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Plant City Observer Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013 4 years ago

Online rumors of kidnapping ring unfounded

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Plant City resident Allison DelValle said she felt immediately uneasy when the young Eastern European salesman showed up, unannounced, at her door last week.

DelValle lives off a private road in the rural Cork area, where door-to-door salespeople are an anomaly.

“There’s nothing out here,” she said. “It’s peaceful out here, and we know most of our neighbors. We know immediately if a vehicle doesn’t belong.”

The salesman, whose name tag read, “Mardo Soo,” told DelValle he was from Estonia and that he was selling children’s books.

“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying,” DelValle told Soo.

However, he was persistent, DelValle said, and unusually interested in which of DelValle’s neighbors also had children. DelValle reiterated she wasn’t interested and told him she did not know about her neighbors. She said she attempted to end the conversation several times, but, it wasn’t until her husband, Raymond, cocked his shotgun that Soo returned to his car.

Shortly after the incident, Allison DelValle took to the Internet, and her search returned some frightening reports of Russian or Eastern European salespeople going door-to-door as part of a human-trafficking ring. And, as Soo and several other salespeople worked through other communities in Plant City last week, including Walden Lake, those reports ran rampant on social media, garnering dozens of posts and hundreds of comments warning friends and family members of these men and women.

But, you can’t believe everything you read on Facebook.

Soo and the other salespeople were working for Southwestern Advantage, a Nashville-based company that sells an educational learning system. The company has been in business since 1855 and utilizes a college-student workforce in the summer to peddle its wares throughout the country. The students are able to earn money and leadership experience through Southwestern Advantage, and about 1,000 of them come from colleges in Europe.

The misunderstanding in Plant City is nearly identical to similar instances that took place throughout the country this summer. According to Southwestern Advantage Director of Communications Trey Campbell, the vicious rumor began about eight weeks ago in Tulsa, Okla. Similar reports also were made in Missouri, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Campbell said the rumors made it extremely difficult for the students to complete their summer work.

“We’ve never had this problem before, in 146 years,” he said. “This summer, really, was the tipping point on social media.”

Campbell said his company’s student workforce, and especially its employees from outside of the United States, complete a variety of training programs before they enter the field. International students such as Soo receive training on American culture and the American school system. Moreover, if local municipalities require it, they introduce themselves to local law enforcement and obtain a peddler’s license before hitting the streets. International students stay with host families in the area in which they work.

Every Southwestern Advantage rep is required to wear a name tag, and the company’s website includes a search function through which residents can verify a sales rep’s identity. The search reveals Soo was, indeed, a rep for the company. According to his bio, Soo has worked for the company for four years and is a civil engineering student at the Tallinn University of Technology, in Estonia.

“In my experience, people who don’t know who (our salespeople are) are the people who didn’t give them a chance to talk,” Campbell said. “Within two minutes, they should know exactly who they are and what they are doing.”

The DelValles’ next-door neighbor, Valedemar Muniz, said Soo drove too fast and aggressively into his driveway, when he arrived to make his sales pitch. With a 4-month-old baby in the home, Muniz and his wife already were exhausted and sleep-deprived. However, Muniz said Soo’s sales tactics made him uneasy.

“He was very persistent, and I even told him, ‘You feel like a threat to me,’” Muniz said. “After a while, I said, ‘I am sorry, but you need to leave.’”

Campbell said following this summer’s experiences, Southwestern Advantage will reevaluate its operations.

“We’ll be looking at everything — our training, our presentation, our sales tactics,” he said. “We will be looking at this issue and seeing how it can be prevented.

“I’ve taken calls about the students, and I’ve helped calm fears,” Campbell said. “I talked to a family that told me they were taking turns sleeping so they could watch the house at night. ... There’s panic, and a lot of times, it’s in their own minds.”

The Eastern European students completed their work in the field Aug. 30, and returned to Nashville last weekend for a farewell dinner, before heading back to their native countries.

Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].

Read the Plant City Police Department's Facebook Abduction Release.

Here are other media reports citing the legitimacy of Southwestern Advantage and its sales force.

Snopes.com: http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/booksellers.asp

CBS 7, Odessa, Texas: http://www.cbs7.com/news/details.asp?ID=47531

Las Cruces Sun-News, Las Cruces, N.M.: http://www.lcsun-news.com/ci_23921489/warning-premature-door-door-sales?source=most_viewed

KGUN – ABC, Tucson, AZ: http://www.kgun9.com/news/local/Facebook-warnings-about-door-to-door-sex-traffickers-debunked-219520241.html

KSFY – ABC, Sioux Falls, SD: http://www.ksfy.com/story/23089720/watertown-police-help-end-facebook-rumors-surrounding-door-to-door-salespeople

Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics: https://www.facebook.com/OBNDD/posts/378697885564621

Kansas City Fox 4: http://fox4kc.com/2013/08/07/company-sets-the-record-straight-amid-kidnapping-rumors/

Truckers Against Trafficking Retraction: https://www.facebook.com/TruckersAgainstTrafficking/posts/624262460917229

Fox 10 News Arizona: http://www.myfoxphoenix.com/story/23034522/2013/08/02/facebook-post-accuses-saleswomen-of-recruiting-sex-slaves

Tulsa, Okla News: http://www.newson6.com/story/22797670/online-claims-of-human-traffickers-going-door-to-door-in-ba-unfounded

Lawton, Okla. News 7: http://www.kswo.com/story/22846968/lawton-police-book-solicitors-are-legitimate

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