives these figures from an analysis of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline that it operates. In the 2021 fiscal year, according to budget documents given to Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services provided $4 million to operate the hotline, which receives calls, texts, chats, emails and other online reports. If the staff members answering the calls or other inquiries identify elements of fraud, force and coercion, then that gets listed as a possible instance of human trafficking.

The hotline “identified 11,193 potential cases of trafficking, responded to 13,129 signals from potential victims, and reported 3,353 cases to law enforcement,” the HHS document says.

Notice that these are “potential cases”—and only about 30 percent ended up being reported to law enforcement. The budget document also notes that “viral misinformation about human trafficking”—such as “complex schemes involving child sex trafficking”—led to a surge of a “well-intended but inaccurate, secondhand reports” that distracted from helping real victims.

In case you missed it above, I’m going to reiterate: Only about a third of these “potential cases” are even reported by Polaris to law enforcement. They don’t know how many of those prompt the police to open an investigation, let alone what those investigations uncover.

Polaris likes to act like its numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, since not all instances of trafficking will be reported to the hotline. But while it’s true that not all trafficking comes to Polaris’ attention, the group’s numbers also reflect all sorts of things that don’t turn out to be human trafficking.

The group—and those citing it—also like to tout an increase in contact with the hotline as evidence that this problem is getting worse. But the increase in calls and other contacts comes as the federal government and states have started requiring more and more types of businesses to post the number conspicuously.

For what it’s worth, FBI trafficking numbers, compiled from police departments around the country, are much smaller than the number of calls to the Polaris hotline.

“For 2019, in Virginia, the FBI reports that there were 41 incidents of human trafficking—and 29 cases led to arrests, including one for a person under the age of 18. That’s much smaller than the 189 ‘cases’ reported by Polaris,” notes Kessler.

And “for the entire country, the FBI reported a total of 1,883 incidents of human trafficking in 2019: 1,607 were in the category of commercial sex acts, and 274 were instances of involuntary servitude. That’s about one-fifth of the incidents cited by Harris.”

Even in this case, “incidents” do not necessarily mean instances of trafficking, simply that police started a report to look into potential trafficking. Of the 1,883 incidents reported to the FBI, only a fraction led to arrests—684 adults arrested and 24 minors. And arrests don’t necessarily mean that anyone was ultimately charged with trafficking, let alone convicted.

Citing misleading statistics about human trafficking might not seem all that harmful at first glance. But giving a false impression of the scope of the problem leads to all sorts of harms, both personal and political. It creates the conditions for crazy conspiracy theories like those seen with QAnon believers and for ordinary people to panic about everyday interactions and “stranger danger.” It leads to attempts to Do! Something! that often wind up as crackdowns on poor people, sex workers, and immigrants. And it gives cover to officials who want an excuse for more policing and surveillance of everyone.