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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