“OK, so I saw this TikTok that Target is the new sex trafficking hub, or very commonly known for sex trafficking, and I saw this girl posted her story so I wanted to say about mine,” Makenzie Jade says in her video. She then tells a story about being followed by a man while in the produce section of her local Target, then being circled by two additional men with nothing in their shopping carts. She called her mother and boyfriend, who contacted Target employees to ensure her safety and walk her to her car, where she says she saw one of the men she had seen in the store waiting for her.
The harrowing story, told in two parts, is hashtagged #sextraffickingawareness and #target, and has a combined 1.2 million views. In an Instagram direct message, Makenzie says she posted the video “to raise awareness to the situation.” “It is something you only see in movies,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I saw another girl post what happened to her, not thinking it would ever happen to me at my local Target.”
The “it” Makenzie is referring to is sex trafficking. Over the past week on TikTok, there have been dozens of videos, some with millions of views, in which young women from all over the country describe being followed by strange men or women in Target in what they describe as an attempted trafficking operation, though the videos don’t really clarify what that term means.
In one video, Allie Mellman, a 27-year-old woman from St. Paul, Minnesota, describes being approached by a woman in Target five years ago who asked her if she needed financial help and then gave her a man’s business card; when she looked up the name on the card, she couldn’t find a website or social media profile for the man. “At the time I thought it was really weird,” says Mellman, whose video got more than 587,000 views. But it wasn’t until she saw other videos on TikTok of women describing similar experiences that she thought it may have been linked to “trafficking.” “I was like, oh my God, that sounds exactly like what happened to me.”
In a two-part video series with more than 7 million views, Kassidy Brown, 22, from Omaha, Nebraska, describes being followed by a young woman and what appeared to be her mother at a local Target before getting security involved. All of the young women in these videos describe feeling uncomfortable or unsafe by their encounters, but only labeling them as a trafficking attempt after seeing other women share their own stories in TikTok videos.
“I saw a lot of videos of other women being followed around on the street, at other stores, Wal-Mart, Home Goods, things like that,” says Brown. “I was like, ‘this is insane,’ and a lot of women were saying ‘this happened to me at this store,’ or at this specific location. It seems like it’s happening way more often than we think it does.”
Despite the stickiness of such narratives on social media, however, anti-trafficking experts are highly skeptical of these reports. “I have never heard a case of anyone being abducted from Target in my 20 years in this field,” says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a national network of anti-trafficking advocates. (Representatives for Target did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Indeed, when asked about the TikTok rumors, many experts say they adhere to a familiar pattern of sex trafficking rumors and urban legends intended to spread hysteria while simultaneously misrepresenting the realities of what trafficking actually looks like. Despite the omnipresence of narratives about young women being abducted by mysterious strangers in public places, the majority of trafficking victims are marginalized people — undocumented migrants, for instance, or homeless LGBTQ teenagers who don’t have access to shelters — who more often than not know and trust their traffickers.
“Any time we teach people false information, we have to remember everyone hears these narratives over and over about what trafficking looks like,” says Kate D’Adamo, a partner at Reframe Health Justice who has studied the history of sex trafficking narratives. “Not only does it mean that people who are vulnerable to being trafficked are made more vulnerable because they’re [made invisible], we’re also focusing on the wrong place.”
Dubious rumors purporting to raise awareness about the “realities” of sex trafficking are nothing new. “A lot of these urban legends, it’s old wine in new bottles,” says folklorist Benjamin Radford, noting there’s a long-established genre of “stranger danger” stories focused on abductors of women and children at malls stemming all the way back to the 1950s. Recent high-profile sex trafficking cases in the news, such as the story of Jeffrey Epstein, as well as the frenzy surrounding the trafficking-centric QAnon conspiracy theory, have led to the resurgence of such rumors.
Most notably, an urban legend focusing on the online furniture retailer Wayfair as a trafficking hub went viral on TikTok last year; photos of “zip ties” marking women’s cars as kidnapping targets in parking lots at Walmart and Target also went viral on Facebook and Instagram. “One of the functions of folklore is people tell stories about what they’re concerned about,” says Radford. “And what they’re concerned about these days, rightly or wrongly, is this problem of sex trafficking.”
He classifies this most recent entry as an example of a “memorate,” or a first-person story that lends credence to the narrative and gives it more immediacy. “The sheer number of them tends to lend credibility,” he says of the TikTok Target trafficking videos. “If there’s one viral video, you can dismiss that. But when you have dozens of people saying similar stories, that will get people talking.”
Human trafficking tends to give rise to such stories because, due to its underground nature, there’s not a large body of reliable data on the phenomenon. “The problem with human trafficking is the amount of information we have about actual trafficking cases is extremely limited,” says Caren Benjamin, chief communications officer of the Polaris Project. “There is no good way to collect data. There is extremely limited victim reporting, and a huge percentage of people in trafficking situations never identify as being in trafficking situations.”
For this reason, human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular tend to be widely misrepresented in mainstream media. Though most coverage focuses on young white women as victims of a shadowy ring of abductors, à la Taken, anti-trafficking experts say that most trafficking survivors — up to 90 percent, Benjamin estimates, though no hard numbers are available — are disenfranchised and vulnerable people who already have relationships with their traffickers.
People who are “in a position that they’re unable to leave where they’re being abused and exploited,” such as homelessness, substance abuse, or lack of immigration status, are most likely to be subject to trafficking, says Bruggeman. “Advocating for a stronger social safety net, expansion of affordable housing, affordable medical care — those are the tangible things we can all do to really make a difference to stop this crime from happening,” she says.
Unfortunately, due to societal misperceptions surrounding trafficking, calls for such sweeping infrastructural changes are often ignored in favor of focusing on more sensationalized stories of attempted abductions in stores or parking lots. This ultimately has the effect of diverting attention and resources away from people who are most in need, says Bruggeman: “It makes it harder for trafficking survivors to see themselves in this narrative and feel that law enforcement and service providers will recognize their experience as an experience of abuse and exploitation.”
Brown, the TikToker whose videos detailing her own experience garnered millions of views, says while she is unsure her experience was “100 percent sex trafficking,” the encounter she described in her videos felt “very uncomfortable and unsafe, and I’ve been taught from a young age to remove myself from situations that felt that way.”
She says she received hundreds of comments from women who shared similar stories about being approached in a Target or another department store. “I don’t think every woman in the comments has been making up these stories. Unfortunately it’s the world we live in that women have to be on guard 24/7,” she says. “We have to be aware and super vigilant all the time.”
Indeed, while stories like Brown’s might not serve to underscore the existence of shadowy, mid-end department store trafficking rings, they do serve to highlight a crucial and very real phenomenon: in a world where nearly one in three women has experienced some form of physical violence (albeit usually at the hands of a partner or loved one and not a stranger), women have every right to feel wary or uncomfortable when approached by people, particularly men, in public spaces. The danger, cautions Radford, arises when people “exaggerate about things like this when there are real, legitimate dangers out there.”