By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Concerns about human trafficking in other parts of the country have many concerned that it could happen in this area.
An Estonian student selling a learning system to assist families with school-aged children to help finance his educational costs recently became a subject of such concern.
In his fourth summer in the U.S., Kuldar Kongo, through Southwestern Advantage based in Nashville, Tenn., runs his own business to help offset his educational expenses by selling the resources door-to-door.
Kongo and other students have become the victims of false, defaming Facebook rumors saying college students selling Southwestern Advantage’s products are a front for a human trafficking ring.
“This is absolutely false,” said Trey Campbell, the company’s director of communications.
Campbell said the rumor was started in the Tulsa, Okla., area and has spread through several states – since Facebook knows no borders.
On a Facebook post dated Aug. 9, Turpin, Okla.’s Mindy Lee said she was approached by Kongo that morning trying to sell books to her children.
Lee said Kongo was in her house for not more than 15 minutes when people began coming by warning her to get rid of the young man, saying Kongo was a pedophile or involved in a human trafficking ring.
Lee said she was naturally suspicious and told Kongo to sit tight. She asked her fiance, Austin Wilson, to stay with Kongo while she called the Beaver County Sheriff’s office. Her report was not the first.
“I was told he was processed and background checks done because of a rumor started in Beaver,” Lee said.
Lee added the rumor was started on Facebook by a woman who claimed Kongo was planning to take her children and that Kongo should be run out of town.
“It’s my understanding there was also a death threat made to him,” Lee said. “(police) Chief Huff at Beaver recommended the young man press charges against the woman.”
Lee said Kongo has not pressed charges, but she and Wilson were still skeptical. They then decided to make some calls.
“I called the young man’s company, Southwestern Advantage, and spoke with two persons who I felt could confidently verify the young man,” Lee said.
Lee said in order for a person to obtain a work visa, they are required to undergo many civil and national background checks. She said Southwestern Advantage has been backed by both the Better Business Bureau and Direct Selling Association.
Lee said she then continued to be hospitable to Kongo.
“Did I continue to visit with him, yes,” she said. “Did we offer him a cold drink, yes. Did we buy books from him, yes. Did we allow him back into our home, yes.”
It was at that point, Lee said she felt Kongo would do no harm to her family.
“I am saddened for this young man and what he has been through,” Lee said.
Lee said while she is thankful to be from a community which shows support when something seems off, it is important to do research and check things out before judging.
“I will not get out my pitchfork and torch until I know some facts,” she said.
Campbell said while he is not sure of the reasons behind the origin of the Facebook rumors, there has been a focus in the social issue of human trafficking as the issue becomes more high profile.
“College students selling the learning system to families often take part in the common sales practice of asking for referrals,” he said. “Since the only prospect for the products they are selling is families with school-aged children, they try to avoid interrupting those who do not have children.”
Campbell said if someone does not listen to the student and does not have a clear understanding of who they are and what they are doing, it is possible for there to be a misunderstanding that leads to assumptions.
“These assumptions can be shared through social media,” he said. “When the information is false, defaming or malicious in nature, it can hurt innocent people or businesses even through the best of intentions – businesses such as that of a college student trying to pay for his education the old fashioned way – work for it.
“It is a shame this has happened and harmful information that can induce a panic can be so easy to distribute on a wide-spread basis,” he added.