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Fact check: Text scam about package is not linked to sex trafficking

McKenzie Sadeghi USA TODAY

Published 3:50 PM EDT Sep 13, 2020

The claim: The link in a package delivery text scam reveals your location to sex traffickers

Phishing scams have skyrocketed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting misinformation online as users attempt to link a recent text scam to sex trafficking.

Social media platforms have been flooded with screenshots of a text message addressing the recipient by their name and asking them to click a link to confirm their package delivery. The posts claim that clicking on the link reveals your location to sex traffickers.

“We found a parcel from February owed to you. Please assume ownership and confirm for delivery here,” a screenshot reads, along with a suspicious link. 

“Apparently if you click the link, it is a way for them to track you and it is involved in human/sex trafficking,” reads an Aug. 26 Facebook post. “I am so thankful I saw this post before hand so I knew not to click on the link and I deleted the message instantly. It is such a scary world out there no matter where you are at.”

Another user wrote, “This link then provides the scammers with your GPS location. DO NOT CLICK ON THE LINK!!! It is part of a sex trafficking scam.” 

USA TODAY reached out to both users for comment.

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Link aims to take personal information

In January, a similar phishing scam made the rounds, in which people were receiving SMS messages appearing to be from FedEx. 

Justin Duino, managing editor of How-To Geek, a technology news site, wrote then that after clicking on the link, “you’re taken to an obviously fake Amazon listing and asked to take a customer satisfaction survey.” 

From there, you are asked if you would like to claim an “expensive” product as a reward for answering the questions. In order to claim that reward, you’re asked to provide a credit card number and address, along with a small shipping and handling fee, Duino wrote. 

“By agreeing to pay the small shipping fee, you’re also signing up for a 14-day trial to the company that sells the scammy products. After the trial period, you will be billed $98.95 every month and sent a new supply of whatever item you claimed as a reward,” How-To Geek reported. 

Duino told USA TODAY via email that when he clicked the link — which he strongly urges people not to do — he did not find any evidence that it may be connected to location tracking. 

“It’s possible that the people connected to the scam could use the person’s billing/shipping address to know where the recipient lives,” Duino said. “Fortunately, modern browsers require the user to grant individual websites permission to see their location data. When we clicked the link, we weren’t asked to provide this permission, but that doesn’t mean new bad actors aren’t.” 

The Federal Trade Commission warned people in February of a similar text scam that directed people to a fake Amazon site.

“It’s another scam designed to get people to turn over their account information – or your company credit card number,” the Federal Trade Commission wrote.

Online Threat Alerts, an anti-cybercrime community, wrote that the text messages are “scams and spams being sent by online spammers and scammers” and urged people not to click the link.  

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No evidence scam is tied to sex trafficking

Polaris Project runs the U.S. human trafficking hotline. Caren Benjamin, its chief communications officer, told USA TODAY in an email that while Polaris has had a few people contacting the hotline about this post, “we aren’t aware of situations that follow this pattern.”

“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,” Benjamin said in a statement, noting that Polaris cautions “against spreading stories with potentially misleading information about human trafficking recruitment tactics as they may ultimately cause more harm than good.”

The Richland Police Department in Washington recently told Reuters that the link takes users to a page that  claims the person won an iPhone 11, and asks for personal information to claim it.

The Albert Lea Police Department in Minnesota also told Reuters that it has no reason to believe the text scam is linked to sex trafficking.

Fact check: Over 8,000 US trafficking arrests since 2017 have not included members of Congress

Our rating: False

There is no evidence to support the claim that the texts are linked to sex trafficking. Numerous reports state that the text messages are a phishing scam that is looking to get financial information. We rate this claim as FALSE, based on our research. 

Our fact-check sources: 

  • How-to Geek, Jan. 17, PSA: Watch Out for This New Text Message Package Delivery Scam
  • Justin Duino email interview
  • Federal Trade Commission, Feb. 21, Text message package scam delivers more than your business bargained for
  • Online Threat Alerts, Aug. 25, We Found a Package from May Owed to You Scam
  • Polaris Project statement to USA TODAY
  • Reuters, Aug. 27, Fact check: No evidence to suggest text scam is linked to sex trafficking

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

Published 3:50 PM EDT Sep 13, 2020

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