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Fake tale of kidnappers frustrates Westminster police

Social media helped spread false human trafficking rumor, detective warns

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It was a scary story, to be sure. It just wasn't true.

Readers were told that a young girl, leaving work from Westminster's Orchard Town Center, was followed home by a mysterious car. According to the tale, she called police, who stopped the car and found two men carrying items of “ill intent” in their back seat.

The story was posted to social media by the girl's mother, who wanted to convey to others in Westminster and surrounding communities her belief that human trafficking, kidnapping and related crimes are big problem in the area right now.

But it didn't happen, according to Westminster Police Investigator Cheri Spottke.

“By the time we'd found out about the post, it had been shared more than 4,700 times to Facebook and it kind of started to create some chaos,” Spottke said. “People were upset, concerned, calling for safety meetings. And it just kept kind of growing legs.”

Spottke said it's a prime example of social media blowing a rumor completely out of proportion to reality.

“It was interesting to watch but it was frightening,” Spottke said. “We just could not track it down fast enough.”

She urges people to take what they read on social media with a grain of salt, double-checking a tale before they forward it along.

“Don't just automatically share things,” she said. “Call us if you have a question: We are an open book, and we might not be able to give you details, but we can confirm or deny something. And then, you can go ahead and share it or not. But if you do post, share what you know. Don't post assumptions and hearsay.”

Investigating a rumor

The story first appeared on the Nextdoor social media app for several Westminster neighborhoods about March 18. From there, a screen capture of the original story was posted to Facebook and shared even more.

Spottke said her department learned of the post on March 20 and she began investigating.

“We had limited information off of the first post, so we checked all of our calls for service going back a week and then asked Broomfield, Thornton and other agencies,” Spottke said. “In that area, those boundaries are all very close, so we checked with all of them. But nobody had any record of the call and we began to think it was completely made up.”

She posted to the Westminster Nextdoor page asking to be put in touch with the original poster.

“We eventually got in touch and found out what jurisdiction the call was placed from and some other information,” Spottke said.

Spottke said she eventually talked to the police officers who talked with the daughter. Spottke declined to identify what city they were from, but said their story differed widely from the social media tale.

“She did call 911 and the police contacted her, but she was not actually being followed,” Spottke said. “There was never contact with a suspected vehicle and no items of bad intent were found.”

The girl might have thought she was being followed, Spottke said.

“The officers said the girl appeared to be genuinely shook up,” Spottke said. “She believed she was being followed, but whether she was or if someone was just going the same way for a while we'll never know. But there was no vehicle following her when the officers contacted her.”

Spottke also said there have been no reports of human trafficking at the mall.

“This is not Mexico, and white vans do not just snatch kids off the sidewalk, zip-tie them and drive off,” Spottke said. “Here, human trafficking stems from runaways and prostitution, not kidnapping. That's not how our human trafficking cases work. And we are not working any human trafficking cases out of the Orchard now anyway. It's not a hot spot.”

She said the story is similar to social media reports around the country about women being followed in large retail stores.

“That's been proven false, too, time and time again,” she said.

The lesson, Spottke said, is to be more careful about what gets posted to social media.

“We don't want to discount peoples' fears,” Spottke said. “If you are concerned, call us. We'd rather you be safe than sorry. But if you feel you need to put something up on social media, just be sure it's accurate and don't over-dramatize it.”

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