At least four members of the Columbia community have found dots, decals or lines mysteriously appearing on their cars recently on or around campus. Social media posts — that USCPD Police Captain Eric Grabski called “a hoax” — claim these random marks are a signal of human trafficking.
“There's an urban myth that this has something to do with people being targeted for human trafficking, and this has actually been going on for some years," Grabski said. "It's happening nationwide, and obviously, with social media connecting all of us, folks see that and then don't realize that it's actually not true."
On Sept. 25, Sabrina Knight's Gamma Phi Beta group chat blew up with screenshots of a social media post that said marks were appearing on cars in college towns in Georgia and Alabama. She decided to check her car for any new and unusual marks.
She found two small white lines, one in each top corner of her windshield. Her car was parked either in the parking lot behind Columbia Hall, or the parking lot between Columbia Hall and Capstone — she can’t remember which since she parks in both frequently.
“It was kind of just like an, ‘Oh, crap,’ moment. Like, if it really was a real issue, then it was kind of nerve-wracking, but also at the same time, I wasn’t sure if anything was really happening,” Knight, a first-year exercise science student, said.
Not sure at first what to do, Knight ended up calling USCPD. She said they offered to take a report of her car, but there wasn’t much else to do since there is no indication of human trafficking or other dangerous activity.
“No one should put anything on someone else's car," Grabski said. "We want to know if somebody's tampering with anyone's vehicle. But, this is not a situation where someone is trying to do someone harm. It's probably a prank. It’s probably someone that is just, you know, playing some type of prank. We have zero indication that this is anything other than that.”
In September, the Athens Banner-Herald in Georgia said there were more than 30 incidents of paper dots appearing on cars, some of which were reported to the University of Georgia police. The Athens-Clarke Police Captain Chris Nichols said the markings were leftover stickers from car dealerships that people simply had not noticed before.
“What we learned is it is an industry standard for dealerships and repair centers to mark windscreens on vehicles when they have completed a certain task. It’s an easy reference for them to look at a vehicle and immediately know if that task is completed,” Nichols said in the article.
However, the lines on Knight’s car, which she scratched off with her nail and said she thinks were permanent marker, were not the same material as the stickers that appeared in Athens.
“If someone's concerned about anything, whether it's a dot on their car, suspicious people or people that they think are up to some type of harm, I mean, we want to be notified,” Grabski said.
Though Grabski said he's sure these markings have nothing to do with human trafficking, he said he wants students to always practice safety.
“We're not trying to advocate that human trafficking isn't an issue. It's obviously an issue, not only in the United States, but also here in South Carolina,” Grabski said. “The safety tips that we provide to our community are very similar to other suspicious activity.”
He said he recommends calling the police department immediately anytime something feels “out of the ordinary.” Grabski said he wants students to have a safety plan when they go out with friends and to always stay in a pair or group.
“Even though this is a hoax, it's also a good time for our community to just remind themselves of simple things that they can do to help keep themselves — stay safe,” Grabski said.