False rumors of roving bands of abductors using plastic zip ties to identify their victims have been circulating on social media since around 2018 and recently surged in popularity. The warnings, often appearing on Facebook, Twitter, NextDoor, and WhatsApp, warn people about plastic zip ties being found on their vehicles, doorknobs, fences, mailboxes, and elsewhere.
The warnings, framed with the usual “PLEASE SHARE THIS FOR PUBLIC SAFETY” preamble typical of what’s sometimes called scarelore, claim that abductors and sex traffickers leave the plastic ties to mark their targets. People—particularly women—are warned to take extra precautions or call police if they find the plastic ties. Versions of the story have surfaced in hundreds of communities over the past year, often resulting in concerned calls to local police departments.
It’s not clear what the origin of the zip ties are or how common they are. A single photo of a zip tie in a viral media post can result in millions of people seeing it (and thus being warned about it), while few if any people encounter them in real life. Some may be placed as pranks in acts of what folklorists call “ostension,” while many (such as those on fences) are likely innocuous and may be left over from old banners that have long since been removed or flown away, remaining unnoticed until highlighted as an imminent unseen threat.
Usually the result is needlessly scaring communities and wasting police resources, but in a few cases, there are more severe consequences, such as in a recent incident that led to an assault and several arrests in Hawaii.
The incident began July 7 when Kalena Hoopii, twenty-four, entered a Home Depot in Hilo and complained that she had found a white zip tie on her car in the parking lot, which she understood from social media warnings to be evidence that she was being targeted for abduction or human trafficking.
Accompanied by a friend, Kamea-Aloha Wong, Hoopii called her boyfriend “Mikey” Glendon, described by Hawaii Tribune-Herald as a “38-year-old candidate for mayor who has twice in the past decade been acquitted on criminal charges because of mental incapacity.” The three of them concluded that there must be a kidnapping ring at work in the parking lot; “All the fear in her head explodes,” Glendon told the Herald Tribune. “She calls me, and I’m so thankful she did.” Glendon didn’t call police (“Why call the cops when this shit is still going on?” he said) and instead the trio decided to investigate on their own and take action to thwart the abduction/child trafficking ring they were certain was at work in the parking lot.
After being denied access to Home Depot video surveillance, Glendon decided “I don’t need to see a video to verify it. So we run outside, block the parking lot … Because whoever’s doing this is here in this parking lot. So I’m goin’ block this thing and check every car and find out.” All three of them blocked off exits to the parking lot and began searching for kidnappers, though it’s not clear how they would be identified (perhaps by the presence of white vans or dark sedans, both common folklore themes).
As the crack team of investigators scoured the area for abductors and/or their victims, Angelo Valentino, fifty-five, left the Home Depot with his purchases and tried to leave the parking lot. Finding the exit blocked, he knocked on the driver’s side window of Hoopii’s vehicle to see what was going on. Seeing no driver or any passengers in distress, he stepped away. Hoopii and Glendon saw this from across the parking lot; as Glendon later described, “So now, we’re at a point where all exits are blocked, and there’s this one guy who’s not from here, has an accent, haole [Caucasian] guy, trying to escape with his life. Instant red flag, instant common sense, yeah, to us local people.”
Thinking he has finally spotted a member of the abduction gang, Glendon ran toward Valentino, armed with a Hawaiian shark tooth war club called a lei o mano.
Glendon and others assaulted Valentino, who was detained for the police arriving around 1:10 p.m. Based upon information from Glendon and others that Valentino had entered Hoopii’s car and may be involved in a kidnapping ring, Valentino was arrested and taken to jail.
After further investigation and review of Home Depot surveillance video, the police released Valentino and issued arrest warrants for Glendon, Wong, and Hoopii. Police also determined that not only did Valentino not enter Hoopii’s vehicle as claimed, but no one ever saw the zip ties that Hoopii claimed to have found on her vehicle; neither the Home Depot security guard nor police nor any bystanders reported seeing the zip ties that sparked the whole incident.
Glendon dismissed the idea that the zip tie rumors were false: “So if it’s a hoax, you tell me why zip ties are on girls traveling by themselves? Hoax or not, brah, I don’t take chances with my life, or my people’s life, on this island.” All three were later arrested on charges, including third-degree assault, second-degree unlawful imprisonment, refusing to allow ingress and egress to the parking lot, and possession of a deadly weapon.
There are several skeptical themes in this story, including conspiracies (especially of child abductions, which was the basis for the infamous Comet Pong “Pizzagate” incident in 2016). There’s also the folkloric notion of warnings about gang initiations and threats (to women in particular) in parking lots and on roads. Urban legend writer Jan Harold Brunvand, for example, describes in his books many similar vehicle-related legends of gang initiations circulating for decades. One for example warns drivers not to flash their headlights at oncoming cars that have their high beams on, because there are roving gangs who pursue and kill drivers who do that as part of a “test” or ritual initiation. It’s all false rumor, of course, but still panics some to this day.
As seen here, people have been assaulted and even killed on the basis of false abduction rumors and hoaxes. In 2018, nearly two dozen people were killed in separate incidents across a dozen Indian states when mobs set upon suspected child abductors they’d been warned about in messages on social media; see my article “Social Media-Fueled Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Killings” in the January/February 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. In many cases, minorities (especially African Americans and Muslims) have been falsely accused of abductions based on social media rumors, making it a real (if obscure) social justice issue.
Most people who share viral messages warning of danger are doing so with good intentions, sincerely thinking that they may save someone’s life merely by Liking and Sharing. Even if they don’t fully believe the story, they often adopt a “better safe than sorry” approach, assuming—wrongly—that no harm could come of it. Critical thinking, media literacy, and resisting the urge to share dubious social media posts would go a long way toward avoiding these incidents.