Watchdog column: Facebook rumor about door-to-door salesmen untrue

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Sept. 3, 2013 at 4:03 a.m.
Updated Sept. 4, 2013 at 4:04 a.m.

Leticia Garza knows all too well one can never be too careful.

She jotted down the license plate number of an unfamiliar vehicle parked in her neighborhood a few years ago.

It turns out that tip later led police to the driver, who burglarized her neighbor's home.

"They ended up catching the guy with all of the stuff still in his car," she said.

On Aug. 28, Garza saw a tall, foreign, blond boy riding a bicycle in her Victoria neighborhood. When he matched the description of a Facebook post she'd read about human trafficking, she decided to go on the offensive again.

However, this time, warning the neighbors wasn't necessary, and in fact, re-sharing the Facebook post may have damaged the reputation of a 158-year-old company that has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Southwestern Advantage, headquartered in Nashville, is working to quell a Facebook rumor that its 1,000 international students, or independent contractors, in the United States for the summer are involved in child abduction, human trafficking or a sex ring.

The company sells educational books and software to parents.

The rumor originated in Tulsa, Okla., after a woman posted something on Facebook in July that was shared more than 10,000 times, said Trey Campbell, the company's director of communications.

"It's kind of like the telephone game," Campbell said. "We did have the originator take the post down with help from local law enforcement, but there's not really any consequences. You can post anything to social media and get away with it if you're vague enough. ... There are libel and defamation laws, but you can't spin your wheels doing that. As a company, we're not going to pursue anything like that. We just want the truth to get out."

The company was forced to pull out of Oklahoma because the rumors created a safety issue for its students, who come to the United States to earn money for school, learn English and hone their entrepreneurial skills.

The men who visited Victoria last week, Hans Voldemar Tamm and Endriko Lindeberg, both 20, were originally stationed in Oklahoma but moved to live with a host family in Laredo. They are students at the Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia, and this is their first year to participate in the program, Campbell said.

Residents called police about the men Aug. 28 and again Thursday, but they were not arrested, and they each carried a legitimate interstate commerce permit issued by the city, said Sgt. Eline Moya of the Victoria Police Department.

Door-to-door solicitors are asked to fill out a permit at the city secretary's office. The office did not charge a fee nor did it run background checks on the men in this case because the products they were hawking are delivered at a later date, said O.C. Garza, the city's communication director.

"While sometimes the kids they (Southwestern Advantage) pick may be awkward in asking questions, we are familiar with them," Garza said.

The U.S. State Department reviewed Tamm and Lindeberg before admitting them into the country, Campbell said.

"We also used to have the police in Nashville do their fingerprints, and we'd send the information with the student, but it wouldn't be accepted because they (the local police departments) wanted to run it themselves as it's a revenue generator for them," he said.

Tamm and Lindeberg were instructed to ask Victoria residents about children because it's not only relevant to the product they are selling, but it also helps save time when deciding what doors to knock on next, Campbell said.

The Better Business Bureau handed Southwestern Advantage an A+ rating. Consumers complained 242 times in the past three years, but all issues were resolved. Ninety-two of the complaints were related to billing and collection issues.

Tracy Bracy, the regional Better Business Bureau director in Corpus Christi, could not comment about this situation but said the number of complaints filed against a company would not necessarily lower its rating if they responded to or worked to resolve them with the customer promptly.

"We've been around the block," Campbell said. "In fact, Gov. Rick Perry did our program when he was a student at Texas A&M."

Chelsea Huth, 30, of Victoria, let the men into her home but did not feel threatened until Leticia Garza told her of her suspicions.

"I just found it creepy that they were talking about my kids to the neighbors," Huth, a mother of three, said.

She later checked with law enforcement and will be more cautious in the future.

Leticia Garza, 40, meanwhile, is contemplating whether to erect a no-trespassing sign in her front yard. After visiting with Huth, she worried the men would return. She kept peeking out her windows and checking on her two daughters, ages 23 and 10, while they slept.

"I was really scared the whole night," she said. "I understand they have to make a living. ... On Facebook, people will put Jackie Chan died, and that's all a hoax. You just don't know what to believe. (In this case,) I didn't know what to believe."



Powered By AffectDigitalMedia