Widely distributed social media alerts, warning the public of a kidnapping syndicate targeting Cape school children, is making life hell for at least two people.
A local businessman says the messages, circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp for the past couple of weeks, are sinking his company and driving his staff to quit.
And this week, a woman who was seen photographing children in a shopping mall was branded a snatcher on Facebook.
Now police have warned that people can be arrested for posting false information on social media.
Last week, the Daily Voice reported on the messages, which warned of a woman with blonde hair, sometimes working with two black men, who go around to schools in a blue or green Nissan Micra, taking photos of children outside school and attempting to snatch them.
In other warnings, photos of a white Toyota Quantum, as well as that of a man behind the wheel, were in circulation, with a warning that it was parked outside schools and was being used to kidnap kids.
Shadley Abrahams, director of Aqua Ozone, says ever since the pictures were shared, police and members of the public haven’t stopped “harassing” his staff.
Cops have pulled over and taken in his drivers for questioning on six occasions in the past two weeks.
Abrahams confirmed the vehicle belongs to his business, and that the man pictured is one of his general managers.
“That manager has been with me for nine years,” he tells the Daily Voice.
“He’s just doing his job. I have sales consultants in areas across the Western Cape meeting with potential clients.”
Abrahams learnt of the hoax started last month when his sales team was in Paarl going door-to-door selling Aqua Ozone products.
He says: “Thursday was the sixth time that cops stopped the van, and searched it. They were on their way to take my staff to the Elsies River police station when I managed to stop them.”
He says at least four staff members have quit because of the hoax.
“[In this time] our sales has dropped by half,” he complains.
“And now I have to trade in my van because there’s a picture of it, with the licence plate, on Facebook and everyone thinks it’s used for these crimes.”
According to another post also linked to the supposed syndicate, a “white woman with long blonde hair and two black men” were spotted taking photos of children in various Boland towns.
Earlier this week, a woman whose photo was posted on Facebook after she was caught taking photos of children in Somerset Mall said she was also falsely accused of being part of the kidnapping syndicate.
The woman, who has short blonde hair, claimed she was a “social photographer” and admitted to taking photos of the two girls without their parents’ permission.
The girls’ moms forced her to delete the photos from her phone.
The woman was taken in for questioning by police, and her house searched.
She was released after cops could find no evidence of wrongdoing.
Responding to the allegations, the middle-aged woman wrote on Facebook: “My reputation as a law-abiding citizen has been shattered and I am being treated like a pariah by strangers.”
She has demanded a public apology and threatened to take legal action against the girls’ mothers.
Captain FC van Wyk says: “It is the same as making hoax calls to the police.
“People should check the facts before they place anything on Facebook.
“The time SAPS members have to spend responding to reports of missing children only to find that the reports are false, could have been better applied to crime prevention.”
Dessie Rechner of the Pink Ladies Missing People organisation says the hoax has been doing the rounds all over the country, with the names of towns being changed each time. She is aware of Abrahams’ situation.
“That poor guy has been chased around by cops stopping him all the time, meanwhile he is just doing deliveries,” she says.
“Please don’t send this posts around anymore. Just be very careful,” she pleads.
She adds there was only one confirmed attempted kidnapping incident, which happened in Strand last Wednesday.
The 10-year-old girl, who attends Rusthof Primary School, said a woman with blonde hair tried to force her into a blue car, but she managed to break free and run into the school.