On 4 August 2015, a Facebook user published a claim that she and her daughter had encountered kidnappers working on behalf of human traffickers in the parking lot of a Walmart store in Hickory, North Carolina:
My daughter saved my life today! My daughter, Amanda [...], and I were at Wal Mart in hickory earlier and were walking back to the car when we were approached by a young, nice looking man in a gray suit by a big white van with two ladders on top. He was handing out gift bags of make up samples. As we walked by, he came up to us and said, "Just in time!" And, while following us to the car, kept insisting that we take the gift bags. You could see the fear in Mandy's face while I had no clue what was going on other than a persistent salesman trying to make some sort of deal. Mandy read about men going around giving out free samples of different things to women only and then after they accept them, they are kidnapped and then sold into the sex slave trade. Apparently, women all over North Carolina have fallen victim to this scam. She repeatedly refused him while I was dazed and confused as to what was going on. She finally demanded that I get in the car, then explained everything. If I had been alone, I would be on my way to God knows where right now. If this happens to any of you ladies, RUN! Go back in the store and tell somebody! And don't go to WalMart or any other store alone if you don't have to! Thank you, Jesus for giving me a daughter that's smarter than I am and for watching out for both of us.
P.S. A few of you have shared this post and I want to say thank you so much! I encourage everybody who reads this to PLEASE share this post and get the word out! You could be saving a life!
The claim bore many similarities to a rash of similar rumors shared by social media users that summer. In May 2015, a separate Facebook user claimed she was scouted in a similar fashion at an Oklahoma Hobby Lobby store; in June, Twitter was awash in warnings of sex slavery rings targeting college kids via summer job interviews; later that month the theme park abduction urban legend recirculated; and simultaneously, a terrifying tale of purported drug-dispensing teenaged assailants in the bathroom of a Denton, Texas, Dillards department store made the same rounds.
As with some of the near-subsequent rumors, the Hickory Walmart sex trafficking claim resembled a few long-circulating urban legends. The use of a desirable gift to "soften" potential victims to the abductor's approach echoed an enduring (but false) story about carjackers utilizing $100 bills as bait to lure victims. It was also similar to widely-circulated (and old) rumors about ill-intentioned folks trawling parking lots with drugged perfume samples.
Finally, the claim wasn't dissimilar to the more recent Hobby Lobby abduction rumor in as much as it was quite likely based (at least in part) on a real-life event, and the poster's account was not implausible as unwelcome solicitations involving pesky salespeople indeed occur from time to time in busy parking lots. But nothing the woman wrote definitively pointed to (or even hinted) at anything more interesting than an unwanted sales pitch. The claim that "men [are] going around giving out free samples of different things to women only and then after they accept them, they are kidnapped and then sold into the sex slave trade" wasn't a very logical one, as nothing prevents a potential kidnapper from abducting a victim who refused the offer of a gift bag (and acceptance of a bag of makeup doesn't make anyone easier to kidnap). The assertion "women all over North Carolina have fallen victim to this scam" is unsupported by news reports (and inaccurate, given that the scenario described constitutes a serious crime and not a "scam").
A search for incidents that matched the above account in Hickory yielded some unrelated results of note, albeit none substantiating rumors of human trafficking activity. On 6 August 2015 (after the status update above was shared, not before) the Hickory Daily Record published an article about "meth trafficking" in the parking lot of a local Walmart. Chronological aspects aside, the article specifically described drug (and not human) trafficking and did not reference any sort of sex-related crime.
A separate article titled "Human trafficking rampant in NC?" was published in the same paper on 29 June 2015. Although that article made no specific mention of incidents in or around Hickory, it might have inspired fears (and subsequent "sightings") of sex ring operators among residents. It isn't uncommon for more upsetting elements of a newspaper article to make an impression upon readers while general details fade more quickly, and the article in question described victims initially consenting (under somewhat different and invariably coerced circumstances) to go with an abductor or abuser:
"Slavery is not a new problem, but the fact that predators can find and groom victims through the internet heightens the danger to our children and grandchildren. Before, traffickers would need to wander the streets looking for runaways, but now they can spend their days on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat looking for vulnerable young people," [author Kimberly] Rea said, adding that many victims go with their traffickers willingly. "We often think of trafficking in terms of people being abducted, but one study showed that only accounted for 11 percent of the trafficking cases. Over 30 percent were trafficked through offers of help (a job, money, place to live, etc.). The horrible part of that statistic was that over 50 percent of victims were trafficked by someone who pretended romantic interest."
The newspaper passage quoted above additionally serves as a decent reminder of why inaccurate warnings about sex trafficking (often shared with a "better safe than sorry" caveat) can do more harm than good. Individuals potentially at risk of falling victim to traffickers would be better equipped with information about the circumstances under which human trafficking realistically occurs in the U.S., and rarely is that between strangers with no previous acquaintance in a shopping mall or chain store parking lot.
We contacted police in Hickory, North Carolina, to determine whether they're aware of any incidents at Walmart (or elsewhere) matching the example above. According to the department, no reports of attempted abductions or unwanted solicitations in local parking lots had been received.