TAMPA — The photos first appeared in November 2019.
Facebook user Cornelius King uploaded three images of a person in the middle of a road at night, along with a warning: “Sex trafficking is real. These people lay in the middle of the road and act like their car broke down or play hurt for you to stop.”
“If y’all see anything like this," King wrote, "Don’t hesitate to run their ass over.”
In the two months since it was posted, King’s message has been shared more than 28,000 times. The post had over 2,600 comments as of Wednesday. The photographs and warning also have been reposted by a number of other Facebook users.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department both say they are aware of the viral post, but neither agency has heard of people feigning injury in the streets to ambush concerned passersby.
“There have been no reports related to this incident or any credible information causing us to believe the incident is real at this time,” said sheriff’s spokesperson Crystal Clark.
“No such incident took place in Tampa,” said police department spokesperson Jamel Laneè.
King did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.
Fact-checking website Snopes published an article rating King’s viral post as false.
“We can say that no broader pattern or trend of incidents exists in Tampa, or Florida, or in the United States, whereby motorists are tricked into stopping their cars by a person lying in the middle of the road, as part of a sex trafficking plot,” the Snopes article said.
This isn’t the first viral human trafficking hoax to hit Tampa Bay. In September 2018, a Dunedin woman went viral after posting a video where she talked about a man following her around Publix.
“There are men posted all over parking lots and they are trying to grab them,” the woman said in the video. “They’re looking to grab people. It’s happened four or five times to the county north of us.”
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office expressed doubts about that viral video, and the woman backtracked on her original message.
People tend to fall for hoaxes like this because of misconceptions about what human trafficking is, said Lance Lemmonds of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking.
“They don’t think of it as a systematic buying and selling of another human. They view it as a kidnapping into this life," he said. "I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but that’s not where a majority of sex trafficking cases come from.”
According to the Polaris Project, the nonprofit that operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, traffickers often target young people of color or LGBTQ people. Especially vulnerable people include those in unstable living situations, such as undocumented immigrants or those in the foster care system, or people with histories of sexual abuse, domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse.
“Their trafficker could have control over their money, identification and monitor where they go or who they talk to daily," Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement. “Often times it’s hard for a victim to break away. Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, victims become dependent on their trafficker for physical survival, protection and support.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office urged people to call (813) 247-8200 to file a report with a deputy if they see this kind of content on social media. People also can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.