Saturday, August 25 2018 14:37

The Mom Who Cried Wolf: Social Media and the Rise of the False Walmart Abduction Claims...

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Update - 8/27/2018, 8:02pm - “The safety of our customers and associates is a top priority. We take this seriously and work closely with law enforcement whenever these claims arise, however this particular claim is unsubstantiated. If any customer feels unsafe or uncomfortable while at our store, we encourage them to contact police or an associate so they can assist as appropriate.” -- Tara Aston, Walmart spokesperson.

Original story: Earlier this morning, I woke up to a notification that my mom had tagged me in a Facebook post, as she sometimes does when something might be interesting. The post was a share from Sandy Davis (Dankmeyer), a woman in northern Wisconsin. She claimed that while visiting Wisconsin Dells on Wednesday, August 22, 2018,  she and her children were put firmly into the sights of would-be abductors or human traffickers while shopping at the Wisconsin Dells Walmart store. In her post, published at 1:12am on August 23, Davis claimed to have been "beeped at" by a white van in the parking lot, after which she was approached by a Walmart Associate who informed her that this is how abductors are signalling their accomplices. She goes on to mention being followed by "2 black guys" and discussing this situation with a member of store management. Davis' post has already garnered more than 6.6K shares as of this writing, but the thing is... her rambling account sounds eerily similar to a number of other recent Walmart abduction stories that turned out to be hoaxes. I immediately reached out to local law enforcement along with the Walmart Corporate Communications team to learn more about the situation.

After an assist from Wisconsin Dells Police Chief Jody Ward, I exchanged emails with Lake Delton Police Chief Daniel Hardman as the Walmart store falls under his jurisdiction. Quite simply, Chief Hardman had one statement to make: "This is a false report." 

This appears to be the latest in a string of false reports that are driven by a mix of paranoia in the interest of protecting our loved ones combined with the digital currency of Facebook likes, shares and comments. And if the original posts weren't bad enough, those who are throwing down those likes - or worse, sharing - are only making the problem grow. It's encouraging and rewarding bad behavior.

Sandy Davis - Walmart Post from Facebook

In fact, these abduction reports are so common and so similar, you could practically make a fill-in-the-blanks Mad Libs-style form for creating them. White vans... teams of alleged abductors (usually persons of color or "foreign")... and the incidents are seldom, if ever reported to local police. Generally, when confronted, the original posters usually follow a pattern of deleting their posts - and sometimes, after being shown store security footage, these individuals will find themselves charged (and even convicted) of crimes themselves.

This wastes valuable police resources and creates an undue sense of fear among the public. But the biggest problem with these false reports is that it helps create a "boy who cried wolf!" scenario. When a mom cries wolf so many times and it's not real, what will happen when someone really is being abducted? And yes, people have been abducted from Walmart stores in the past (along with being beaten, shot, stabbed and even killed), but contrary to what social media might have you think, you and your loved ones will probably be just fine. While we should always be cautious and mindful of the environment around us, there is absolutely no reason to live - or shop - in fear.

The "Greatest Hits" of Recent Abduction Hoaxes:

  • 8/24/2018: Fredonia, New York - Police investigate numerous abduction attempt claims at retailers in the area. A Wednesday Facebook post is investigated and deemed to be false. However, there was a suspicious man in other cases who was identified but did commit a crime. Again, don't cry wolf.
  • 8/23/2018: Auburn, Maine - Auburn PD takes to Facebook to dispel rumors of Walmart abduction attempts at local Walmart stores. From their statement: "Facebook is teeming with posts that there was an attempted child abduction at the Auburn Wal-Mart. This is simply not true, APD has not had any reports of any activity like this."
  • 8/16/2018: Marion, Ohio - A woman was charged and found guilty of fabricating a viral Facebook Live video that alleged an abduction attempt in a Walmart parking lot. The previous Friday, she was taken into custody after being contacted by police about her viral post. Police reviewed footage and saw the woman and her children visit Walmart... without incident. 
  • 8/13/2018: Cedar Falls, Iowa - Via Facebook, a woman reports being followed and grabbed in a Walmart parking lot. The piece goes viral and prompts Cedar Falls police to review Walmart security footage. Police Chief Olson states: "Due to the concern for community safety, the CFPD reviewed video footage from Walmart and the claim appears to be unfounded. At this time no report has been filed."
  • 6/13/2018: North Towanda, New York - A woman was offered a Bible at Walmart and declined. Posted on Facebook that the ladies offering religion then followed her around the store... must've been traffickers, they weren't.
  • 6/09/2018: Riley County, Kansas - In viral Facebook post (11K+ shares) Family reports Walmart abduction attempt that didn't happen. Also publicly posts photos of woman who did nothing wrong. Police review footage and show it to the family, who has since apologized.
  • 3/26/2018: Bloomington, Indiana - Police warn of Social Media Abduction Hoaxes after a local post goes viral claiming an abduction attempt and chase at the College Mall in Bloomington. Never happened.
  • 6/04/2017: Coon Rapids, Iowa - In a since-deleted Facebook post, a woman believed a man asking for an opinion about car seats was a trafficker.
  • 8/07/2016: Darboy, Wisconsin - A Facebook post detailing an alleged Walmart abduction gets over 8,300 shares before being deleted (along with the poster's account) after Appleton Police issue a statement deeming it false, and publishing their own Facebook update as "RUMOR CONTROL."

Update 5:04pm: Three hours after publishing this article, I received an angry note via Facebook Messenger from Ms. Davis. While she's thus far waited three days to file any kind of report regarding the incident in Wisconsin Dells, she did let me know that she plans to call the police now... and report me. Frankly, I was quite surprised to learn that she'd discovered the article so quickly.


Updated 8/25/2018. 8:37pm to note that Ms. Davis has either deleted her original post or made it private. At last check, the original post had received over 7,500 shares and over 1,000 comments.

Updated 9/4/2018: The post is back on Facebook with several hundred comments since deleted. 

James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. He is the Owner, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of THE ROCK FATHER™ Magazine. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade of publishing The Rock Father™ Magazine, he joined Adventure Media and Events as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider — a destination for all things pop culture, and The Toy Insider — the leading consumer guide for toys and games. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 27 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

Zahn and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, CBS, GCTN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Reuters, BusinessWire, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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