STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.
Has the call-and-response game "Marco, Polo" proven to be a tactic to initiate sex trafficking in stores? No, that's not true: Spokespeople from human trafficking advocacy and awareness organizations told us that there are no confirmed reports of such a scheme being used for human trafficking.
The claim, which may have stemmed from a viral TikTok video published on August 28, 2022, discussing the alleged scheme, also appeared in a Facebook post published on September 13, 2022. The post opened:
‼️🚨Kenosha Wisconsin!! ‼️🚨Please be aware of your sorroundings! What are the odds just yesterday I'm on TikTok and see a video of a new sex trafficking trap they're doing now. In stores they are yelling 'Marco' and waiting for a response 'polo'.
The user went on to describe a trip to a Walmart in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during which they saw and heard a woman walking from aisle to aisle and yelling "Marco." This person was seemingly trying to initiate the call-and-response game "Marco, Polo." The user said they reported the situation to a Walmart supervisor. In the comment section of the post, the user included a video of them supposedly recording the woman saying "Marco," but the woman was not visible in the video and most of the footage was obscured by a large emoji.
This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Sept 14 14:19:22 2022 UTC)
Lead Stories got in touch with the Walmart location in Kenosha and spoke with a representative who told us that we needed to reach out to Walmart's corporate media relations team about the claim. We will update this fact check with any response from the company's corporate media relations team.
Lead Stories contacted the Kenosha Police Department about the claim. During a phone call with Lead Stories on September 14, 2022, Joseph Nosalik, public information officer for the police department, told us that although he had not heard of any sex trafficking scheme in the area like the "Marco, Polo" claim, he suggested that we reach out to the Kenosha County Sheriff's Department because the Walmart location in Kenosha is within the sheriff's department's jurisdiction. We will update this fact check if the sheriff's department returns our inquiries.
Data about human trafficking survivors shows that many survivors are not violently abducted and are familiar or even close with their abusers.
Several human trafficking advocacy and awareness organizations told Lead Stories that they have not received reports of a "Marco, Polo" scheme used in stores for human trafficking. Ayan Ahmed, communications manager for Polaris -- the organization that also operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline -- said via email on September 14, 2022, that between the Polaris communications team and representatives from the hotline, neither have heard of any human trafficking situations that resemble the "Marco, Polo" scheme. She also provided us with the organization's official statement on unproven human trafficking claims:
Polaris always encourages the public to educate themselves and others on the issues of sex and labor trafficking as well as the resources available to assist survivors of trafficking. However, we strongly caution against spreading stories with potentially misleading information about human trafficking recruitment tactics as they may ultimately cause more harm than good. Through our work operating the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline we have learned a great deal about some of the methods of recruitment used by traffickers. Traffickers commonly prey on the specific vulnerabilities of their victim by making promises aimed at addressing the needs of their target as a way to impose their control. They may establish strong psychological and emotional ties with their victims before forcing or coercing them to engage in commercial sex. To learn more about what human trafficking looks like, please visit www.polarisproject.org/recognizing-human-trafficking.
Polaris has debunked other human trafficking rumors on its website.
In an email to Lead Stories sent on September 14, 2022, Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, said that the organization has not seen any reports of human trafficking instances that originate from the use of "Marco, Polo" in stores. She went on:
What we do see is that traffickers target specific individuals based on their individual vulnerabilities. Traffickers may work to build a relationship with someone who is isolated or lonely. They may use gifts to lure someone who is struggling to meet their needs. They may promise a job to someone who is struggling to find safe employment. They do not generally engage in open activities in public places indiscriminately.
While cannot say for certain this did not happen in the specific case brought to our attention, in all of conversations and consultations with local, national, and international levels we have never encountered the circumstances described in this post.
Lead Stories also contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and will update this fact check with any relevant responses.
Other Lead Stories fact checks related to human trafficking can be found here.
2022-09-15T00:37:51Z 2022-09-15T00:37:51ZAdded statement from National Children's Advocacy Center.