In July, many Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users saw posts alleging that high-priced furniture and other products with human names on Wayfair.com was evidence that missing children were being trafficked on Wayfair’s site.
The conspiracy theory exploded on social media around July 10.
On Facebook alone, the word “Wayfair” was mentioned in thousands of posts in the following week, and there were millions of social media interactions according to social monitoring platform CrowdTangle.
From personal accounts with a few followers to verified social media influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers, users were rapidly spreading the theory.
Fact checkers from USA TODAY, Reuters, Snopes and others investigated the validity of the information. Each reported that the conspiracy theory lacked credible evidence. Yet many social media users remain convinced of its validity.
Here are seven things you should know about the Wayfair trafficking theory.
What is the Wayfair human trafficking conspiracy?
The theory is that Wayfair is trafficking children on its website under the guise of selling home goods such as cabinets, throw pillows and shower curtains.
When someone buys a product listed for thousands of dollars, theorists seem to believe that the person somehow indicates a desire to purchase a child whose name is also the product name. This would be done, some have suggested, by entering a promo code, selecting a specific delivery method or being a Wayfair Professional account holder.
Believers allege that the names of certain Wayfair products match those of children who have gone missing in the United States. Some also believe that the dimensions and weights of the products are actually descriptions of children, not of the products pictured.
In one user’s screen capture, a “Samiyah 5 — self storage cabinet” was listed for $12,899.99. After many expressed alarm about a report of a 17-year-old Samiyah Mumin missing in Ohio in 2019, a woman identifying herself as Mumin took to Facebook Live on July 10, 2020, to confirm she was not missing.
The Poynter Institute’s digital media literacy project, Mediawise, found that Mumin and several other children whose names matched Wayfair products had been missing but no longer were. Mediawise reports that one person social media users have connected to the conspiracy, Yaritza Castro of Connecticut, has not been found.
Theorists later turned to Russian search engine Yandex as proof that children, not home furnishings, were being sold on Wayfair’s website. Searching for a given SKU — or product identification number — preceded by the phrase “src usa” or “src ru” — abbreviations for the U.S. and Russia — on Yandex’s image search results in images of children.
It is not clear what “src” stands for, though some have suggested a connection to a Russian modeling agency. There does not seem to be a link between the name of the product and the names of the children in the image search.
What does Reddit have to do with the Wayfair scandal?
The conspiracy seems to have originated from a question posed on Reddit’s forum for conspiracy theories on July 9: “Is it possible Wayfair involved in Human trafficking with their WFX Utility collection? Or are these just extremely overpriced cabinets?”
Nearly 3,000 comments ensued and further developed the theory in that thread and in other spin-off conversations.
Users weighed in with links to seemingly overpriced products on Wayfair’s website, and their suspicion grew when some listings were taken down or their prices decreased.
A Wayfair spokesperson said in a statement to USA TODAY:
“The products in question are industrial grade cabinets that are accurately priced.
“Recognizing that the photos and descriptions provided by the supplier did not adequately explain the high price point, we temporarily removed the products from (the) site to rename them and provide a more in-depth description and photos that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point,” the statement said.
At the same time, these conversations moved from an audience of people who regularly engage in conspiracy theories to the mainstream on other social media platforms.
What does QAnon have to do with the Wayfair trafficking theory?
QAnon was born as a far-right conspiracy theory around 2017 on image-based forum 4chan. One of the beliefs is that President Trump is working to expose a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are high-ranking officials and celebrities involved in a child sex-trafficking ring.
There seemed to be overlap between people who have previously engaged with QAnon content and those who shared the Wayfair conspiracy theory, pointing to it as proof of a large-scale sex-trafficking scheme.
Some have attempted to connect the Wayfair theory to Ghislaine Maxwell, an associate and alleged accomplice of the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, a registered sex offender who in 2008 pleaded guilty to procuring a minor for prostitution. She was arrested on July 2 and later charged with six federal crimes for her alleged complicity in procuring children for Epstein. She pleaded not guilty.
An assertion that Maxwell was pictured with Wayfair’s president of operations — a position that doesn’t exist today — was debunked by the Associated Press.
How did the conspiracy catch fire?
From Reddit’s conspiracy forum, the Wayfair theory moved into the mainstream and was shared by social media influencers.
A screen capture from Maddie and Justin Thompson’s 40-minute Instagram Live video posted on July 10. The couple reveals that they bought a desk that cost at least $17,000 from Wayfair to see whether they would receive “grooming calls” from the company amid a viral conspiracy theory that the website is used to traffic children.
One Arizona couple, Maddie and Justin Thompson, gained tens of thousands of Instagram followers after posting a receipt of a $17,337.98 credit card transaction, followed by a 40-minute livestreamed video in which they explain why they bought an expensive desk from Wayfair to prove the trafficking theory.
Before both posts were later deleted. The video had hundreds of thousands of views.
Other influencers, including those who don’t regularly engage in conspiracies, also promoted the theory. They shared screenshots of expensive Wayfair products in their Instagram Stories and expressed shock at the idea.
What do human trafficking experts think?
The Arizona Republic sought the expertise of Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, the director of sex trafficking intervention research at Arizona State University. She also serves on the Arizona Human Trafficking Council and the Mayor’s Human Trafficking Task Force in Phoenix.
While Roe-Sepowitz could not speak to the veracity of the Wayfair theory, she told The Republic that she appreciates the opportunity to raise awareness of human trafficking, which “happens every day” in Phoenix, she said on July 13.
“The reality of trafficking is heartbreaking,” Roe-Sepowitz said. “There’s nothing intriguing, nothing romantic” about people who go missing and are trafficked, she said.
“I am happy that this story is interesting the public, but the victims are most likely not on Wayfair,” Roe-Sepowitz wrote in an email to The Republic. “They (are) right in front of us on 27th Avenue, in our local hotels, online on sex selling websites and dating sites.”
She said people who have posted about child trafficking on social media can “translate their attention to volunteering for and donating money to credible organizations.”
Tim Ballard, founder of anti-child trafficking nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad and a former special agent for the Department of Homeland Security, went viral in a video posted July 12. Ballard is based in Utah and California.
“Law enforcement’s going to flush that out, and we’ll get our answers sooner than later, but I want to tell you this: Children are sold that way,” Ballard said in the video. “No question about it: Children are sold on social media platforms, on websites and so forth. I’m glad people are at least waking up to it, especially right now.”
Ballard did not confirm or deny the veracity of the theory specifically.
Did the conspiracy theory have any real-world impact?
Polaris, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, received enough tips from concerned callers to release a statement more than a week after the Wayfair conspiracy theory gained traction online.
“Over the past several days the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received hundreds of reports that reference a series of viral posts claiming online retailer Wayfair has been involved in a complex scheme involving sex trafficking of children,” Polaris’ statement reads.
“While Polaris treats all calls to the Trafficking Hotline seriously, the extreme volume of these contacts has made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help.”
The statement continues: “What we can say is that none of the reports we have received involving Wayfair contained any information beyond what has been widely shared online. Nor have any of these reports been made by someone who has a specific connection to any alleged missing children. We deeply appreciate those members of the public who have contacted the Trafficking Hotline out of heartfelt concern.”
In Arizona, Sgt. Ann Justus of the Phoenix Police Department had not “heard of calls for service” related to the theory as of Aug.13.
What does Wayfair say about the trafficking claims?
Wayfair denied the trafficking claim and defended its prices — while also claiming a “pricing glitch” on some product pages — in a statement to several media outlets.
“There is, of course, no truth to these claims,” a Wayfair spokesperson said in a statement to USA TODAY.
A spokesperson for Wayfair told Reuters that the company uses an algorithm to name its products. The algorithm uses “first names, geographic locations and common words for naming purposes.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-444-4968.