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TikTok video spreads unsupported claim of human trafficking trap

October 15, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: Car seats are being left in public places as a sex trafficking ploy to kidnap women.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There is no evidence that this is a ploy being used by traffickers, officials say. A viral TikTok video references a North Carolina police department’s announcement but ignores what it actually said: that, contrary to rumors, a car seat left in a Walmart parking lot was not found to be associated with trafficking.

THE FACTS: A TikTok video viewed more than 13 million times and shared on other social media platforms is raising alarms about a purported sex trafficking ploy that officials say is not rooted in evidence.

In the video, a woman shows a Facebook post from the police department in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, with a photo of a pink and black car seat in a parking lot. She asks viewers if they’ve ever seen “this type of car seat just out of nowhere.”

“That’s not an ordinary car seat,” she tells viewers. “That’s actually a trap. Please do not go near that car seat. That’s actually a sex trafficking car seat where they’re just waiting for you to walk up, you as a woman to walk up, where they can grab you.”

The woman claims that local officials in her town, which isn’t specified, “didn’t know that that was a trap at all.” She encourages women who “see a random car seat” to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

But the police department’s Facebook post shown at the start of the video was actually refuting — not supporting — the idea that the car seat in the photo was left as part of a human trafficking trap.

“The Wilkesboro Police Department has investigated this incident and discovered the circumstances of how the seat was left in the parking lot,” the department wrote. “Two customers walked out of Wal-Mart after purchasing a new child car seat. An older seat was removed from their car and placed on the ground and the new child seat was installed. The customers then left the parking lot leaving the old child seat behind on the ground. At no time was this incident deemed to be involved in any criminal activity.”

Tommy Rhodes, interim chief of the department, said in a phone interview that police reviewed security footage and watched the events unfold to determine what actually happened.

“If we for one second thought that was a sex trafficking ploy, we would be all over that,” he said.

Attempts to reach the woman who made the TikTok video were unsuccessful.

The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that operates that National Human Trafficking Hotline, said it was aware of the TikTok video and that it had received calls about it.

“Rumors like this one have been proven to be false,” Megan Cutter, director of the hotline, said in an email statement.

“One of the most pervasive myths about human trafficking is that it always — or often — involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation,” Cutter’s statement said. “In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.”

Cutter also said that survivors of human trafficking were typically trafficked by people they know, such as romantic partners or family members. The hotline takes all calls seriously, she said, but those stemming from false information or conspiracy theories take resources away from assisting actual victims and survivors.

The TikTok video isn’t alone in advancing the unsubstantiated rumor about car seats being used to ensnare women.

A similar claim about the supposed car seat ploy appeared in a September Facebook post shared by nearly 300,000 users. The post showed photos of a car seat in a Nashville shopping center parking lot.

“HUMAN TRAFFICKING WARNING,” the post reads. “Ladies be aware empty baby car seats are being used as a lure to get you out of your car so you can be abducted or followed. DO NOT get out of your car.”

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department told The Associated Press that the agency was not aware of any reports about such incidents.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.