This post was updated on .
Several articles on Backdoor
Posted on July 26, 2013
Backpage is a lot like Craigslist. It is a classifieds site where you can find people selling furniture, cars, etc. in your area. However, among human trafficking advocates, Backpage.com is known as the one stop shop for pimps to sell prostitutes to johns around the country. It only takes two clicks from the home page and you will be offered an individual profile with a number at which you can reach someone in your area who is selling sex. Try it- it’s shocking. Go to Backpage.com and then click the link for “Escorts”.
You might remember that Craigslist used to have an escort function on their website, but, amidst pressure created by a nationally aired CNN documentary- which exposed online sex ads as direct fuel for human trafficking- they cancelled that part of the company. Unfortunately, this has only made Backpage.com’s escort page stronger. Backpage has refused again and again to remove that portion of their site, likely because of the 20 to 30 million dollars a year that their sex ads bring in.
On the site, anyone can put up a sex ad, and while the higher-ups at Backpage have stated that they are cracking down on the ads, which are supposed to be, somehow, innocent ads for “escort services,” this has basically amounted to erasing nudity from the site and not much else. Because it is so easy to create a post, and because johns in different areas handle them so quickly, the amount of sex ads on the site far outweighs any possible level of police interest. Simply put, the only way to stop people from using the ads would be to cancel that function of the website altogether or to shut it (the website) down completely.
Alarmingly, many of the posts on Backpage are for underage girls. Again, the site is a hub for girls that are or have been victims of human trafficking. Many of the ads depict girls with a false age of 18 or 19 and use adjectives like “young” “fresh” or “bubbly” to describe the girls. CNN’s Amber Lyon did a 40-minute documentary on Backpage (easily found online) in which she interviews a girl that was sold online at the ages of 12 and 13 years old. In the film, Lyon posts an ad with a picture of her at age 14, and even after telling the johns that call her that she is 17 years old she is solicited over and over again and eventually offered 30,000 dollars to fly to another state and meet a high profile client. Again, all of this despite explaining that she is underage. And all of the action was done through Backpage.
With school out for summer break, traffickers could be looking for kids to take advantage of. The route into the world of human trafficking often starts through kidnapping kids who run away from home- and during summer break, this could be a prime opportunity for pimps to stock up on their Backpage merchandise.
Parents need to be educated about Backpage and about the dangers and proximity of the human trafficking world. If you have children, especially if they are prone to running away from home – be aware that kids that run away are easy and sought after targets for pimps who are simply looking to fill up space on the “Escorts” page as quickly as possible. Follow along with news on Backpage at www.VillageVoicePimps.com – there you will find information on how to be proactive against one of the most dangerous web pages around.
Pimps, clients and police converge on websites used by sex traffickers
In late May, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies during a routine traffic stop rescued a 20-year-old woman they say was forced to sell herself for sex across four states by a pimp advertising her services on Backpage.com.
Last month, Baton Rouge police reported using the same website to arrest a married couple accused of running a prostitution enterprise out of their home — a business that had drawn a suspicious flow of traffic to the neighborhood.
And just a few weeks later, the FBI conducted a nationwide sex-trafficking sting that in some cases used Backpage.com, leading to the arrests of more than 70 people in Louisiana alone, including 19 people in East Baton Rouge Parish and 17 in New Orleans.
As the shadowy underworld of prostitution and sex trafficking has migrated online, popular sites like Backpage.com have become a double-edged sword for law enforcement. The adult services section of Backpage.com has, in countless cases, facilitated these crimes by connecting prostitutes — mostly women but also some men — to clients near and far, investigators say.
Yet the website has also proven to be an invaluable tool for investigators seeking out prostitutes and their pimps. Authorities have increasingly posted advertisements and set up stings to arrest people seeking sexual services.
“It has changed the way we investigate these cases,” said David Ferris, section chief of the High Technology Crime Unit in the state Attorney General’s Office. “It makes it easier for both, for criminals and law enforcement.”
Many of the ads listed in Backpage.com’s adult-services section feature scantily clad women and lewd language. But the postings themselves are often completely legal.
“You still have to rely on traditional law enforcement to figure out whether they are advertising a crime,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.
For its part, Backpage.com has pointed to its cooperation with law enforcement and regular monitoring of the site for potential cases of human trafficking. A company attorney says the website is uniquely positioned to assist in such cases by gathering digital and financial clues about the perpetrators and by flagging suspicious ads.
“The aim of stopping the sex trafficking of minors, indeed the trafficking of any human being, is laudable,” Liz McDougall, Backpage.com’s attorney, said in an email. “However, identifying and vilifying a single U.S. website (previously Craigslist, now Backpage.com) as the cause of the problem and the key to the solution are ill-founded and unproductive.”
Craigslist, another website featuring classified advertisements, weathered a firestorm of public criticism before axing its adult services section in 2010.
Backpage.com, accused of profiting from prostitution and sex trafficking, is now facing mounting pressure from the public and elected officials to remove its adult services ads.
“To be blunt, their business model facilitates the sexual exploitation of children,” Angela Aufmuth, of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said about Backpage.com. “With the proliferation of all the different ways for people to connect and communicate online, you’re going to continue to see that there are people who will use those types of resources for insidious purposes.”
While her organization has seen no shortage of these cases, Aufmuth said, it’s difficult to quantify Backpage.com’s impact on the sex-trafficking industry because “there is not a lot of tangible research.”
Arizona State University released a study last year that claimed nearly 80 percent of the ads listed on Backpage.com’s adult-services section in Phoenix were for sex or prostitution. About 10 percent of those ads featured girls appearing to be younger than 18.
Despite the overwhelming number of criminal cases involving the use of Backpage.com, the site avoids liability under a federal law that shields websites from being held accountable for user-generated or third-party content.
Last month, however, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and 48 other attorneys general signed a letter urging Congress to amend that law — the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — to allow state and local authorities to prosecute companies profiting from the online sex trade.
“Federal enforcement alone has proven insufficient to stem the growth of internet-facilitated child sex trafficking,” the letter states. “Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children — state and local law enforcement — must be granted the authority to investigate and prosecute those who facilitate these horrible crimes.”
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law who focuses on Internet law, called the letter “the most coordinated effort by the most politically influential people asking for a change that we’ve seen to date.”
“Since that law was passed, they’ve been basically blocked from looking for ways to use their criminal tools to go after intermediaries online,” Goldman said of state authorities. “In some sense, the state AGs are giving the big birdie to the federal government, saying you guys aren’t doing a very good job.”
But Goldman cautioned that the federal law in question has been the “cornerstone of the entire internet industry,” noting that websites like Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and countless others have benefitted greatly from its protections. He said the change demanded by the attorneys general is an “overbroad solution by many orders of magnitude” that could have unintended consequences.
“We’ve never lived in a world where state and local prosecutors can bring crimes based on third-party content at their discretion,” Goldman added, “so we don’t know how bad that world’s going to look.”
While the future of Backpage.com remains uncertain, law enforcement officials are doing all they can for the time being to use it to their advantage.
“We monitor the ads, looking for familiar ads of suspects that we have arrested in the past,” Lt. Wally Cowart, commander of Baton Rouge Police Department’s narcotics division, said of Backpage.com.
Cowart also said detectives could not possibly investigate every single ad or potential violation on the website, but that it focuses on known local ads, especially explicit ones.
CityVibe.com and Backpage.com were listed in the affidavits of probable cause for the Baton Rouge sting operation.
“Backpage is a popular place right now, but there are hundreds and hundreds of other ones that are being investigated by law enforcement and that individuals are using,” said Ferris, the state attorney general’s investigator.
During the FBI’s sting, and in many local ones, undercover agents typically arrange to meet someone through an online posting and pre-negotiate a price for sex or other services. Once the money changes hands — or clothes are removed in anticipation of payment — the agent gives the “take-down signal,” and nearby officials move in for the arrest.
Operation Cross Country VII, a three-day action conducted the last weekend in July to combat commercial child sex trafficking, resulted in 105 children being recovered and 150 “pimps” arrested across the United States. Since 2003, Operation Cross Country, part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, has resulted in rescues of 2,700 children.
In the vacuum of easy places to indulge in paid sexual favors, Backpage flourished. But it hasn't taken long for trouble to follow, as with a recent prostitution bust in Florida that nabbed 60 would-be Johns who had responded to ads placed in Backpage. In Seattle, police found a 17-year-old girl on the site forced to work as a prostitute, prompting an editorial urging the state's legal counsel to join other attorney generals in their campaign to make the site eliminate its adult services section, like they did with Craigslist.
It's not as though Backpage hides those ads. Pulling up the main page for any city, the adult section is on the right side, sandwiched between the personals and services.
Once you've clicked into the adult section, it doesn't take much scanning to see that the world's oldest profession is in no danger of extinction anytime soon. But first, each visitor has to agree to a disclaimer that they're 18 or older and are aware they're about to expose themselves to "sexual content, including pictorial nudity and adult language."
Numbers and provocative poses abound, as well as shout-outs for specials. In the "adult jobs" sub-sex-tion, ambiguity could be translated into business opportunities both legal and illegal: "Looking for sexy women in the Juarez MX area interested in earning money through a new agency.
Must be 18 or older, hwp, be drama-free and have a great attitude. No experience necessary. Contact us for more details." While a quick scan looks like many are trolling for "models," there are some that are outright pay for pleasure: "Single Male seeking some Adualt [sic] Fun With Hot Female Pays Well."
Other cases begin by happenstance. The 20-year-old discovered by East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies in May had been riding with Nicholas D. Crutchfield, a 29-year-old Collierville, Tenn., man previously convicted of promoting prostitution who was pulled over for a traffic violation on Siegen Lane.
The woman told authorities Crutchfield would beat her and make her sit in a corner like a punished child if she tried to leave, and that he would charge customers $100 for 30 minutes of sex with her. Prosecutors last month charged Crutchfield with one count of human trafficking, a felony.
The Sheriff’s Office encountered a similar case in June after a 16-year-old girl was arrested for a probation violation. In an interview with a detective and an FBI agent, the girl said she had been forced to prostitute by men she identified as Ken, Trap, Ray, Rock, Carlos and “Daddy Love.”
The girl told authorities she had been forced to perform oral sex on a man, and that advertisements for her services had been placed on Backpage.com.
The victims of sex trafficking can be “everybody from a young child coming out of poverty to a multimillionaire’s daughter,” Ferris said.
“We’ve worked cases where they were high school students in school during the week and during the weekends they were prostituting themselves or being prostituted by individuals,” he added. “It literally can be everyone.”
Backpage.com has become the Craigslist of prostitution ads in recent years since that free site stopped running the ads in 2010.
Search for "Backpage.com" on the FBI's main website and up pops eight whole pages of press releases and public announcements naming the classified advertising site as a tool for sex criminals, particularly those selling children, sex and prostitution. And in fact, Backpage was named as one of the sources law enforcement used to help gather evidence needed to coordinate a 70-city raid last weekend that resulted in the rescue of 105 teenagers and the arrest of 159 pimps.
"The fact that they were able to rescue that many children and arrest that many pimps is fantastic," Liz McDougall, counsel for Backpage told NBC News Monday. "We are glad to be a partner with and support law enforcement to make these arrests, and make them in time to rescue these children."
A partner with law enforcement? While Backpage may be the current Craigslist for prostitution ads in the United States, McDougall says the site gladly cooperates with police when they want information about those who place the ads, including the IP, or Internet protocol, address from where the ads originated.
But a new effort by the National Association of Attorneys General wants to change federal law so that Internet service providers and websites like Backpage could be prosecuted by state and local governments for promoting prostitution and child sex trafficking, simply by running such ads.
It's a double-edged sword, some might say: Shutting down online ad venues for criminals and sexual traffickers seems like a good "nowhere to run" idea, but law enforcement looks to such sites to find information about the criminals they're chasing. And some argue that if you shut down one such "offending" site, another pops up anyway. Besides, there's a bigger issue at the heart of this: The same laws that protect the unsavory ads online also protect most Internet providers from liabilities of all kinds.
Backpage is specifically named in a letter from the attorneys' general group, sent last week to members of Congress, seeking an amendment to the Communications Decency Act of 1996:
Every day, children in the United States are sold for sex. In instance after instance, State and local authorities discover that the vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world are online classified ad services, such as Backpage.com. The involvement of these advertising companies is not incidental — these companies have constructed their business models around income gained from participants in the sex trade.
Federal enforcement by itself has "proven insufficient to stem the growth of Internet-facilitated child trafficking," says the group, with the letter signed by 49 state and territorial attorneys general. "Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children — state and local law enforcement — must be granted the authority to investigate and prosecute those who facilitate these horrible crimes."
It's an effort applauded by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which works with law enforcement on sex trafficking cases.
"Classified-ad websites have made child sex trafficking an easy and profitable business enterprise for pimps," said John Ryan, the center's CEO, in a recent statement. "NCMEC urges all policymakers to explore every avenue available to bring to justice those who profit from the sexual exploitation of children."
Perhaps you're wondering why so many name Backpage and not Craigslist. In 2010, Craigslist, under pressure from more than a dozen individual states' attorney generals, voluntarily banned ads for adult services from the site. When that happened, much of the business moved to Backpage.com. (Village Voice Media, which owns the Village Voice, among other publications, also owned Backpage.com until last fall, when it became a separate company.)
Whether or not Backpage follows suit and ditches adult services, experts argue that the law itself should not be changed in order to make this happen.
Mark Rasch, former head of the Department of Justice's Computer Crimes Unit, and now an independent consultant, told NBC News he is against the proposed change, which would restrict free speech, now a key protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. He also says it's the "wrong way" to go after those in the child sex trade.
"Sex traffickers use the Internet to sell their wares, use the telephone lines to communicate with customers, use the banking and credit card system to obtain payment for sex services, use highways and local roads to transport minors for sex, use cars and other vehicles for the same purpose," he wrote in a recent blog post. "They use the same infrastructure established to sell toothpaste to sell illicit sex with minors. They need to be arrested and prosecuted for these crimes."
But third parties that might be accused of making those crimes possible — whether it's ISPs or gas stations — shouldn't be held criminally liable "for their own participation," he argues. An amendment to the law like this one means that "EBay could be held liable if someone purchased a knife online and then used that knife to kill someone, if a state passed a law making the advertisement of knives that are used for such purposes a crime."
Matthew Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization, told NBC News that with the "proliferation of user-generated speech online over the past decade," the proposed amendment would be "extraordinarily harmful."
The EFF successfully defended the non-profit Internet Archive in a suit against the state of Washington, which in 2012 passed a law that essentially made it a crime to "knowingly" publish or display any ad for a commercial sex act, including the depiction of a minor. The EFF said that the new state law meant that Internet Archive and Backpage.com, represented by its own counsel, were considered publishers, contrary to the provisions of the Communications Decency Act. A federal court agreed, and blocked the law.
Zimmerman says it's not only "lawful speech" that would be hurt by letting states prosecute service providers and websites. "This could also lead to the loss of critical tools that law enforcement could use to investigate these and other crimes," he told NBC News.
McDougall of Backpage agrees. The arrests over the weekend are "something that wouldn't be possible if you didn't have a domestic, cooperative website involved," she said. "That's why it's important to not drive this content to offshore websites, which won't cooperate and don't have to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement. It would make law enforcement's job exponentially more difficult."
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