Terrifying rumors about white vans are circulating Facebook. What’s behind them?

Elise Solé
A string of Facebook posts claim sex traffickers are driving white vans. (Photo: Getty Images)
A string of Facebook posts claim sex traffickers are driving white vans. (Photo: Getty Images)

Rumors that white vans are being used to abduct women and children are going viral on Facebook, according to CNN Business, prompting a warning from the mayor of Baltimore.

"We're getting reports of somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts, I'm told, so we have to really be careful, because there's so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country," Mayor Jack Young told WBALTV on Monday.

Young acknowledged the reports are not from the police but rather citizens. He added, "Don't park near a white van. Make sure that you look at your surroundings and make sure you keep your cellphone in case somebody tries to abduct you and call 911 right away."

A spokesperson from the Baltimore City Police Department tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “We are aware of the posts on social media but we do not have any reports of actual incidents.” When reached by Yahoo Lifestyle, a city spokesperson said the mayor has no further comment.

The trend, notes CNN Business, warns to avoid the vehicles altogether or, specifically, those with additional locks. However, using an independent third-party fact-checker called Lead Stories, Facebook says the latter report is false, particularly a plea to call 911 about a van “utilized for sex trafficking.”

A Facebook spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Posts with this claim have been rated as false by third-party fact-checkers and we’re dramatically reducing their distribution. People who see these false posts on Facebook, try to share them, or have already shared them will see warnings that they’re false."

Photo: Facebook
Photo: Facebook

In a “Hoax Alert” for “fake news,” Lead Stories wrote, “Should you call 911 when you spot a van that has extra locks on its doors and hatches? No, that's not true: such locks are commonly used by mechanics, maintenance men, construction workers etc. who keep expensive tools in their van and who don't want them stolen overnight when the van remains parked in the street. There is no need to call 911 on them on suspicion of them of being sex traffickers.”

The hysteria isn’t restricted to Baltimore — last month, police in North Carolina wrote on Facebook that posts about a white van involved in a suspected kidnapping are unconfirmed. A police spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle that remains true today.

And Georgia law enforcement advised against sharing “internet rumors to spread and cause panic” when reports of a white van appearing “suspicious” incited kidnapping fears. “There is no confirmation of any kidnappings and the vans or vans have not been confirmed, as there are several vans,” a police representative tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Concerned citizens don’t necessarily fact check. CNN Business tracked down the user behind a post warning people about “a guy in a white van kidnapping kids” who admitting having no proof of a crime, but that the story was repeated “plenty of times.”

According to Robert Lowery, vice-president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, “white van” anxiety desensitizes the public. “Rumors strike at our worst fears but they can be detrimental when searching for children in life-threatening situations,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Especially when rumors are so specific — of course, criminals can drive all vehicle models in a rainbow of colors.

“Of the 420,000 missing children last year, there were around 30 or 40 physical abductions that involved, for example, grabbing them in public,” he says. “Although that’s too many and it does happen, these scenarios are rare.”

Better technology, camera phones, and access to Amber Alerts, which are used by law enforcement to notify people of missing children are reasons. Lowery points to a bigger threat such as predators contacting children over social media. “Predators use it to groom children over time, engage them in inappropriate conversations, and threaten them if they don’t comply with demands,” he says.

Examining the source of a rumor can prevent mounting anxiety. “Anyone can post,” Lowery tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If it’s not coming from a reliable source like a government agency, be skeptical.”

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