Here’s what you should know about the dangers of human trafficking.
What you don’t expect is to have a run-in with human traffickers—but that’s what one southern California mom says happened to her during a recent visit to the store.
Diandra Toyos shared a story on Facebook that went viral in which she says two men who appeared to be human traffickers followed her, her mother, and her children around the store. “After a few minutes, I noticed a well dressed, middle aged man circling the area, getting closer to me and the kids.
At one point he came right up to me and the boys, and instinctively I put myself between he and my mobile son,” she wrote.
Diandra says her mom noticed it, too, and said they needed to keep an eye on the man as well as where the children were. “We moved on... and so did he. Closely,” she says. At the same time, her mom noticed another man in his twenties who was walking in the same circling pattern around them as the other man.
According to Diandra's post, the two men shadowed her family for the next half hour. She and her mother managed to lose them at one point by talking to an employee, circling back, using the bathroom, and moving into a different section. They told security agents at the store what happened.
While admitting she's not completely certain about the motives of the men, Diandra says: “I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking…If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.”
The story is absolutely terrifying, and thankfully nothing bad happened to Diandra and her family. But naturally, it begs the question…could this happen to you?
Well, there’s no official estimate on the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S., but human trafficking activist group Polaris estimates that it reaches into the hundreds of thousands. More than 31,600 total cases of human trafficking have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the past eight years.
Human traffickers work in a variety of ways, and kidnapping is one of them, explains Sara Elizabeth Dill, director of criminal justice standards and policy at the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section. However, she says, traffickers are usually more discrete than what Diandra describes in the alleged incident.
“The brazenness of engaging in this in very public and populated places is something new for trafficking, at least if this is widespread,” she says.
“Personally, I am not familiar with any case of human trafficking involving child kidnapping from IKEA,” says human trafficking expert Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, Ph.D., although she says it's not impossible. Pilar Horner, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University, agrees.
“I personally have never heard of a story of someone being trafficked at IKEA, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely,” she says.
“It’s much more common for human traffickers to lure victims through ingratiation, gifts, false promises, faux relationships, and various forms of deception,” Mehlman-Orozco adds. “This method of recruitment facilitates long-term abuse through trauma bonding, as opposed to kidnapping, which is less sustainable from a trafficking perspective.”
That way, if they were ever arrested, the traffickers could argue that their victims consented to their own exploitation, she explains.
Traffickers usually seek out victims who seem like easy targets, like children and girls who appear vulnerable, Horner says. If they approach a target in public, they’ll typically try to get them to go to another place, with the offer of a party or going for a ride, she says.
Dill says that this is a good reminder that parents should be mindful of where they take their children and never leave their kids unsupervised. “Skilled traffickers can operate in a matter of seconds,” she says. And, while this may make you scared to take your kids to a store again, know this: Mehlman-Orozco says she’s more concerned about human traffickers targeting children on social media.
So…what can you do about it, other than becoming a serious helicopter mom? Horner says it’s important to talk to your kids about human trafficking and to teach them to leave a situation the minute they feel uncomfortable. “Tell them that it’s okay to yell at a person if they’re approaching them in a way that’s making them uncomfortable,” she says, with phrases like “Stop following me!” and “Stay away!” Human traffickers don’t want to take someone who will yell at them from the start, Horner says: “They want someone who is not going to put up a fight.”
And, above all, listen to your gut. Horner points out that women are more likely to ignore their gut in order to appear polite, but she says women should tune into their instincts more. “You should feel empowered to not worry about being rude,” she says. “Act on your gut and don’t question it. It’s better to grab your kids and yell at some stranger than take any risk.”
In her post, Diandra stresses that she did not intend to cause panic with her story. "This is not meant to scare you. We have to live our lives. I will go back to that IKEA again," she said. "The truth is, we need to be aware no matter where we are when we are with our kids. And unfortunately we can't always assume the best of people."