The claim that these text messages are related to sex trafficking or location tracking is just the latest iteration of a debunked urban legend. However, people should be wary of these spam text messages, as they are likely connected to malware or theft scams.
In March 2022, screenshots supposedly showing text messages from a redheaded woman were circulated on social media attached to the claim that these messages were related to a sex trafficking ring. Posts on social media also warned that if people responded to these messages the sender would be able to track their location.
‼️SEX TRAFFICKING WARNING‼️there is a sex trafficking text going around a couple states close by. it's a pic of a red headed girl acting like she's trying to get a hold of a guy she went on a date with, then if you reply to her being nice simply saying "you have the wrong number." they can track your location. i got a text friday and didn't think anything about and thought it was just a joke or something and she sent me a nude and then messages that i could tell were already pre written out and then i deleted the texts. and i opened facebook just a little bit ago and seen a post of people having similar issues with the same picture. these people are changing their area code and using different phone number based off of where you live. they used 336 for mine, and 865 on a lady fromtennessee. i turned off all of my locations on all of my apps. PLEASE DO NOT TEXT THIS NUMBER BACK. there is also a blonde headed girl going around doing the same and it’s believed to be sex trafficking scam‼️
‼️*update* they are changing the area code based off of the area code affiliated with your phone number ‼️
A viral TikTok video about a slightly different version of this rumor received more than 2.7 million views on TikTok.
Similar versions of this rumor featuring photographs of different women have been circulating for years. You can see some visual examples of the various versions of this rumor at the top of this article.
While people were truly receiving text messages purporting to be from a redheaded woman who dialed the wrong number, and while recipients truly are best off ignoring, blocking, and deleting these messages, there's no evidence that these messages are connected to a sex trafficking ring, nor is there any indication that a person's location will be tracked if they engage with this message.
These text messages are just the latest iteration in a series of fear-mongering rumors about sex trafficking that have been circulating on social media for years. While sex trafficking is certainly a real world problem, many of the rumors that get passed around social media about the various tactics sex traffickers are supposedly using to find victims are unfounded. We've previously encountered false rumors about sex traffickers leaving chemically tainted roses on cars, putting zip-ties on mailboxes to mark the location of victims, and posing as door-to-door booksellers.
Ron Pierce, president of the IT company Trinity Solutions, told the North Carolina CBS news affiliate WFMY:
"It's a spam text message ... It's kind of one of those social myths, it gets circulated every now and then. This one has been going around since at least 2020, and maybe even a little before. Then it used to be just the whole sex trafficking angle, but now it's, 'watch out, they could track you.' It's a lie, they can't track you by responding to the text or clicking anything like that."
While there's no evidence that the person(s) sending these text messages are linked to a sex trafficking ring, they are likely engaged in another nefarious activity: theft.
The goal of many spam text messages is to get a person to divulge personal information, such as a credit card number, birth date, or personal photos, or to click on links containing malware that can steal this information. In the case above, it appears that the scammer was using flirty text messages (and eventually nude photos) in order to get people to click on a link to an adult website that was likely infested with malware.
While these text messages are not linked to sex-trafficking, and receiving one will not allow anyone to track your location, if you get one of these text messages, your best option is to ignore, delete, and mark the number as spam.
It's also worth mentioning that while the people on social media warning others about a new sex trafficking scheme are probably doing so with good intentions, these warnings can distract from real sex-trafficking issues and divert resources from people who truly need help. In 2020, after a conspiracy theory that the furniture store Wayfair was trafficking children in overpriced cabinets went viral, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization working to combat sex trafficking, published an article explaining how these conspiratorial rumors can impact survivors and victims:
A barrage of conspiracy-related reports from people with no direct knowledge of trafficking situations can overwhelm services meant for victims.
There are only so many Hotline Advocates available at any one time to handle incoming contacts to the Trafficking Hotline. Hundreds or thousands of people sharing the same information means long wait times for victims in crisis or service providers trying to find immediate help for someone in need. These long waits may literally mean the difference between someone finding the help they need to escape or having to hang up because they can’t get through.
Survivors, victims, or even accidental bystanders may lose their privacy or be negatively impacted.
The Wayfair theory has already resulted in online harassment and privacy intrusions of people mistakenly believed to be victims, as well as broad sharing of online sexual abuse material of actual victims who have not been connected in any way to Wayfair. This harm is real for survivors who want to maintain their privacy, victims who are being re-exploited by broader distribution of their abuse materials, or bystanders whose lives can be overwhelmed by the actions of potentially well-meaning online communities.