Wayfair, the company known for stylish and economical furniture, recently made headlines as part of a human trafficking conspiracy. The conspiracy is so far-fetched it’s hard even wrap your head around, but the gist is that some folks matched names of Wayfair products with the names of missing children and came to the conclusion that because the names were similar, that must mean Wayfair was, you guessed it, engaged in human trafficking.
The conspiracy was quickly and easily debunked, but the damage had been done, with named individuals resorting to posting videos of themselves to refute the trafficking conspiracy. Polaris, a non-profit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said in a press release that “the extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help.”
These kinds of conspiracies prey on the internet’s ability to spread false information quickly and easily, as well as misconceptions about human trafficking in general. As reported in Relevant, “In many people’s minds, human trafficking conjures up scenes from the movie Taken, or images of foreign children in cages arriving in shipping containers on the coast.”
The article goes on to remind us that human trafficking isn’t just organized crime, and it happens “at every level of society, regardless of political or religious affiliations.” In fact, “many trafficking cases simply begin with the vulnerability of an ordinary American child.”
Like Scott Jenkins’s daughter.
Jenkins wrote in Scary Mommy that his daughter’s experience with human trafficking began with a 15-year-old boy named Bruce.
“Bruce was seemingly normal in every way,” Jenkins wrote. “Little did he know, he was the first step in an elaborate human trafficking ring. Like many of our children today, they really do not understand how social media networks spread over the entire world, and with that come serious threats if not monitored.”
As Jenkins explained, his daughter became friends with Bruce, who was unknowingly friends with predators who pretended to be teens on social media but were actually grown men who were part of a human trafficking scheme. As his daughter got to know Bruce’s “friends” over social media, she was drawn into their dangerous web.
Fortunately, because Jenkins regularly monitored his daughter’s phone and social media accounts, he was able to protect his daughter from becoming a victim.
“One night, I had a funny feeling and grabbed her tablet to do what I thought would be just another normal check,” he wrote. “What I found to this day haunts my mind and makes my heart sink.”
After additional digging and then getting the police involved, Jenkins learned the full – and horrifying – extent of what was going down. As he explained it: “[T]he men who were acting as his ‘friends’ had set Bruce up as a scout. His was the first safe face that our children see; he was unknowingly luring young girls into his circle as prey for the men to pick and choose from. The circle of Bruce’s friends list reached the globe, and his over 2,000 followers were nothing more than a smorgasbord of young, unaware children whom these men were chatting with.”
If that doesn’t give you chills and a sick feeling in your gut, I don’t know what will.
Contrary to most stereotypes – including the warnings most of us Gen X parents were given as kids – human trafficking victims aren’t typically grabbed and thrown into a white van. According to one NPR affiliate, TikTok and other social media channels have been flooded with warning messages by teens themselves – but they are getting the dangers wrong.
“One of the most common posts is about zip ties on cars,” reported the network. “It has photos of zip ties attached to side view mirrors and windshield wipers. The caption reads, ‘If you see this on your vehicle, leave immediately. Traffickers are doing this to distract and kidnap you.’”
But as Audrey Baedke, a programs manager at the Seattle organization Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST), told the network, the reality of sex trafficking is much different than this. “When we look at individuals who have experienced trafficking,” Baedke told KUOW, “the majority of times, they are recruited by somebody who builds trust with them. It rarely is a stranger on the street that comes and grabs an individual and puts them into the sex trafficking ring.”
Jenkins’ article and the Wayfair conspiracy are an important reminder that human trafficking isn’t something that happens “out there,” but something that can happen right under our noses. I recently read Jenkin’s article with my own teen son and had a very honest conversation with him about the dangers of social media. We talked about how it is important to only be friends with people you know in real life. Since my sons both play a lot of internet games, I reminded them not to connect with strangers online – regardless of how “innocent” the other players seems.
I regularly look at their phones to see what they’re doing, but I’ll admit that I’ve gotten a little lax in recent weeks. But we can’t be complacent. We need to be aware and stay aware. Because human trafficking isn’t conspiracy theories and the proverbial white van; it’s happening all around us.