Viral and unfounded, sex trafficking urban legends are terrifying Spokanites

Viral and unfounded, sex trafficking urban legends are terrifying Spokanites
Instagram screenshot
An Instagram post from local makeup artist Alexus Nekich warns women that she's heard that sex traffickers may put putting flyers on windshields as part of a kidnapping ploy. It's only the most recent iteration of a longstanding unfounded internet urban legend.

A pamphlet left in a car door handle is not normally a reason you call the cops — particularly before you see what's on the pamphlet. But perception is everything.

And so when Alexus Nekich, a local makeup artist, saw that a brochure of some sort had been stuck in her door handle in the parking lot of the Spokane Valley Best Buy last Saturday, she thought back to the warnings she'd seen circulate throughout social media sites.

"There was this thing that went viral on the news and on TikTok, I think, about how people are leaving fake pamphlets and fake tickets on your windshield," Nekich recounted on a recent Instagram video, "And then when you grab it, they kidnap you. Or they have been using people for sex trafficking, and that's their technique for grabbing people."

And so when she saw a pamphlet on her car door handle — a bizarre Jack Chick religious tract — she says she freaked out, called Crime Check and told them she didn't feel safe.

"'I need someone here right now,'" she recounts telling Crime Check. "'I don't know if they're in the store with me. I don't know if they're watching me.' ... We're waiting in the store and I'm trying not to cry."

She says sheriff's deputies — including a SWAT officer and an officer with a K-9 dog —showed up and told her her car appeared to be the only vehicle with a pamphlet on it.

"Basically, long story short: This is in Spokane. This is really scary,"
she tells her Instagram followers. "Be safe. Always check your surroundings. And carry a weapon with you."

Today, Nekich's Instagram video has been viewed around 114,000 times. There's a good reason it went viral: The notion that something as simple as a pamphlet tucked into your car door handle could be used to kidnap you is a particularly terrifying thought.

But there's one problem: While Nekich really did call law enforcement because she felt scared, those fears appear to be based on an iteration a viral Internet rumor with no evidence that numerous experts have identified as unfounded.

"I went around and talked to crime analysis, I talked to the sexual assault unit, a task force that deals with human trafficking, on and on and on," says Spokane County Sheriff's Office spokesman Mark Gregory.

And nobody, he says, indicated there was any truth to the rumor that sex traffickers or kidnappers were putting things on cars to carry out abductions. They weren't aware of any intel that was happening nationally, either.

Sgt. Terry Preuninger, with the Spokane Police Department, embarked on the same sort of inquiry, speaking with multiple SPD detectives and supervisors to see if they'd ever heard about anything of the sort.

"We could not come up with a single incident," he says.

Neither has Erin Williams Hueter, director of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, the local agency that works with sex trafficking victims.

“I’ve really never heard of anything like that," she says of the alleged kidnapper tactics Nekich described on Instagram. "I work downtown and I get plenty of pamphlets on my car.”

She says she can't discount anything out of hand, but urges caution about relying on any sensational claims about the issue.

We just straight up do not have good data on human trafficking," she says. "Certainly it’s scary. Certainly it’s real. [But] it doesn’t play out like a movie."

But how about nationally? The Inlander reached out to the Polaris Project, the nonprofit that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, to see if there had been any substantiated reports that sex traffickers were leaving objects on cars to nab victims.

While the group doesn't speak about specific cases for confidentiality reasons, they confirmed to the Inlander that they hadn't seen the purported method appear as a trend on their
Trafficking Hotline.

One of the biggest myths that the organization fights against is the notion that human trafficking is often associated with abduction by strangers. In reality, according to the nonprofit, it's primarily perpetuated by being manipulated, defrauded, or threatened by people they know.

"We strongly caution against spreading stories with potentially misleading information about human trafficking recruitment tactics as they may ultimately cause more harm than good," the Polaris Project said in a statement.
So where is all this coming from?

"Unfortunately, this was driven by Internet legend type stuff," says Gregory. "I found stuff [on the Internet] all the way back to 2006 or 2008."

Local media outlets across the nation, as well as hoax-debunking websites like Politifact and Snopes, have been trying to swat down versions of the rumor for over 15 years.

— In a 2004 article, Snopes debunked reports that carjackers were placing flyers on cars to trick victims into jumping out to remove the flyer so they could more easily steal their car.  Snopes noted that, despite the widespread nature of the claim, they "have yet to turn up evidence of so much as one" real example of this happening.

— Since 2014, urban legends have been circulating about $100 bills stuck in car door handles, supposedly tainted with chemicals that make you pass out. For the past six years, police departments in the United States and Canada have repeatedly issued statements telling scared residents that these claims were only online hoaxes.

— In 2017, a Facebook post about sex traffickers leaving shirts on windshield wipers as a technique to lure victims out of cars was debunked.

— An explosion of Facebook posts last year warned that sex traffickers in Kentucky were leaving roses on door handles in Walmart parking lots with a "chemical on them to make you pass out, so they can grab you." Hoax? You guessed it.

— Most recently, versions of the urban legend have raced across TikTok, with claims that sex traffickers were using everything from honey bottles to zip ties to delay targets trying to get into their car and make them easier to kidnap.

"TikTok is being used to spread a completely fake internet hoax about zip ties on cars and human trafficking," New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz wrote on Twitter last year. "These vids have hundreds of thousands of views."
To be clear, Gregory says there's nothing in Nekich's Instagram video that suggest that she was anything less than genuine in what she said happened or how she felt.

She seemed legitimately worried and scared," Gregory says. "I understand that."

There was a SWAT officer and a K-9 officer that responded to the call. He says that was because those were the deputies who were close and available, not because SWAT or a K-9 were necessary for the response.

And if people are worried about their safety, he says, calling the police is the right thing to do.
But he doesn't see any reason to suspect she was legitimately being targeted by a kidnapper.

"You’re talking about Best Buy at the Valley Mall on Saturday at about 3:30 PM," Gregory says. "Tons of people around."

Either way, if this sort of kidnapping technique were actually common, there would be plenty of actual examples to cite.

"Kidnappings are extremely rare of any kind," Gregory says. "That’s why they drive national news. When they do happen they shock the community, they shock the nation."

When the Inlander shared the results of our reporting with Nekich, she didn't go far as to completely discount her initial assumption, saying that she still plans to be wary around these sorts of situations in the future.

She says her intent with her Instagram video wasn't to spread misinformation about sex trafficking — it was to encourage women to constantly be aware of their surroundings.

“Whether or not it’s some radical person leaving something [to spread a message], or someone who wants to rob me, or someone who wants to ask me for money, the whole point is we need to be more aware. We need to pay attention,” Nekich says.

Still, Gregory says it's important to strike a balance between "better safe than sorry"  and living in fear. 

"I think it's great that people are trying to be informed of what’s going on and being safe," Gregory says. "There’s a big difference between being cautious and being aware of your surroundings and being fearful of random information passed along on the internet."

The internet, Gregory says, tends to take the sorts of small errors and misinterpretations that can trouble any conversations and "amplifies it by millions and millions very quickly."

And that cycle can build on itself, he says.

"The internet and social media lets people vent their fears, which in turn creates more fear because it spreads rapidly," Gregory says. "We don’t want people going around in fear."
And there's a real cost to these urban legends. In Spokane, other local residents were reporting incidents of pamphlets or flyers being placed on their cars, leaping to the conclusion that those must also be related to kidnapping attempts.

"Happened to me at the South Hill target," one woman wrote on Nekich's post. "I wasn’t the only one that day, but the only one at that moment when I looked around. Thank you for sharing as I would have just gone home. I’m 33 weeks pregnant and not taking any chances."

This week, a woman on the "#EndChildTrafficking USA" Facebook page shared an account of a pamphlet being placed on a young woman's car at the Spokane Valley Yoke's, and waiting with her to make sure it was safe before going to the car.
"That's how a lot of 'kidnappers' are doing it around Spokane," she claimed without evidence, "so you're distracted trying to get it out, then they can come up behind and grab you."

The post has been shared more than 500 times.

"In the last two days, there's been four attempted kidnappings in Spokane," another woman claimed in another unsupported post. "Where the hell is the news?"

Other commenters discussed being ready to "shoot on sight." Another says "at this point, I'm not taking the kids out by myself anymore. This is scary."

Bad assumptions about sex trafficking can have deadly consequences.

In 2014 in Coeur d'Alene, the cops were called on a van when a coffee shop owner incorrectly concluded it matched the description of a suspicious vehicle that had been suspected of watching young children. The police officers ended up shooting a two-year-old black lab dog, devastating the owner and sparking nationwide outrage.  

The "Pizzagate" sex-trafficking conspiracy theory led one gunman to shoot up a pizza parlor, wrongly believing internet rumors the pizza joint was hiding sex slaves in their basement.

And these days, adherents of the far-right "QAnon" conspiracy theory — based on an elaborate theory that almost everything that Donald Trump has done the past few years is part of his master plan to take down a vast and powerful network of sex-trafficking pedophiles — have gained increasing amounts of influence.

The mayor of Sequim, Washington, has posted videos promoting QAnon's theory. Another QAnon supporter just won a House primary in Georgia. The horrifying nature of sex trafficking allows these theories to spread: QAnon and Pizzagate adherents have hijacked the hashtag #SaveTheChildren to perpetuate their dangerous claims.
While a Facebook page like "#EndChildTrafficking USA" discourages posting conspiracy theories, when you join the page members are asked to agree to principles that include the claim that Donald Trump has "done more to end human trafficking than any other president in history" and that "'factcheckers' and mainstream media have lost credibility due to their silence and censorship."

click to enlarge Viral and unfounded, sex trafficking urban legends are terrifying Spokanites (2)
Facebook screenshot
Facebook pages like #EndChildTrafficking USA discourage trusting "factcheckers" and media outlets reports about sex trafficking.


ltimately, all these conspiracy theories
can hurt the exact people they're supposed to protect: sex trafficking victims.

"Ever since I started doing work with victims of the crime I’ve heard conspiracy theories about online trafficking," says Williams Hueter, of Lutheran Community Services. "And some of them get perpetuated by mainstream media, like the movie Taken."

She suspects that apparent increasing acceptance of some of these conspiracy theories might be related to the psychological impact of the pandemic. 

"Everybody feels vulnerable right now, which probably is why people feel heightened fear... There’s rising anxiety and depression in the general community," she says. "That’s going to cause us to feel more fearful about things that are around us all the time like interpersonal violence and trafficking."

She says it's easy for misinformation to spread precisely because human trafficking is so scary. But Williams Hueter says that the popular misconception of human trafficking as often being about elaborate abductions can actually discourage victims from recognizing what has happened to them.

Most of the time, she says, human trafficking is carried out by someone the victim knows. It can look lot more like domestic violence — a person takes advantage of a preexisting relationship to manipulate, threaten or force someone into unpaid labor or prostitution. But because of the way trafficking is portrayed, they might be tempted to dismiss their experiences.

"These are people who are coerced into human trafficking. And they think, 'Guess I’m not a victim of [trafficking,] because I wasn’t kidnapped,'" Williams Hueter says. "They weren't locked in a basement. They weren't tied up."

But that doesn't mean they weren't victimized. Williams Hueter says that their organization is working hard to educate the public on what human trafficking actually looks like.

"There are people who are really victimized," she says. "If people want to talk to somebody our crisis line they can call or text our crisis line at 509-624-7273."