By Brandi Makuski
Friday started with a headache for local law enforcement thanks to another false claim of sex trafficking on Facebook.
By midday, Stevens Point Assistant Police Chief Tom Zenner said he’d worked on nothing else since getting into the office at 7 a.m., and with help from Sgt. Greg Bean the two worked to track down contact information for those involved and trying to verify information in the social media claim.
In the post, which was made by a local resident to a Stevens Point area mother’s group, a commenter alleged a third party had been followed by a suspicious vehicle containing “known sex traffickers” who were supposedly detained after the woman called the police.
Zenner said his office had received messages from concerned residents seeking additional information on the issue, as had Plover Police Chief Dan Ault. Both, along with Sheriff Mike Lukas, said on Friday none of their departments had any record of the call.
Zenner said SPPD shared a screenshot of the original post to its department Facebook page and “told people it wasn’t true, but it’s already gone viral. Three law enforcement agencies right now are looking into it. Things like this get shared without being vetted, it becomes gospel.”
Zenner said he’s spoken with a coworker and mother of the woman who claimed to have seen the suspicious vehicle. Both claim the woman called the non-emergency dispatch number shortly after 2 p.m. on March 7, he said, after she spotted the alleged suspicious vehicle in downtown Stevens Point.
“We have zero record of any call like this,” Zenner said. “And we don’t have a list of ‘known sex traffickers’, either. We’re doing as much damage control as possible, but it’s already reached a point where we’re scrambling to get ahead of this.”
Zenner said while the original post has since been removed from Facebook, he expects local law enforcement to continue fielding questions and concerns about the alleged incident for “about two weeks”, based on past incidents of a similar nature.
Last August, police spent several days investigating a Facebook claim alleging a woman was nearly abducted by half a dozen men while out searching for a lost dog near Jefferson and Algoma streets. That claim also turned out to be false.
“It’s getting frustrating when people jump right to Facebook without verifying information,” he said. “People need to let the media do its [sic] job. If this had gone through an appropriate news agency, this would never have happened.”
Ault said he expects people to use social media responsibly, and be aware their words are being taken seriously by those reading them.
“The person who made the post did so out of an abundance of caution, but she just didn’t verify the information,” Ault said. “Trust, but verify.”