TikTok generates multiple scare lore stories about flagged cars

Always keen to hear about the latest “weird news”, I noticed a trend in 2020 where young women (typically) were reporting that their cars were moderately vandalized in busy parking lots. On the video social media app TikTok, they interpreted these events as a signal that they were being targeted for abduction by sex traffickers or for general harm.

The typical scenario is that a young woman leaves her car in the parking lot of a busy store. When she returns, she notices something unusual on the car that captures her attention and may delay her from getting in and driving away. A while later, she realizes that this must have been a tactic to tag her car and, ultimately, herself, as a target. She posts this warning on TikTok emphasizing her conclusion that, had she delayed any longer in assessing the vandalism or trying to remove the object(s), she would have been a victim.

Social media claims are not “news”

With this post, I’m starting a list of claims that I hear about in the news. I don’t use TikTok, so I’m going by what rises to the point of popularity where news outlets will report on it. Unfortunately, many news outlets find it acceptable to simply repeat social media items as “news” without validating the claim or doing any investigation whatsoever. This has the effect of propagating the claim. Even if the claim is later debunked, the fact that it has been repeated ends up reinforcing the basic initial claim and, therefore, more people will likely hear about and choose to believe it. They might also take up valuable police time by reporting nonsense claims.

“Better safe than sorry,” they might say, and think they are doing a good dead by recirculating a bogus claim to everyone they know. The harm in this is that we can end up being afraid of the wrong things. We become scared that someone is hiding under the car, waiting to slash our ankles. Or that a white, unmarked van is carrying nefarious guys trying to grab us and sell us into the sex trade. That kind of unwarranted fear does not empower us. Accurate knowledge is empowering. Fear mongering is harmful to society. These rumors spread uncontrollably on social media and have come to be known as “scare lore” – folklore that promotes fear.

Don’t spread the rumor about zip ties on car handles. It’s bogus.

Zip Ties

Zip ties or plastic ties are found mysteriously attached to part of your car. The rumor that zip ties on cars or mailboxes meant you were a target started around 2018 on social media, apparently in Texas.

From 2019:

TikTok user Makaila, @ohokaygirl, posted a video Sunday, detailing the tactic she first heard about through her mom. She says human traffickers are tying zip ties to car mirrors in an attempt to distract girls who are alone so that they can take them. The video has amassed over 700,000 likes.

“This is really important and we should spread the word immediately,” she says in the video.  “This is a new thing that is being done.”

Daily Dot

Various police departments have tried to squash these viral warnings by publicly saying they are invalid. Police specialists also noted that sex traffickers don’t use these open tactics but are active in online, anonymous forums or through word of mouth.

A later iteration shows zip ties connecting adjacent door handles. This is just a prank.

Twisted wire or string on door handle

In a variation of the zip tie warning, a few people have claimed to find string or wire attached to their car door handles. The reasoning, so they claim, is that the wire or string attracts your attention long enough to be accosted by an abductor. I’ve found NO indication that this scenario has ever happened. If someone knows that it FOR SURE has happened, send me the news report. Everyone should be vigilant when exposed in a remote area. There is little reason for concern when you are in a busy area where cell phones and surveillance cameras can capture criminal activity. At this point, there is just as much reason to suspect that people are doing this activity deliberately just to create a panic because the rumor is so prevalent. Maybe these have even been hoaxed for TikTok videos. Controversial or scary information will get more clicks than debunking or straight news. So, rumor-mongering is good for attention.

Back in 2019, Facebook was tagged for promoting the bogus claim that a rose left in a door handle was part of a sex trafficking plot in Kentucky. Either the rose, they claimed, was to get the driver off her guard or, in a really imaginative scheme, it was coated with chemicals that made the sniffer pass out. One can think of several more plausible and non-nefarious reasons why a rose would appear in a door handle. I would not be surprised if this version shows up on TikTok eventually, if it hasn’t already. It’s bound to happen and be grouped into this social media-generated panic.

White stickers

An early urban legend about marking cars occurred at least since 2017. The police who looked into the claim that small white stickers are markers for trafficking said that car dealers sometimes mark cars like this for their inventory purposes. It’s not done by strangers.

A sheriff in Louisiana noted that a local company used small, white, rectangular stickers to track which vehicles have been photographed.

“We have received calls from several concerned citizens after finding a sticker on their vehicle after reading the rumor on social media,” said Sheriff Webre. “The reality is the sticker or dot is inconspicuous enough that you likely haven’t noticed it.”

These particular stickers are weatherproof and water-resistant, which means they would likely remain on the vehicle even after several washings.

WVUE Fox 8

Again, it’s far more likely that this was a simple mistake by a car owner that got overblown, not some elaborate nationwide scheme. It’s hard to perceive a useful purpose for a little white sticker in relation to a serious and dramatic crime.

Water bottle left on hood

From February 2021, the story goes that a plastic water bottle is left on your car in order to make you get out to remove it, which leaves you vulnerable to abduction. This is one of the more silly claims and it’s hard to believe TikTokers get worked up about it. It simply isn’t a logical plan to lure victims. The woman who reported this incident seems to overreact but she claims to have been first approached by a stranger that made her uneasy. Then, she noticed the water bottle on her car and connected the two possibly unrelated events into an elaborate story.

Sadly, an unintended result of these warnings may be to scare women into being less independent and taking away their agency through fear of violence.

Melted cheese

Posted in May 2021, this one, so far, is the most ridiculous. In what was clearly a prank, a woman who was obviously well-primed by frequent, spurious claims of potential crimes, became very concerned when she found cheese slices on her car after exiting from church on a Sunday. She told her audience that suspicious men in a white van watched as she and her friends cleaned off the cheese. She feared that if she had tried to do this by herself, they would have accosted her. [Source]

This cheesy car prank is not new. In 2020, vandalism was reported in Texas where a car was covered in several slices of processed cheese food. This article notes that it was likely in response to ANOTHER TikTok viral idea – the #cheesechallenge – where nasty tricksters get their jollies out of being assholes.

While the TikTok warning above was done with great seriousness, the poster just sounded silly. She tied together three completely unrelated things – cheese on her car, a white van, and fear of abduction – into a dramatic but unreasonable scenario.

‘1F’ on the back window

In January, 2021, a TikTok user reported that “1F” was written in the snow covering her garbage bin. This reinvigorated the bogus idea that such labeling on cars or other places signifies that the person is vulnerable and targeted for kidnapping. An early social media guess circulated that “1F” was a tag for “one female” and a “1B” indicated “one baby”. This was made-up without basis in fact. Often, friend of a friend stories (FOAF) were passed along that could not be verified, but people tend to take these stories very seriously because they sound plausible.

The Polaris Project, an organization helping victims and survivors of human trafficking, has the following information regarding these rumors on their website:

Rumor: Traffickers use zip-ties or mark vehicles with coded letters and numbers (1F/1B) as a way to target or abduct their victims.

Reality: Rumors about the use of zip ties or marking of vehicles by traffickers have been proven to be false. One of the most pervasive myths about human trafficking is that it always – or often – involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor. Traffickers also rarely target victims they don’t know. What we’ve seen through our work over the years is that many survivors have actually been trafficked by people they know – romantic partners, family members, acquaintances, etc.

Polaris Project

Conclusion

Car tagging rumors have repeatedly been show to be false, mistakes, exaggerations, or hoaxes. Following the pattern of the typical urban legend warnings – like those for gang assaults, kidnapping, or worse – these stories were never substantiated as genuine. The threats sounded real enough because these fears were already propagating in society and we made connections where there really were none. The real explanation was almost certainly more mundane – it’s not that uncommon for someone to be a jerk and mess with your car.

It’s not that people do not ever get abducted from parking lots. Certainly, kidnapping, sexual assault, rape, and murder does occur, but the details in these widespread warnings are not accurate; these are not the usual way a crime is perpetrated. A person who promotes these warnings is making an unsubstantiated assumption as to the cause of the “vandalism”. The underlying theme is the fear of human trafficking. This fear has been bolstered by all forms of media in the past few years due to a few scary stories, but mainly by misrepresenting statistics for runaways, abducted children, and immigrant exploitation. Passing along baseless warnings may seem like one is doing a good deed “just to be safe” but it’s bad for society. Don’t do it.

Seen a new TikTok targeting claim? Link it in the comments.

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The monsters of cryptozoology: Book review

Cryptozoology literature has a problem. 

Too often, popular cryptid books perpetuate unreferenced tales, elevating certain unwarranted details that are probably not factual, but opinion. Any references are often poor quality work, frequently web sites or blogs. There is a distinct lack of original scholarship, and generally poor scholarship overall. Cryptozoology proponents are notoriously adverse, even hostile, to criticism. This is a downer because I want better books on these subjects. 

What follows is my review of The Monster Book: Creatures, Beasts and Fiends of Nature by Nick Redfern, published in 2016 by Visible Ink Press. Visible Ink sent me this book before it was released but I just got to it now. I have to start with some caveats so I, hopefully avoid being misunderstood. 

First, I like some of Nick Redfern’s stuff. He’s a highly entertaining writer, speaker, and general spokesperson for paranormal subjects. His living is made by writing popular books. This book was entertaining. There is plenty of room for that in the world. It was not written for someone like me, though. It seems to be aimed more at the younger crowd just getting into the subject. Also, the book is not actually entirely on cryptozoology if you consider that some of these “monsters” may be supernatural stories or occult tales (i.e., Hexham’s wolf creature, the dancing devil, vampires). But, it includes many typical cryptids and mentions the word early on. For those other authors and commentators who stress the “scientific” aspects of cryptozoology (note: not Redfern), they sure leave a wide berth for the supernatural to creep in. There is internal confusion about what cryptozoology is today. Is it serious? Or is it monster stories? That’s for another post but consider the issues I found within this book.

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Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 3: Hiding in the cold, dark water until Judgment Day

This is the third in a series of posts examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.

The first part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

The second part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 2: Lake Monster Tropes

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?


This chapter of LMT (Lake Monster Traditions by Meurger) begins with musings on the water-horse of European folklore. It’s complicated. I’m currently not able to keep track of the many and various forms of water horses mentioned which would require me to dig into the many references. Some are very horse-like, only revealed as insidious by the algae in their mane, a stereotypical sign of danger if you are quick enough to recognize it before they leap into the water. Others are described more like horse-fish or merbeings. Shapeshifters are impossible to describe. The body of tales of the water horse, even in a specific region, are not consistent. Therefore, they don’t approach the rank of testimony making them problematic to consider as a basis for real animals.

Kelpie3

The notion of the water-horse spans the spectrum of today’s cryptozoology. The kelpie, for example, isn’t considered to be a “real” animal. But the cadborosaurus is. Both have the water-horse features. Incidentally, the lovely but creepy water-horse concept was cheapened by The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep  (2007) that portrayed a childhood Loch Ness Monster tale. 

It’s difficult to ignore the clearly fantastic element in these myths of lake creatures. They serve as watchers or omens. They demand a sacrifice, whether that means claiming the drowned, deliberately taking those that venture into the water, or coming out on land to grab a victim for themselves. This connects to another trope  – the lake not giving up its dead. The myth also discourages divers from exploring the depths, lest they become the next sacrifice. And it discourages locals from attempting to retrieve the dead because they serve an ultimate purpose, to appease the monster. It’s considered taboo for the residents of some locations to even talk of the monster. As Meurger says, it is not that the locals he visited didn’t want to talk or didn’t know about the beast, they were AFRAID to talk about it. This is magical thinking which is not comparable to the ethno-known concept of modern cryptozoology.Read More »

Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 2: Lake Monster Tropes

lmtThis is the second in a series of posts examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.

The first part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?


 

 

As I noted in part one, Michel Meurger’s 1988 Lake Monster Traditions (LMT) supports the view that reliance on folklore and traditional stories as evidence of cryptids is problematic for many reasons. Chapter 1 of the book is called “The Enquiry” as Meurger and Claude Gagnon undertake field work to the lakes of Quebec in 1981. Many locations are mentioned but the main reports focus on ten lakes that have known lake creature lore.

The creatures reports can be categorized into six general types:

  • big fish
  • horse-head
  • living log
  • boat-like
  • seal-like
  • serpent-like

At the end of the chapter, there is a handy table that shows either that many different kinds of monsters may live in the same lake, or that we can’t accurately pin down a solid description of several of the famous lake denizens. The latter is far more probable. Decades of attempts have been made to find biological evidence for the source of mystery animal reports in lakes around the world. No cryptid has been discovered.

IMG_5927

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Monster Stories from Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the locale for oodles of strange stories, from the ghosts of Gettysburg to Thunderbirds of the northern forests, from the Jersey Devil sightings along the Delaware to UFOs in Kecksburg (and all across the state).  A 135-page book by Patty A. Wilson chronicles, specifically, Monsters in Pennsylvania: Mysterious Creatures in the Keystone State. As a monster fan myself (I hold a PhD in Cryptozoology from Thunderwood College [wink, wink], I was eager to check out the tales of local monsters.Read More »