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A Facebook user shared a photo of a child car seat and said it was left in a Walmart parking lot in North Carolina. “Sex traffickers use this method to lure you in and snatch you up,” the poster warned. A TikTok user made a video that spread the rumor further.
Local police in the North Carolina where the photo was taken investigated the incident and concluded that the car seat had nothing to do with sex trafficking.
Polaris, the organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said in its own statement that the rumor was “unfounded.” The organization added, “When narratives like the car seat myth go viral, it can do serious harm to actual trafficking survivors.”
Social media users continue to share posts claiming that sex traffickers are using abandoned car seats to lure in victims, even as local police and the organization behind the National Human Trafficking Hotline have said such claims are unfounded.
Human trafficking is a legitimate threat that affects millions of people. But the photo of an empty child car seat sitting in a parking lot was not the tell-all that social media users were making it out to be.
The photo appears to have originated with an Oct. 9 Facebook post. The poster wrote that the car seat was in the parking lot of a Walmart in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
“Sex traffickers use this method to lure you in and snatch you up,” the poster claimed.
The Facebook post was shared more than 700 times, and screenshots of it were flagged as part of the platform’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) But the viral internet rumor exploded further online after a TikTok user warned about what she described as the latest “trap” from sex traffickers.
The video from Paige Marie Parker, who describes herself as a “spiritual gardener” and now has more than 178,000 followers, was reported by Rolling Stone after it got 12.2 million views in just over a day. It is no longer available on TikTok, but PolitiFact found a copy of it online.
“So have you ever seen this type of car seat just out of nowhere?” Parker says in the video, as she points to a Facebook post from the Wilkesboro Police Department addressing the car seat photo and rumors. “That’s not an ordinary car seat. That’s actually a trap.”
“That’s actually a sex trafficking car seat,” Parker continues. “No parent will ever leave a random car seat out there just to be out there. They want you to go up to the car seat and look around while they’ll really snatch you really quick. It’s a ploy. Please be safe out here ladies.”
It’s important for people to stay aware of their surroundings. Should you want to report or seek services related to a case of human trafficking, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or email email@example.com.
But the Wilkesboro Police Department statement that Parker highlighted in her video did not confirm that traffickers are using car seats to draw in victims; instead, it debunked the rumor.
The department wrote that it had investigated the car seat photo from the original Facebook post, and that the backstory had nothing to do with sex trafficking. “At no time was this incident deemed to be involved in any criminal activity,” the department concluded.
The car seat was in the parking lot, the police said, because two Walmart customers purchased a new child car seat, then they removed their old one and left it there.
Interim department chief Tommy Rhodes told the Associated Press that the police reviewed security footage of the events to determine what happened. “If we for one second thought that was a sex trafficking ploy, we would be all over that,” Rhodes said.
Polaris, the organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said in its own statement that “when narratives like the car seat myth go viral, it can do serious harm to actual trafficking survivors,” including by overwhelming anti-trafficking organization’s limited resources to respond to tips.
“Recent rumors about sex traffickers using abandoned child car seats to lure victims are unfounded,” the Polaris statement said.
A similar Facebook post claimed in September that “empty baby car seats are being used as a lure to get you out of your car so you can be abducted or followed.” The post purported to show photos of a car seat left in a parking lot in Nashville. It was shared nearly 300,000 times.
Other unsubstantiated internet rumors warning about human trafficking plots have taken off in the past. One rumor spread on Facebook in 2019 cautioned that sex traffickers were afixing zip ties to car door handles as a means of distracting victims. Another claim from 2019, amplified by the then-mayor of Baltimore, alleged that sex traffickers were driving white vans.
More recently, supporters of the QAnon movement advanced evidence-free conspiracy theories that separately accused Walmart and Wayfair, an online furniture retailer, of using certain items as cover for selling and shipping children to pedophiles.
Facebook posts claimed that a photo shows a plot by sex traffickers to use abandoned child car seats to lure in victims.
Police investigated the photo of an abandoned car seat that inspired this internet rumor. They concluded that it was not associated with sex trafficking or other criminal activity. Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, called the rumor “unfounded” and a “myth.”
Politifact rates these claims False.
Polaris on Facebook, Oct. 15, 2021
Rolling Stone, “No, Sex Traffickers Aren’t Using Abandoned Child Car Seats to Lure Victims,” Oct. 14, 2021
The Associated Press, “TikTok video spreads unsupported claim of human trafficking trap,” Oct. 14, 2021
Wilkesboro Police Department on Facebook, Oct. 12, 2021