Posts paint wrong picture of human trafficking

Katie Wright - Contributing columnist

We’ve all seen the viral social media posts. A Facebook member sees a “strange man” sitting in a van in the mall parking lot and takes to social media to warn others of the dangers of human traffickers. Another spots two individuals “looking suspicious” in the clothing aisle and eventually writes a share-worthy “brush with death” story on Facebook warning others to “beware” because “human trafficking is everywhere.”

Zip ties on car doors. Eggs on windshields. Men walking to white vans. All of it, according to these posts, leads to one answer: human trafficking.

Much has been written on the cultural phenomenon of these viral “warning” posts – including the fact that the incidents are seldom reported to police, that the “suspicious” individuals are often of a minority race, and that the post itself becomes wildly popular without subsequent sharers questioning its validity.

“Better safe than sorry!” is the pat answer given by sharers.

I am not here to criticize people who post such stories on Facebook. But I am here to tell you that such posts cause more harm than good, and to recommend thinking twice before sharing them.

The reason? You might be helping the real human traffickers by sharing misinformation about the signs of human trafficking.

To understand this, we need a true understanding of human trafficking and how it looks in this country. We also need to understand that the victims are not who we think they are – and too often they are the people we are most likely to ignore.

“Human trafficking is a crime hidden in plain sight,” according to the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking, which adds that victims themselves often don’t self-identify as victims of human trafficking. Instead, the victim finds herself in a position of helplessness that is developed over time by the manipulation of a controlling individual.

“What we know about traffickers is that they’re patient and they’re willing to take time to groom an individual, find their vulnerabilities and exploit them,” said Wendy Mark from Collaborative to End Human Trafficking, in a Jan. 8 interview with Cleveland’s Channel 3 for a story on viral posts.

Exploitation of the vulnerable is the keystone of human trafficking. And the “vulnerable” in our society, especially here in the U.S., are not middle-class individuals with families and homes and a Wal-Mart list.

Rather, they include the drug-addicted young woman being pimped out every night by a drug dealer. They are runaways who grew up in the delinquency system and, once emancipated, have no family to lean on and no place to call home. They are the homeless, the domestically abused, the runaway teenager who acts out.

They are too often, heartbreakingly, the people on the margins of our society that we have historically cared about the least.

Human traffickers know it, too. They will choose the easy prey, the person with no family, the homeless person in desperate need. And they will use manipulation, deception and control.

According to Polaris Project, the top five risk factors for human trafficking are: recent migration or relocation, substance use, runaway or homeless youth, mental health concerns, and involvement in the child welfare system.

The saddest part, to me, about the viral Facebook posts, is how quickly we jump to share an unverified social media post and how slowly and hesitantly we move to help those true victims of human trafficking.

The fact is that human trafficking doesn’t look like men snatching women out of parking lots – and that is precisely what makes it so hard to prevent.

Jim Mackey with the Cuyahoga County Regional Human Trafficking Task force told Channel 3 that stranger abductions are a rarity – and his task force has never seen a human trafficking case that looked like these viral posts.

“We haven’t at the task force and our state partners, we have not heard of any actual cases stemming from incidents like those,” Mackey told Channel 3. “In fact, what’s more prevalent is people know who their abductors are, as far as traffickers.”

The signs of human trafficking are more subtle, and perhaps more complex, than we might like. The victim may have inconsistencies in her story, be hesitant to talk, have an older and controlling “boyfriend,” show signs of abuse, have multiple keys or cellphones, and look nervous or uneasy, according to Collaborative to End Human Trafficking.

The victims, in a nutshell, might not be the victims we want them to be. Human trafficking is notoriously underreported for perhaps this very reason.

By spreading misinformation about trafficking, we not only cause unjustified fear, but we do worse: we confuse the signs and run the risk of missing a true trafficking victim.

“The biggest thing with misinformation is that the general public doesn’t know what to look out for,” said Mark in her interview with Channel 3.

If you find a zip tie on your car door or an egg on your windshield or a white van parked next to your car, do what you believe you need to do for your own safety.

But before you click “share” on that viral post, please remember the devastating plight of true trafficking victims — and think twice.

A former employee of The Times-Gazette, Katie Wright is an attorney and assistant professor of criminal justice at Wilmington College. For more information on human trafficking, go to

Katie Wright

Contributing columnist