On 16 May 2016, the following text was posted to Facebook by a woman claiming that she and her daughter had been “scouted” by people with presumably malicious intent at a Kroger grocery store in Brownstown Township, Michigan:

So today Mackenzie and I went to Kroger on Gibraltar road in brownstown. We were by the meat section when I looked over and seen a man with a hoodie on (hood up) standing next to me. No big deal. Every time I looked at a meat he went closer to Mackenzie. When I looked up he acted as if he was looking at hamburger. He then started doing some weird hand gestures on his face and looking over his shoulder, that’s when I turned around and seen there was an older man (50’s) standing in the aisle and started walking towards us, I turned around and the guy with the hoodie went to reach his arm out towards Kenzie. I grabbed Mackenzie and we started running to the front, as we were going I was telling her not to leave my side, mom has you, your going to be ok, as we started to go we seen the guy with the hoodie get on his phone and loud as heck he said, “dark pink camp hoodie walking out with a woman” I froze, looked at my daughter and ran to the front for help. They were all on high alert, I was informed that this is not the first incident like this with little girls there and they were calling the police. We were escorted out by the manager but a dark grey newer explorer with two guys in it followed us. I didn’t go straight home, I kept making turns. Please everyone, watch your surroundings!!! This was the scariest thing ever experienced. Please share this post so we can inform as many people as possible!

If you’ve been on social media for any length of time, you are probably already familiar with this form of narrative. In the past few years, numerous people across the United States have posted online tales following an almost identical template: a shopper (who is typically female, unaccompanied by a male companion, and has a child in tow) notices one or more individuals seemingly following her throughout the store and acting oddly. Her worst fears are confirmed when the suspiciously-acting persons move in to engage in an assault or abduction of her and/or her child, but the alert shopper manages to escape their clutches by fleeing the area and reporting the putative evil-doers to store management or law enforcement. The experience leaves the shopper convinced that tragedy was averted only through her savvy observation of the shady individuals’ behavioral signs of harmful intent, and that she must warn less watchful shoppers by posting a breathless first-person account of her experience to social media before others fall victim to a bad guys targeting children in “pink camp hoodies.”

Yet the fears expressed in such social media tales are nearly always unsubstantiated. In May 2015, a shopper posted a similar rumor about an incident in an Oklahoma Hobby Lobby store; the following month Twitter users warned one another of sex slavery rings targeting college kids during summer job interviews; and later that same month a long-circulating theme park abduction urban legend resurfaced. These reports were followed by a harrowing account of purported teenaged abductors (armed with heroin) at a Denton, Texas, Dillards department store, an account from a woman who claimed she narrowly avoided a human trafficking ring working using gift bags as bait in the parking lot of a Hickory, North Carolina, Walmart store, and claims that Target stores in Tampa, Longview (Texas), and Houston were hotspots of activity for sex trafficking scouts. All of these reports proved to be far less than advertised.

The promise of receiving virtual back-pattings for “spreading the word” lures eager users into sharing such accounts, thereby spreading useless parables about dangers that do not exist in the forms in which they are so often presented.

Such reports are inconsistent with the patterns typically exhibited by kidnappers or sex traffickers (as reported, for example, in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime FAQ about human trafficking). In instances where we have managed to track down and communicate with the people who originated such claims, they are usually reluctant to answer inquiries or provide additional information, and they generally act affronted or defensive about our taking a skeptical approach to their tales.

An account that followed this familiar pattern of social media “near-miss” crime reporting was posted about a Kroger grocery store in Michigan on 16 May 2016:

kroger mackenzie

 

This post, predictably, spawned a localized panic, with the local News-Herald newspaper noting that the post resulted in both local police and Kroger being forced to endure a flood of calls from frightened women:

A Facebook post detailing how a man acting strangely around a little girl in a Brownstown Township store created panic but ultimately was deemed unfounded by police.

In fact, police received so many calls from concerned residents and media, and the post was shared so many times detailing the encounter at Kroger, 20645 Gibraltar Road, police launched an investigation to get to the bottom of it.

According to the [police] report, police tracked down the woman who made the post and questioned her.

She said she deleted the post from a Facebook group because it got “way out of hand.”

Nevertheless, police continued to field numerous calls from worried residents and the story spread like wildfire, so officers wanted to know what happened in the store.

Portions of the story appeared to have been embellished, and as is nearly always the case, investigation revealed glaring inconsistencies between the account posted to Facebook account and information reported to (and by) police.

According to local police, the woman responsible for the Facebook post visited the Kroger between 5:00-6:00 PM on 16 May 2016. She reported that she spotted a man in a hoodie who was “doing some weird hand gestures on his face” and later reached out to grab her daughter, and that she overheard the man describe her child in an unambiguously threatening manner on a cellphone (i.e., “dark pink camp hoodie walking out with a woman”). She also claimed that store management was “on high alert,” that they informed her the incident was not the first of its kind involving little girls at that Kroger location, and that Kroger contacted police about the incident due to their state of “high alert.” But when the News-Herald followed up with police, they found that the woman’s report was inconsistent and unrelated to any criminal activity:

The woman said she was at the store between 5 and 6 p.m. near the meat counter when she noticed a man wearing a hoodie and the hood was over his head.

In her post, the mother said the man was “doing some weird hand gestures on his face” and looking over his shoulder. The post said every time she looked up, the man would look as if he was looking at the hamburger. She turned around and saw there was another man standing in the aisle who started walking toward them, the post states. The woman said she turned back to her daughter and that’s when she saw the man wearing the hoodie attempt to reach out towards her daughter. She said she took off running with the little girl to the front of the store.

The man, according to the mother, got on a cellphone and she heard him say, “dark pink camp hoodie walking out with a woman.” A manager escorted the two to their vehicle and after hearing about the encounter told the woman the police would be notified, the report said. The woman said in her post that two men in a dark grey Ford Explorer followed them from the store all the way into Flat Rock before breaking off contact.

[But when] police asked the woman if the man wearing the hoodie tried to reach out to her daughter, this time the woman said he did not.

Police contacted store management, who confirmed there was an encounter with the mother and her daughter. According to the manager, he did walk her to her vehicle and said he watched her leave, [but] no one followed her, he said.

The manager told police he went back into the store and went looking for the man, having a detailed description from the mother.
He said he located a man fitting the description, and he was still talking on a cellphone walking behind another man. The manager assumed the other man was his father.

According to the [police] report, the manager said the man wearing the hoodie clearly was mentally handicapped. He said the man’s behavior was consistent with having a mental disability and he felt no need to report it to the police. Noting that there appears to be no connection between the two men in the Explorer and the encounter, police deemed the incident unfounded.

The woman also maintained that Kroger’s management had contacted police out of concern for her and her child, but in fact police opted to investigate the incident only after her account had gone viral on social media and had begun to cause widespread consternation among local residents (a not uncommon pattern). Anecdotes like these are typically passed along without consideration for factual accuracy as “better safe than sorry” cautionary tales, but far more often than not, police end up expending considerable effort fielding phone calls and reviewing surveillance tapes only to learn that no such danger existed and no “near-miss” criminal activity had occurred. In this case, Kroger’s management rapidly deduced that nothing was amiss and that the “suspicious person” was simply a mentally handicapped man shopping at the supermarket with his father, but the social media aftermath forced police to seek out the woman and Kroger staff (only to find that the former’s story was mostly a piece of unfounded speculation and exaggeration).

In addition to sapping resources from law enforcement and harming local businesses who have done nothing to deserve being targeted by spurious rumors, such claims have a secondary adverse effect: passed on under the guise of being useful information, such attention-seeking Facebook posts serve to spread misinformation about serious matters such as human trafficking and thereby hamper the public’s understanding of real risks and dangers from criminals.