On 16 February 2017, Facebook user Ashley Hardacre published the following image and warning, claiming that abductors and thieves were employing a new tactic to lure potential female victims out of their cars:
As some of you know I work at a store in the Mall out in Flint. I worked a closing shift tonight so me and the girls I work with always walk out together to make sure we are safe in the parking lot. I got to my car and locked the doors behind me immediately as I always do and noticed that there was a blue flannel shirt on my windshield. There were two cars near me and one was running so I immediately felt uneasy and knew I couldn't get out to get it off. At first I thought maybe someone had just thrown it on my car for some odd reason. I used my windshield wipers to try to get them off but the shirt was completely wrapped around my wiper blade. I had seen posts lately about people finding things under their windshield wipers in the burton/Flint area as an attempt to get girls out of their cars and distracted. Luckily I knew better than to remove the shirt with cars around me so I drove over to a place where I was safe and quickly rolled down my window and got the shirt off. I don't know why the shirt was on my car but it had to have been intentional the way it was put on there. I really can't think of another reason as to why someone would put it on my car. Tomorrow I am informing security of the situation and making them walk me to my car from now on. It definitely frightened me a little bit ? I'm so glad my parents had informed me that it was happening in our area, I just never thought it would potentially happen to my car.
Commenters immediately pointed out that Hardacre's claim resembled warnings perpetually circulating online about various ways in which criminals supposedly attempt to lure marks away from vehicles under seemingly benign pretenses. And news outlets confused he situation by conflating Hardacre's story with a widely-reported account from an actual victim of sex trafficking. Some news reports made no effort to differentiate the victim's account of being held against her will and from an unrelated Facebook post about a woman's finding a shirt on her car's windshield:
Rosa Castillo shared her story with CBS12 about the world she was forced into and how she escaped.
"They raped me in a group of 30 men. I would lose conscious back and forth. It's like, I was alive, but I was dead," she said.
Now, authorities are putting out a new warning for women about a tactic being used by human traffickers.
When we see something like a shirt or a piece of cloth tied to our windshield, our first instinct is to remove it. But that is exactly what a viral warning says human traffickers want you to do.
A Facebook post with this warning has been shared more than 99,000 times. [Ashley Hardacre] found that shirt on her windshield, but instead of taking the time to remove it, and becoming a target, she drove to a safe place first ... She recalled her mother telling her this is a tactic used by traffickers.
Hardacre's name was not used in initial reference to the Facebook post, creating the impression that Rosa Castillo might have been the one spreading the warning about shirts on windshields. News reports were vague about which authorities were reportedly warning women about shirts on windshields, and lacking in evidence documenting that criminals were actually engaging in any such practice.
We contacted the City of Flint's police department to ask whether any reports had been filed or received about carjackers luring women with shirts on windshields, but they said no such incidents had been recorded there. Sergeant Brad Wangler told CBS News nothing of the sort had ever been reported in the area:
Flint Township Police Detective Sergeant Brad Wangler said he contacted Hardacre after he saw her post on social media. The local police department is now investigating the incident along with mall security, searching surveillance footage to hopefully find the person responsbile.
But he assures residents that it’s not a common practice, at least not in the Flint area, and is no cause for panic.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Wangler told CBS News. “There have been no other incidences like this. It’s kind of unknown as to what or why or who [did this].”
Local police eventually determined that the shirt had been placed on the windshield of Hardacre's car as a prank and had no connection to any crime or criminal intent:
[Flint] Township police made contact with [Hardacre] after learning of the incident and with assistance from Genesee Valley Center were able to obtain a vehicle description and identified two males who were interviewed.
"As a result of these interviews, they admitted to putting the shirt on the vehicle as a random prank," per the statement. "Also, interior video surveillance at the Genesee Valley Center corroborated their presence at the mall."
The males had no prior knowledge that placing an item on a vehicle could potentially be construed as a human trafficking tactic, police said, and they had left the parking lot more than one hour before the woman exited the shopping center.
They have since apologized to the woman "that their actions caused her to feel scared that night," reads the statement.
UPDATE: 24 February 2017 -- We changed the status of this page from "Unproven" to "False" with the addition of the statement from the Flint Township police.