The Wayfair Sex Trafficking Theories Went Viral — But Here’s What Law Enforcement Says This Crime Actually Looks Like

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Marlo Safi Culture Reporter
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Anyone familiar with Twitter is aware of how quickly incendiary, false or unsubstantiated information can go viral. 

In July, the conspiracy theory that Wayfair, an online furniture and home goods company, was involved in child sex-trafficking gripped the internet. Conjecture about listings for furniture on the site being named after missing girls with expensive price tags spread like wildfire. 

One Twitter user juxtaposed screenshots of missing children whose names matched storage cabinets on Wayfair’s website, listed for more than $12,000. The tweet was retweeted more than 23,000 times, with 50,000 likes.

A Georgia Congressional Candidate appeared to joke about Wayfair’s link to Ghislaine Maxwell — who was convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s cohort and one-time girlfriend.

One user, whose post was retweeted more than 32,000 times, determined that the internet had foiled Wayfair’s alleged sex-trafficking plot.

People who were more skeptical of the claims may have just scrolled away from the trend, but the claims didn’t fall on deaf ears. Law enforcement officials who specialize in targeting human trafficking were inundated with reports about the Wayfair sex-trafficking conspiracy theory.

While reporting suspected human trafficking is encouraged, sensationalized depictions of what human trafficking looks like, often in movies and social media, obscures the reality of these crimes. 

Experts say the majority of human trafficking cases don’t resemble the action-thriller series “Taken.” The Wayfair child sex trafficking theories reflect the popular misconceptions about trafficking. In reality, the beginning of the path of manipulation and exploitation that amounts to child trafficking often starts under our roofs, online.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU) Unit Chief Erin Burke and Human Trafficking Unit Chief Jerry Garnett explained to the Daily Caller how the social media proliferation of the Wayfair child-sex trafficking conspiracy theory was actually pernicious rather than helpful for the law enforcement agencies trying to bust traffickers and get justice for victims.

The conspiracy theories began on Reddit when users questioned the steep prices for furniture items for sale on the Wayfair website. Soon enough, hotlines where people can report suspected human trafficking were inundated with tips relating to Wayfair.

“We take every allegation of human trafficking and child exploitation seriously and want people to report it,” Burke told the Daily Caller.

“Something like Wayfair, this controversial, we were unable to substantiate anything related to trafficking or child exploitation involving Wayfair.”

Burke says that while federal authorities take every report seriously, spreading theories on social media like the Wayfair one is discouraged. Wayfair also denied the claims that its third-party vendors are connected to child sex trafficking, according to USA Today.

“We don’t want to overrun the systems with constant reporting of things that are being reshared and retweeted,” Burke said. 

Instead, Burke and Garnett said that the reports their units do encourage people to report are ones that are observed first-hand.

“First hand knowledge, something you directly see, definitely those are the situations HSI would like to see reported and that we need to see reported because it’s the most accurate knowledge we can get. It’s not passed on from individual to individual until it finally gets reported to some law enforcement agency. The information we receive that’s closest to the source of the information that was directly observed is the best information we can get and the most valuable, to conduct our investigations,” Garnett explained.

These first-hand observations aren’t always so apparent. Often, trafficking victims aren’t lured in a manner that’s initially violent or sudden. In the cases Burke and Garnett have investigated, traffickers may first gain the trust of a juvenile while chatting online, leading to a period of grooming and manipulation. (RELATED: Ivanka Trump Talks ‘Combating Human Trafficking’ During Announcement Of $35 Million Housing Grants For Survivors)

“What the general public might see is different than some of the targeted audiences traffickers might be trying to exploit,” Garnett says. “What human traffickers are more likely to do is to post advertisements on forums like Craigslist, for employment opportunities. These posts would be outside of the web platforms like Indeed. They’re specifically for recruiting employment. They might use other ads, or means, or forums or even social media.”

For many trafficking victims, who are mostly women and girls, perpetrators lure them with promises of a modeling career. Airica Krahmer, a 20-year-old woman from Tennessee, moved to New York City hoping to launch her career after she said she trusted the wrong people. She was soon beaten and raped by sex traffickers, CBS 12 reported in 2019.

“The old saying ‘if it seems too good to be true it probably is,’ these traffickers are experts at exploiting and manipulating people,” Garnett said. 

“What they would do is post a job advertisement, say on a foreign language message board, where individuals might see this advertisement for employment, and promise $2,000 to $3,000 a week for doing certain labor. Individuals respond to the ads, and when it comes time to perform work, then their actually brought into a situation that they don’t want to be in and exploited for commercial sex or forced labor where they’re not being paid.”

Burke says traffickers are usually adults seeking out vulnerable children, often coming from unstable homes, who they can easily manipulate. Often, all it takes is internet access for a trafficker to find their victim.

“For me, when I was working trafficking, that would be the situation. [The juvenile] would meet someone online, the trafficker will groom them. Sometimes it’ll start off as a boyfriend, “this older guy is interested in you.” The victim wants to trust the trafficker and the trafficker is really good at gaining that trust. And they gain that trust and it changes. The minute somebody is involved with a trafficker it’s not always violence and holding them against their will, it’s not like that immediately, that develops with time, and the trafficker gains more and more control.”

The trafficker will prohibit the victim from going anywhere alone, or speaking to anyone else alone. Often, Burke says, the trafficker will control the victim’s money, grooming them to believe that they’re too inept to manage their own money, or hold on to their IDs so that the trafficker renders the victim completely powerless, and unidentifiable. 

“I’ve had trafficking victims who’ve told me ‘My boyfriend holds my money and my ID because I’m not good at it, he says I’ll lose it.’ It’s a mindset where they feel this person is helping them, when they’re exploiting them.”

The U.S. is one of the world’s worst places for human trafficking, along with Mexico and the Philippines. While there is no official number of human trafficking crimes, it’s estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Between 2007 and 2019, more than 49,000 cases of human trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which receives an average of 150 calls per day, according to the Polaris Project.

To practice vigilance, Burke says Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has started a program called IGaurdian to provide guidance to any organization in the U.S. that interacts with juveniles on how to monitor children’s activity online and be aware of potential threats.

“Everyone meets everyone online. The dangerous environment is now in your living room,” Burke adds.