Social media users falsely link phishing scam to sex trafficking

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Thousands of social media users have shared warnings about a phishing scam after it was erroneously linked to sex trafficking. There is no evidence to suggest the scam has any link to sex trafficking, but followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have popularised such claims.

The phishing scam is relatively standard and targets online shoppers. A personalised text message claims a package is available for collection and includes a link that exposes the user to malware, which may include accessing phone contacts to spread the personalised messages to a larger network. 

From an information security perspective, it’s obviously advisable not to click on any unknown links. The scam itself became a viral story when it was framed as a human trafficking scheme. These claims appeared on social media and were often accompanied by the hashtag #SaveOurChildren, which is used by QAnon conspiracy theorists. The false claims suggested that clicking the link would allow traffickers to access a user’s live location, potentially facilitating a kidnapping.  As is often the case with disinformation and hoaxes, many of those sharing these claims appeared to be motivated by genuine concern and a desire to protect others. For example, the following was posted to Instagram. 

Instagram post making the claim

Human trafficking misinformation is becoming more prominent and this is likely related to the Qanon movement. Earlier this year, the online retailer Wayfair faced claims, largely spread through Reddit and Instagram, that it was involved in sex trafficking by selling children covertly through expensive furniture items on its website. While such claims may seem outlandish, the Wayfair conspiracy spread worldwide and created enough engagement that Wayfair eventually responded to the controversy and made changes to some of their listings. 

These false claims do have a knock-on effect as Polaris, who runs the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, issued a statement requesting that people stop calling their hotline to report the phishing scam, similar to the statement they previously released about the Wayfair conspiracy. 

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