On February 19 2019, a woman shared a harrowing account via Facebook which reported that a phony Uber driver in Tampa had nearly successfully abducted her for the purposes of sex trafficking.
In her post, Emmy Hurley described the purported brush with a human trafficker:
Last night I was picked up by an Uber. Same car, female driver. I MADE A MISTAKE. I got in before checking, as she opened the back door for me from her seat. She drove erratically and didn’t speak. About 10 minutes in, my actual Uber called me asking where I was. My voice cracked, because in that instant I knew. “A car… I think I need help.” She told me not to hang up and to get out of the car however I possibly could. The lady refused to stop or respond to me. I told her she was driving by my friends (random girls I saw) and they would call the cops. She slowed a little, pointing at her phone saying “Uber. I take you back then.” I said, no here is fine. She kept going. I booked it out the door, car still moving. She sped off.
I later was told by numerous people she is a sex traffic worker. They use women to lure people in, and possibly hang out in the Uber lot to steal rides of similar looking cars. The cops didn’t come, but my real Uber driver did Cristin Cinquino, and hugged me, kept me safe, and cried with me. Always, always check your Uber. I’m lucky
Within 48 hours, the post had been shared more than half a million times — despite its similarities to long-circulating urban legends involving nearly identical scenarios at locations as diverse as Target, Hobby Lobby, and Walmart. Numerous stories of trafficking-related near misses have gone viral on Facebook, and experts have routinely stepped in to say that trafficking does not operate in that fashion.
Regarding this particular claim, police were able to verify that she did indeed get in the wrong car, but they were perplexed as to how Hurley concluded that the mix-up was due to “sex trafficking,” something they say was completely unsupported by their investigation:
It looks like the person who posted on Facebook got into the wrong car and then noticed that, you know, we are not going in the right direction. Well, they were going in the right direction — if it was the right person in the car. So it became very confusing. How that became some kind of sex trafficking thing is unclear to me and we’ve checked into it. The other driver is a legitimate Uber driver who was there to pick up somebody else.
According to both police and Uber, the car entered by Hurley was in fact a legitimate Uber driver, not an Uber impersonator. The poster called for an Uber at the airport and appeared to have entered one of the several other Ubers not there for her. Hurley said she “later found out” that the Uber driver was “a sex traffic worker,” but it does not appear that police said anything like that at all. Law enforcement were very clear about the whole “she just got in the wrong Uber” aspect of the story:
The language barrier, and the fact that the woman got into the wrong car, led to confusion … Unfortunately, that also led to inaccurate conclusions that were then posted on social media.
In July 2017, one such account began spreading about a purported abduction for trafficking attempt involving children at Ross. Denver-area news station KUSA reported on the claims, consulting law enforcement and experts on abduction. Both described the claim as implausible and inconsistent with patterns of trafficking:
For answers, we interviewed Professor David Finkelhor. He runs the Crimes Against Children Research Center and has authored several books about child homicide, abductions and sexual abuse.
“Child kidnapping is a very rare phenomenon to start out with,” Finkelhor said. “We estimate that there are maybe 100 or so serious kidnappings of children in the United States (each year) … The most typical kind of kidnapping is of a teenage girl for the purposes of sexual assault,” Finkelhor said. “Sometimes — very rarely — [it’s] for the purposes of abducting them into sex trafficking, but even that is very rare.”
When it comes to younger children — like the ones described in the Highlands Ranch mom’s Facebook post — kidnappings are usually by a family member during a custody dispute.
“I think it’s more likely these are parents who are concerned about a person behaving suspiciously and go to the possibility that this is for reasons of abduction or sex trafficking…” Finkelhor said. “Sex trafficking has gotten a lot of attention lately, so perhaps they immediately went to that idea. But I don’t think that’s a very realistic scenario.”
Finkelhor’s theory is backed up by the law enforcement officials 9NEWS interviewed as part of the original verify on this Facebook post.
Beth Boggess, the FBI supervisory special agent who heads Colorado’s violent crimes against children unit, told 9NEWS that human traffickers tend to lure vulnerable teens over time.
“It’s a completely different crime,” Boggess said. “We don’t see kidnapping for human trafficking.”
Neither Boggess or the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated this claim and a similar one in May, had heard of a single incident where a young child was kidnapped from a store for the purposes of sex trafficking.
And versions of this scenario have been debunked by other law enforcement officials across the country, including Michigan and California.
“This is a very unusual and perhaps implausible kind of abduction scenario,” Finkelhor said.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids and a columnist who caused a stir in 2008 when she wrote about letting her young child navigate the New York subway system alone (which he did safely and without incident) responded to a similar viral frenzy involving a California IKEA in March 2017. Examining the popularity of posts like Hurley’s Uber sex trafficking one, Skenazy expressed profound confusion over what she deemed a strange new form of bragging:
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
Posts claiming Uber drivers or other random people they meet are sex traffickers in disguise fail to understand the basic processes of the very real problem of human trafficking. On their website, anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project provides information on how human trafficking operates.