On 23 March 2017, Facebook user Diandra Toyos shared a photograph said to have been taken inside an IKEA furniture store somewhere in Southern California, along with a common claim: that she and her family had narrowly avoided abduction by human traffickers while shopping there.
Toyos' report was widely disseminated via social media and was also aggregated by a share-focused site called inspireMORE. Like many other accounts of its kind, it began with Toyos' saying she had read similar stories on Facebook (i.e., that human traffickers commonly ply their trade within chain stores) and went on to explain that fellow shoppers inside the IKEA behaved in a vague manner which convinced her she and her children were potential targets of a crime:
I recently read a post written by a mother I didn't know, that went viral. She described an event that happened to her while she was at target. She and her children were targeted by human traffickers. She talked about how when she reported the incident after the fact, she was told that this was a very common way they worked.
I read things like that, and I always think "wow, that's so scary... I need to be careful". But I also always think "that could never happen to me."
But you guys, it did.
A few days ago, my mom and I took the kids (I have 3 kids. A daughter who is 4, and two sons, 1.5 years and 7 weeks) to IKEA ... We were in the couch section and the kids were enjoying climbing on each couch and trying them out ... I noticed a well dressed, middle aged man circling the area, getting closer to me and the kids. At one point he came right up to me and the boys, and instinctively I put myself between he and my mobile son. I had a bad feeling. He continued to circle the area, staring at the kids. He occasionally picked something up, pretending to look at it but looking right over at us instead. My mom noticed as well and mentioned that we needed to keep an eye on him. We moved on... and so did he. Closely. My son wandered into one of the little display rooms across from the couches and I followed him closely with my baby strapped to me. My mom said she watched as the older man dropped what he was doing and quickly and closely followed us into the area. At the same time, she noticed another man dressed more casually and in his 20s. He wasn't looking at us, but was walking the same circling pattern around us as the first man. My mom and I decided to sit down and wait for them to move on. We had a gut feeling something was going on, but we hoped we were wrong and they would move on. So we sat in one of the little display rooms. For close to 30 minutes. And they sat too. They sat down on one of the couches on the display floor that faced us. That was when we knew our gut feeling was right and something was off. They sat the whole time we sat, and stood up right as we got up. We continued on and my mom turned around and realized the two men had moved and were sitting only one couch away from each other, still facing our direction. The older man was still watching us. She made eye contact... very clearly letting them know that we saw them. And we moved on. We managed to lose them at that point. (We talked with an employee, circled back and used the bathroom and went out into a different section). But still kept the kids right with us the whole time. I kept the baby in the sling which kept my hands free and my eyes too. I didn't have to keep an eye on the stroller AND two kids... I just had to watch my older ones. When we got through the maze of IKEA, we reported what happened to security.
At this point, we note that IKEA is well known for its unique (and occasionally frustrating) store layout that essentially directs customers to follow one another on the same path throughout a store — a subject addressed by Professor of Architecture Alan Penn in a 2011 talk about related planning structures:
[A student] followed people around the store — and guess what [customers] do — they walk around like this. You can see the sort of lines of people. In fact, if you shop in Ikea, all you do is follow people around the store. You very seldom find people going the other direction. You do occasionally but they are always looking very harassed ... You can only give in and follow the route that they set out for you, because to do anything else is really difficult.
In her lengthy post, Toyos listed inferences based on her observations of the men in IKEA, among them that they were unaccompanied by wives, were not talkative, were not dressed in a fashion similar to one another, didn't smile at people, and were at one point adjacent to one of the store's exits. And she asserted that human trafficking and the abduction of children from chain stores such as IKEA and Target is "happening all over [the place]":
These men weren't shopping. While they walked around the store, they weren't looking at things... not really. The older man would occasionally pick something up and act like he was looking at it, but he'd look right over the top of it at my kids. Then he'd drop it and move on as soon as we did.
They weren't waiting for anyone. Often you see men in a place like IKEA waiting for their wives, but these guys appeared to be alone. They didn't even talk to each other. They didn't talk to anyone. They didn't smile casually at people (in fact, early on, I looked at the older guy when he got close to us and smiled... which is something I do regularly when I'm out.. I'm always making eye contact with people. He instantly looked away. That was odd to me).
They were dressed nicely but very differently. I would never have put these two together. And they didn't appear to be together.
The area they were hanging around had an exit right by it. IKEA is a massive confusing maze of a store. But they could have run out that exit with my child and handed them off to someone waiting outside and been gone before I could find them.
Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It's in our backyards. I'm reading more and more about these experiences and it's terrifying. If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.
Please PLEASE be aware when you're out with your children. It's not the time to be texting or facebooking or chatting on the phone. When you're in a public place with your kids, please be aware and present so that you don't become a victim. Had I not been paying attention that day... or had I let my kids roam and play while I checked my phone... I may have lost one. The thought just makes me completely ill. (Especially because I've been guilty of this!)
Also, in hindsight, I would have taken a picture of the guys. Probably right in their faces so they saw me do it.
Trust your gut. It's there for a reason.
Toyos replied to commenters by denying that the men could have been loss prevention officers and reiterating that parents ought to watch their children in public, asserting that her belief was based on "what [she knew]," that the men "were up to something," and that such occurrences were happening regularly across the United States:
Something was not okay here. This was not a situation that I misunderstood. Do I know 100% what harm these men intended? No. I'm taking an educated guess based on how things played out and what I know. But even if I am wrong about their specific intentions... I KNOW they were up to something and focused on me and my children.
Presumably, Toyos was referencing the barrage of near-identical Facebook posts in which women have reporteclaim they had close brushes with human trafficking rings in Target, Walmart, mall parking lots, or craft stores. Rumors fitting that template began appearing in force on social media in May 2015, when a woman shared a later-debunked tale about an Oklahoma Hobby Lobby store.
In June 2015, Twitter was awash in fears of a sex slavery ring targeting college kids at summer job interviews; and later that same month a long-circulating theme park abduction urban legend popped up again. Variations on that theme included a harrowing (yet false) story involving purported teenaged abductors (armed with heroin-filled syringes to drug victims) at a Denton, Texas, Dillards, a claim from a woman swearing she was a near-victim of human traffickers with gift bags in the parking lot of a Hickory, North Carolina, Walmart store, and a spate of rumors claiming Target stores in Tampa, Longview (Texas), and Houston were hotbeds of sex trafficking scouts.
Almost universally, such reports were found to be based on misunderstandings, overstatements, embellishments, and not infrequently outright fabrications (including a woman’s claim about an unsettling encounter at a Michigan Kroger store and a convoluted scheme involving free rings from Kay Jewelers). Similarly, nearly all such reports were appended with lengthy commentary about how the purported near misses were in fact exceedingly common and could happen to anyone.
Missing from the constellation of these hair-raising tales was documentation that abductions are commonly (or even rarely) being carried out in the described manner, as crime statistics don't seem to back up claims that such a ruse is truly happening "all over." Free Range Kids author (and advocate for reason-driven parenting) Lenore Skenazy addressed the uptick in such reports on social media, pointing out their illogic and pleading for a realistic approach to the growing number of social media abduction horror stories:
What the heck is going on, America? This “My kids were about to be trafficked, I just KNOW it” post is so shockingly similar to last week’s, “My kids were about to be trafficked, I just KNOW it” post that it feels ... creepy. A lot creepier than being at Ikea where a couple of men glance at my kids.
The reader who sent me this link asked if I thought there might be some “validity” to it, to which I must respond: No. In fact, I think it’s crazy. What, two men are going to grab two or three kids, all under age 7, IN PUBLIC, in a camera-filled IKEA, with the MOM and the GRANDMA right there, not to mention a zillion other fans of Swedish furnishings?
Can we please PLEASE take a deep breath and realize how insanely unlikely that is? How we don’t need to be “warned” about this? How NOTHING HAPPENED!
You can TELL nothing happened, because the whole thing was described as an “incident.” And Lenore’s #1 Rule of Reporting is: When something is called an “incident,” it’s because nothing happened. In fact, my alternate headline for this post was:
POINTLESSLY TERRIFIED MOM URGES OTHER MOMS TO BE POINTLESSLY TERRIFIED
As noted above, Skenazy cited the prevalence of such tales as drivers of the belief "this is happening" everywhere. Moreover, she observed that the dozens of near-identical narratives do not match known patterns of abduction or trafficking:
So while we’re at it, here’s a snippet of last week’s note from David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, on the likelihood (or not) of sex trafficking of young children in America:
Child abduction rarely occurs in a crowded public venue like that, where help would be easy to muster.
Most sex trafficking lures and abductions are of teenagers.
We have been so brainwashed by talk of trafficking that we imagine we see it everywhere.
We attempted to contact Diandra Toyos via Facebook for further information but have not yet received a response.