FACT CHECK:   Was a female shopper at a Tampa-area Target store targeted by child sex trafficking operatives?

Claim:   A female shopper at a Tampa-area Target store was targeted by child sex trafficking operatives.

   FALSE

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail and Facebook, August 2015]

These pictures are circulating Facebook about a story of a sex trafficking ring in Tampa, and just wanted to find out if this was something that was true since moms everywhere are freaking out and causing slight hysteria! Thanks so much!

Okay mommas, my best friend in Tampa just had a very scary thing happen to her at Target and the police told her this is happening more and more in stores like Target…I wanted you all to be aware of this. Her 5-year-old girl was “targeted” by a person working in sex trafficking.

(warning-I’m giving you all the details, so it’s long. But I think it’s valuable to know what to look for when we are out)

She was in Target at 11am on Tuesday. The store wasn’t busy and a girl around 10 years old approached her and her two kids in an aisle. (She had a 1 year old in the seat and her 5 year old was walking along beside her.) She said the little girl would come up and talk to Maddie (5 year old), but anytime Jenn (my friend) talked to her she would walk away. The 10 year old would approach them on another aisle with a toy and show Maddie, but again she would bolt if Jenn asked her a question. This happened for 45 minutes and she followed them through the whole store. The girl started getting angry (rolling her eyes and huffing) anytime Jenn talked to her.

Jenn started feeling uneasy about the situation and went to checkout. When she went to the checkout the little girl stopped about 20 feet away and just watched her. Jenn told the cashier she was being followed and felt uneasy. The cashier told her to checkout and go straight to customer service and have someone walk her to the car. The whole time she was unloading her stuff she kept an eye on the girl. She sees the girl looking off to the left and Jenn turns and sees a man standing there. The little girl cocks her head towards Jenn and the kids, the man looks at them and shakes his head yes and the little girl turns and walks towards the back of the store.

The man gets a pack of gum and comes right up behind Jenn and the kids. Jenn whispers to the cashier “he’s right behind me” and the cashier shakes her head yes and tells her she saw what just happened. Jenn checkouts and walks to customer service. The man tells the cashier he forgot his wallet and puts the gum back and walks off. When Jenn goes to customer service instead of walking out the door, he picks up a magazine and looks through it. Jenn tells customer service what is happening and they call the manager. She turns around and the guy is staring at Maddie…not taking his eyes off her. When the guy sees the manager coming he takes off running out the door. The manager runs after him and there is a car waiting outside and the guy jumps in and ANOTHER guy, who was in the parking lot walking around, runs and jumps in the car too.

They shut down Target to try and find the little girl, but surveillance cameras show her exiting a back door and getting into the same car the guys jumped in. When the police got there they said this was a textbook case of child sex trafficking. They wait until you get out to your car and when you are unloading your stuff they grab the child who is standing next to you or walking around the car to get in their seat. Target is an easy store…mostly moms with their kids and not too busy during a weekday.

Thankfully Jenn did everything right and everyone is safe. I’m sick to my stomach thinking of what might have happened. I felt the need to share this story with other mommas, especially ones with little girls. The police said the age the traffickers are looking for is 5-10 year old girls…makes me so sick. I’m not trying to unnecessarily scare anyone, but we definitely need to be aware of this evil and be on-guard when we are out with our kids.

target farmingdale warning

Origins:   In August 2015, the above-quoted cautionary tale about a shopper’s purported brush with sex trafficking rings at a Tampa-area Target store began circulating like wildfire on regional Facebook groups for “mommies.” (A popular text-based version was shared on 26 August 2015, and a post consisting of the same messages in screenshot form appeared the following day.)

The rumor about sex traffickers in an unspecified Tampa-area Target (of which there are several) was not an anomaly in mid-2015, as a constellation of nearly identical claims were shared by social media users that summer. In May 2015, a Facebook user relayed a harrowing (and unreliable) claim of kidnappers terrorizing an Oklahoma Hobby Lobby store; in June, Twitter became fixated upon sex slavery rings targeting college kids via summer job interviews; later that same month the theme park abduction urban legend recirculated; subsequently, a frightening tale of purported teenaged assailants armed with sedating drugs in the bathroom of a Denton, Texas, Dillards department store circulated the same channels; finally, a Hickory, North Carolina Walmart shopper convinced herself and several Facebook users that human trafficking magnates were trawling the parking lots of the chain store for new victims.

The warning didn’t specify either when the woman (whose name was given only as “Jenn”) encountered the suspicious parties in Target or at which Target store the incident purportedly occurred, and incidents involving stranger danger of the type described (and to which police were said to have referred) did not appear in any news reports in or around the Tampa area in Florida.

Also, unlike some of the previous popular sex trafficking rumors, the Tampa Target warning lacked even basic suggestions that fellow shoppers could reasonably employ to avoid meeting the suggested fate of the woman in the story (had she not taken note of being tailed around the store for an unusually long amount of time by a strange child). “Jenn” offered no insights nor described any crime-fighting strategies by which those sharing the tale could impart anything other than nebulous fears about visiting Target.

We contacted police in Tampa to verify whether a report about an incident like the one described had been received by them, ascertain which Target might have been the one referenced in the story, and to find out if any current bulletins warn of such activity in Tampa or surrounding areas. A public information officer responded to us by stating that “a Target store shutting down because of the situation described below would be something newsworthy” but that the department had “no information [and had not] heard that this has happened in a Tampa Target.”

On 27 August 2015, several Facebook users published the story the Tampa Police Department’s Facebook page. In response, the department said:

We’ve received several calls on this asking if it is accurate and we have no reports of anything like this in Tampa.

A person commenting on the post noted that the tale had already been adapted to appeal to social media users in other states:

I saw several of those posts yesterday and today as well. First I saw that it was in Tampa and then I saw the exact same post but in New York..

On 28 August 2015 a Facebook user who published one of the most popular iterations of the Tampa Target claim stated in a separate post that “[a]fter some investigation the story is false,” but that user did not share how she came to believe the claim was fabricated. And while signs point to a classic (and unsubstantiated) urban legend with respect to the Tampa Target story, it’s even less likely an occurred simultaneously at a location of the same exact store (not KMart or Walmart, but Target) several states away.

Last updated:    31 August 2015

Originally published:    27 August 2015