False claim shared on kidnapping attempt at Canadian shopping center

A widely shared clip spread the claim that a narrowly avoided kidnapping incident was witnessed at a mall in a Toronto suburb, where a victim's head was shaved after being knocked unconscious. This is false; law enforcement and the mall's management found no evidence of the event and the story echoes previously debunked claims about human trafficking.

"Police in Toronto are hiding this spread the news ... now," says the text over a video posted September 8, 2023 on Facebook by Jim Boutsikakis, a past candidate for parliament from the People's Party of Canada.

In the video, which has more than 356,000 views, a woman describes a story of a mother at Vaughan Mills mall in Vaughan, Ontario, who found her daughter in the restroom, knocked out, with her head shaven and a man poised to kidnap her, who fled the scene when the parent arrived.

She claims that this is a new kidnapping tactic being deployed in Vaughan and elsewhere in the York region outside of Toronto, which the police are attempting to keep quiet.

"There's over 60 reports of this happening to people -- it's not just one or two," she says. "And it's also not just women or children, it's men too."

The video appears to originate from a September 8 TikTok, where it generated tens of thousands of views across posts, before spreading to Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter.

<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken September 15, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken September 15, 2023
<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken September 15, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken September 15, 2023

Some reshared the video and alluded to human trafficking trends, while similar claims about kidnapping in the York region were published on X and Instagram.

However, authorities and representatives from Vaughan Mills said there is no evidence of the claims.

"No such incident is on the record with Vaughan Mills Centre Security," said Joanne Ross, the mall's general manager, in a September 15 email.

Social media captions and the speaker in the video said Toronto police were trying to cover up the purported abduction trend, but the Toronto Police Service told AFP that Vaughan does not fall under its jurisdiction and it was not investigating any cases at the mall.

Law enforcement in Vaughan is executed by the York Regional Police, which also said it was not investigating any kidnapping cases out of Vaughan Mills.

"York Regional Police has not received any reports of such incidents and there are no investigations pertaining to what is alleged in the video," said Clint Whitney, a spokesman for the police department, in an email on September 13.

Claims of trafficking

AFP has previously reported on unsubstantiated rumors of near kidnappings at Canadian malls that purportedly involved drugging and cutting hair.

The legacy fact-checking site Snopes covered email chains with false claims of abduction attempts in crowded areas which had circulated as early as 2010. Claims in the same vein often reappear on social media.

<span>Screenshot of a TikTok, taken September 15, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a TikTok, taken September 15, 2023

While the posts describing these false claims emphasize the supposed risk of people being snatched in crowded public spaces, the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT) said this is not generally how trafficking situations play out.

"Human trafficking often differs greatly from its portrayal in movies; traffickers are frequently individuals known and trusted by the victims," said Julia Drydyk, the organization's executive director, in a September 14 email.

Drydyk said raising awareness about the realities of human trafficking is crucial for prevention and response. She advised against acting independently when seeing signs of deception or abuse and said citizens could instead contact law enforcement or an independent organization's hotline -- such as CCEHT's -- to report suspicious behavior.

More of AFP's reporting on misinformation in Canada can be found here.