Warnings about a new ambient threat targeting unwitting victims in day-to-day settings emerged in June 2015, one popular version of which was published to Twitter by the account @TweetLikeAGirl. This warning held that summer job interview ads for receptionists were actually a front for a human trafficking abduction scheme:
Girls. I just got a call from a business saying that they needed girls to work this summer as a receptionist for $15 an hour. They wanted me to come in for an interview at 3:15 today so I called my mom and this is what she told me.
Recently in Humble, TX there was a girl who got the same type of phone call and when she went in to interview, something felt off so she left and called the sheriffs office. It was a human trafficking place, they take the girls back to interview and give them a bottle of water that is drugged and the girls wake up halfway around the world.
So basically if y'all get a phone call offering you a job, hang up and report them.
Where @TweetLikeAGirl sourced the message from was unclear, and neither the sender nor the recipient of the depicted text message was identified. That Twitter account is quite popular (with more than 1.3 million followers), however, and is identified in its description as a "parody account." While some followers may have mistaken the tweet for a first-person tale, it was not: all the content on that particular timeline was aggregated from other sources.
The account's owner likely received an impressive response to the human trafficking warning tweet above, as roughly an hour after posting it he tweeted a similar (false) warning about a shopper's purported encounter with human traffickers in an Oklahoma Hobby Lobby store.
So who is @TweetLikeAGirl, and why was he or she posting so many warnings about human trafficking? A BuzzFeed article published on 6 November 2014 ("Meet the Network of Guys Making Thousands of Dollars Tweeting As 'Common White Girls'") identified him as Cameron Asa, a 21-year-old college student from Tennessee and revealed the purpose of Asa's mix of content:
Asa's new game is keeping his account relevant and relatable — and it's working. He's now pulling in pretty massive money. He was a little uncomfortable discussing the amount he makes per retweet, but he said that it can be as high as hundreds of dollars.
"Lately I've been posting for different apps, and it can range from anywhere from $500 - $1,000 per post — it's awesome," Asa said. "I actually did an app tweet last week and I ended up getting the app 20,000 downloads off one tweet."
In a (somewhat amusing) side-note, BuzzFeed paraphrased a fellow Twitter parody account operator who noted that "targeting young girls with an account is a great market to try to tap into." It seems targeting them to scare them about being targeted by criminals is a lucrative business, too.
To wit, Asa shares content that is likely to be re-shared by his audience on Twitter, and urban legends about human trafficking are clearly a big hit. So big, in fact, that his posted warning was almost immediately widely repeated as fact across Twitter that same evening. By 2 June 2014, the claim and attendant form letter arrived on Facebook. A user in Fresno, California, published a status update warning parents that that it was in actuality a front for human trafficking:
PARENTS BEWARE OF THIS LETTER.. This letter is being sent to kids for work, but it isn't for work, it is to get the girls down to this place and drug them and use them for sex trafficking. My 19 yr old received this letter today. And when I showed it to her she told me she had seen this letter online and what it was really about. She didn't believe it. Until she received a letter herself. PLEASE DO NOT ALLOW YOUR KIDS TO RESPOND TO THIS LETTER!!!!
Please share with others to get this out there!!!
Similar Facebook posts targeted Vector, a company that typically enlists teenagers to sell fancy knives door-to-door, as a human trafficking front:
A few days ago I reblogged a tumblr post warning about a letter being sent to young women urging them to apply for a job of which they gave no details. This group has been drugging girls that show up for the interview and kidnapping them to be used in sex trafficing. The post I saw was based in California, but today I received the same letter. PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND IF ANY OF YOU GET THIS. This is dangerous and repulsive.
As with the earlier text-in-a-tweet, users indeed shared these warnings. And as with several other similar viral claims, a number of factors converged to advance them quickly.
The first factor was the influx of college students to their hometowns seeking temporary summer employments as well as the notoriously aggressive recruiting methods of some door-to-door sales companies (who ramp up their efforts to hire college students during summer break). As a result, numerous college kids across the United States received unsolicited job or interview offers at the time of the circulating warning. Many of them (or their parents) arrived at the intuitive conclusion: this is part of the human trafficking scheme we just read about on Facebook!
It seemed the breadth of social media couldn't quite agree upon which opportunities were the riskiest. Many on Twitter believed Cutco Cutlery (operating under the Vector name) was to blame, while others circulated a message implicating book sales company Southwestern Advantage in the kidnapping front ring warning. (Radio station KPSR in Nixa, Missouri, profiled the latter rumor on 4 June 2014 and found it to be without merit.) Door-to-door sales jobs certainly generate a number of online complaints from disgruntled candidates, but those grievances generally comprise bait-and-switch job descriptions and high-pressure interview tactics.
A second aggravating factor concerned a persistent misconception about the risk factors involved in human trafficking. Statistics clarifying the frequency with which adults are simply abducted against their will are notoriously hard to pin down; enumerating particular cases correctly defined as "human trafficking" are even harder. However, a lack of corresponding news stories proportional to the rumors is telling: when any adult disappears under suspicious circumstances, the event is typically newsworthy and often widely reported. That's not to say that individuals (women in particular) are never abducted and trafficked; rather, that the avenues to activities commonly described as human trafficking are far less likely to be (solicited or invitation-based) job interviews than other means associated with the issue.
According to the non-governmental anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project, human trafficking (or sex trafficking) in the United States is often a function of sex work. Sex workers, teen runaways, and immigrants are most likely to be subject to the risk due in part to inherent expectations of intermittent absence or off-the-grid periods for those groups:
Sex traffickers may lure their victims with the false promise of a high-paying job. Others promise a romantic relationship, where they first establish an initial period of false love and feigned affection. During this period they offer gifts, compliments, and sexual and physical intimacy, while making elaborate promises of a better life, fast money, and future luxuries. However, the trafficker eventually employs a variety of control tactics, including physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, confiscation of identification and money, isolation from friends and family, and even renaming victims.
U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, women, men, children, and LGBTQ individuals can be victims of sex trafficking. Runaway and homeless youth, victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war or conflict, or social discrimination are frequently targeted by traffickers.
Door-to-door sales warranted a mention by the Polaris Project on a separate page devoted to labor trafficking. However, that context did not involve a drugged bottle of water or one-time job interview, but instead encompassed a range of behaviors associated with longer-term coercive employment practices:
Common types of labor trafficking in the United States include people forced to work in homes as domestic servants, farmworkers coerced through violence as they harvest crops, or factory workers held in inhumane conditions. Labor trafficking has also been reported in door-to-door sales crews, carnivals, and health and beauty services ... Victims of labor trafficking must frequently work long hours for little to no pay.
(Given that Cutco/Vector, the company identified in this warning, screens, hires, and trains contractors in groups, it's unlikely that people could be abducted or made to disappear during the process without other prospective hires noticing that something unusual appeared to being on.)
Finally, a 4 October 2013 article published by Your Houston News referenced Humble, Texas, in a story about human trafficking. That incident did not involve an interview for a door-to-door sales (or any other job), and it pertained to undocumented immigrants:
“When the officers arrived at the park, the wrecker driver said he heard a loud pop and then saw the car driving at a high rate of speed with no tire. He followed the car and called us immediately,” Humble Police Department Detective Mike Flynt said. “Once officers arrived at the park, they interviewed the suspects and determined the suspect was transporting several illegal aliens to a meet up location with another group.”
Jesse James Castillo, 33, was arrest on a charge of trafficking of a person and was transported as well as two teens and two adults who were in the United States illegally by Homeland Security for further investigation.
So while claims of human trafficking fronts were rampant as teens lined up for summer work in June 2015, no substantive (or even flimsy) evidence supported such rumors.
It's true that door-to-door sales jobs have generated online complaints (and even, in rare instances, been linked with labor trafficking), but the bulk of those comments pertained to the nature of the work. We were unable to locate any corresponding reports of drugged beverages supplied to job candidates, nor any disappearances that matched up with sales of knives or books by college kids.
Although a single account involving human trafficking was reported in Humble, Texas, in 2013, that incident appeared to have involved migrant workers and not college kids recruited for sales jobs.