SALT LAKE CITY — Internet commerce company Wayfair has denied a conspiracy rumor that’s spiraled online about a role in human trafficking. But the fact that so many have interest in it is another example that people are becoming aware of what human trafficking is, local experts say.
The Wayfair theory began with speculation by a user on Reddit on Thursday. The theory linked the names of products Wayfair was selling for $10,000 or more with names that mirrored names of reported missing children. Since then, the company's social media accounts have been flooded with angry comments by people sharing photos from the theory.
The theory was never verified at any point. In fact, Reuters, market news outlet Benzinga and internet rumor sleuth experts Snopes.com are among the outlets that have all already labeled it as completely false. Snopes noted that there are about 800,000 cases of missing children reported yearly, so it’s probable a name will overlap — and that some of the cases within the theory were already solved. Benzinga and Insider reported that it spread over the weekend because the far-right conspiracy group QAnon pedaled it.
In a statement to Business Insider, a spokesperson for the company also said there is “no truth to these claims.”
“The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced. Recognizing that the photos and descriptions provided by the supplier did not adequately explain the high price point, we have temporarily removed the products from (the) site to rename them and to provide a more in-depth description and photos that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point,” the statement to the news site continued.
Local experts agree there is no evidence that actually proves the Wayfair conspiracy theory; however, they also say the interest — given recent proven high-profile cases and developments in major ongoing human trafficking investigations — shows that the general public is paying attention to a growing concern in society.
“It's on one hand, it's positive that people are more attuned to human trafficking cases and people are questioning and people are concerned. That actually gives me a lot of hope,” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who has devoted plenty of time focused on stopping trafficking. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility … but we also need to be careful leveling accusations against individuals or companies and jumping to conclusions without police investigation, without first-hand reports, without financial records, without real ties.”
A real human trafficking problem
The interest exists because human trafficking remains a problem in Utah, across the U.S. and throughout the world. Human trafficking, by definition, is “inducing a person by force, fraud, or coercion to participate in commercial sex acts, or in which the person induced to perform such act(s) has not attained 18 years of age” or “obtaining of a person(s) through recruitment, harboring, transportation, or provision, and subjecting such persons by force, fraud, or coercion into involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery (not to include commercial sex acts),” according to the FBI.
These may be cases like selling someone for sexual activity, someone creating child pornography, forced labor and illegal adoptions. Illegal rings are believed to have turned it into a multibillion-dollar industry, Reyes explained.
Tim Ballard, a BYU alumnus and founder of the California and Utah-based nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad that looks into stopping human trafficking, issued a statement through social media sidestepping the theory. He acknowledged that human trafficking does exist and sometimes in the ways described in the conspiracy claims.
“No question about it, children are sold on social media platforms, on websites and so forth,” he said in the video, which was posted Sunday. “I’m glad people are at least waking up to it, especially right now.”
In March, the FBI even issued a warning that closed schools could mean an uptick in child exploitation due to more online activity for children and predators alike.
But high-profile cases are the reason Reyes thinks that the issue has reached the forefront of people’s minds. Two recent Utah cases that he recounted include the Victor Rax drug and human trafficking case in 2014 and the Paul Petersen adoption fraud case — that involved charges in Utah, Arkansas and Arizona — in 2019. Rax was charged with 63 felonies before he died by suicide in his Salt Lake County jail cell; Petersen pleaded guilty to federal charges last month and could face as much as 17 years in federal prison.
Then there are the cases that have gained mass attention, such as the Jeffrey Epstein case. Epstein, a wealthy financier, was charged in 2019 with molesting and trafficking dozens of underage girls. He was found dead in his jail cell a month later from an apparent suicide. The case received renewed interest in recent weeks because of a Netflix documentary. His longtime friend, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, was also charged earlier this month as prosecutors allege she helped lure in some of Epstein's victims.
The FBI began releasing state-by-state data reports in 2013 based on reports filed from police agencies. In all, there were over 1,000 cases of commercial sex act offenses across the U.S. reported by police agencies to the FBI in 2018. That includes 15 reported commercial sex act offenses in Utah. Of those 15, eight were “cleared,” which the FBI defined as something that happens after an arrest, a criminal charge, or the case is handed over to a prosecutor.
Reyes insists that human trafficking is “very real” in Utah to this day. It’s something he believes is larger than what is known because many details are only brought to light through criminal investigations.
“Are these things happening in the state of Utah? Absolutely,” he said. “How do we know? We have prosecuted many cases and we're investigating even more cases as we speak — labor cases, sex cases, sexual exploitation and child pornography cases.”
Why the Wayfair conspiracy theory could be counterproductive to the cause
Fake cases created from conspiracy theories are troubling. Reyes said while it’s possible businesses can be fronts for criminal activity — like massage parlors that have been busted by authorities in Utah — but unfounded allegations can discredit actual cases.
That’s why he’s equally concerned that people have jumped on the Wayfair conspiracy theory with nothing but speculation. Perhaps the most-remembered incident was “Pizzagate.” In 2017, a North Carolina man pleaded guilty to firing a gun inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant that was claimed to be front for a Democrat-run child sex trafficking ring through one conspiracy theory.
“Sometimes when the real cases come, people then become a little bit desensitized to those, or they're less inclined to look at the real cases,” Reyes said. “I think there's a fine line and a balance. We want the public to be asking questions, being eyes and ears out in the community, and reporting what they think might be human trafficking. But before people jump to conclusions about a particular company or individuals, let us do some of our work.”
How to spot and report human trafficking
A Utah task force was created in 2009 to combat human trafficking. On its webpage, it notes the various controlling tactics used by perpetrators, such as violence or withholding access to loved ones.
Reyes pointed out that many cases happened inside a home or where the victim knows the perpetrator — or the perpetrator knows how to gain control over a victim. Here are some possible indicators from the task force’s website:
- Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
- Has a child stopped attending school?
- Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
- Is a juvenile engaging in commercial sex acts?
- Is the person disoriented or confused or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
- Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
- Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
- Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
- Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
- Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live?
Reyes added that many breaks in cases happen when someone — a victim or witness — speaks out.
“Our message is please come forward. And together we can truly make a dent in attacking and, hopefully, one day eradicating human trafficking,” he said.
People in Utah can report human trafficking through the Utah Human Trafficking Tipline at 801-200-3443. The National Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.