At age 17, Tiffany already had four cellphones. In three, she kept a phone number for a man she called “Shadow.”
In the fall of 2010, Shadow — whose real name is Miguel Pierre Morancy — called Tiffany 2,687 times on two of the phones, court documents say, and a “ridiculously high number of times” on the others.
Morancy, federal prosecutors say, was her pimp.
Federal prosecutors say Morancy peddled underage girls, including Tiffany, to Tampa Bay area customers by placing graphic advertisements in the adult-themed section of a website called Backpage.com.
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The website, owned by Village Voice Media, is popping up in court papers and arrest affidavits across the country as a bulletin board for men to traffic children, including some recent cases involving Florida foster children in the Homestead and Jacksonville areas.
The free online classified service Craigslist used to be the king of classified advertising for sexual services. Then, under intense criticism from lawmakers and advocacy groups, Craigslist shut down the ads in 2010.
Many of them found their way to Backpage.com, where the debate reignited.
Advocacy groups have demanded the adult sections be shut down immediately. Legal counsel for Backpage.com say they work hard with authorities to ferret out ads involving the underage and that shutting down the service wouldn’t stop underage prostitution.
Somewhere in between those two camps are a handful of researchers who want to see a sweeping approach to stamping out underage prostitution, not just on Backpage.com, but on multiple websites, in chat rooms and even Facebook.
In Morancy’s case, he pleaded guilty this year to one count of “affecting interstate commerce” with a 14-year-old girl engaged in commercial sex acts. The rest of the counts were dropped. He will be sentenced this fall.
But how many girls like Tiffany are on Backpage.com? That’s unclear.
What’s certain is that the world of underage prostitution has moved off the street and onto the Internet, where it’s a few links away.
Anyone can click through the disclaimers and land in the adult section for a specific city, tucked off to the right side, sandwiched between dating and services, such as landscaping and housecleaning. It includes sections labeled “escorts” and “body rubs.”
Every person pictured says she’s older than 18, even if a youthful face suggests otherwise.
Ernest Allen, who has semi-retired as head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said Backpage is unique among websites that market sex in that husbands, fathers and business leaders can visit the site without arousing suspicion: “You can apply for a job, sell your car or buy a toaster,” he said. “And you can also buy a kid.”
Among those pressuring Backpage to discontinue the advertisements or demand proof of age of those featured in the classifieds are top prosecutors in 46 states, 19 U.S. senators, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the New York City Council.
The legal counsel for Village Voice Media, which owns a number of well-respected alternative newspapers, including Miami New Times, says the company cooperates with law enforcement, screens adult ads three times for signs of underage prostitution and insists that, if they did shut down the adult ads, the activity would only move to another website.
“Critics who demand Backpage.com eliminate an ‘adult’ category fail to understand the significance of Backpage.com’s assistance to the rescue of victims and conviction of trafficking perpetrators. Indeed, they expressly misunderstand it,” lawyer Liz McDougall said this year in a prepared statement before the New York City Council..
Backpage.com’s protections didn’t get in the way of a 14-year-old girl, who landed on Backpage.com after running away from a Key West shelter to Fort Lauderdale, where court records say she met DeAngelo Jones.
Jones bought the girl products, makeup and jewelry. He told her she “was walking around broke and that there were men who had money.”
He took the girl to a Red Roof Inn and had his girlfriend take a picture of the 14-year-old with a Target cellphone and post it on Backpage.com.
On her first night as a prostitute, the girl had three “dates,” according to a federal complaint. Jones gave the girl two nights off, but then forced her to turn five tricks on the fourth night, and took all the money she was paid.
When she resisted, the complaint says, Jones beat her. When Jones thought she was “disrespectful,” he threw her against a mirror. When she refused sex with a customer, he punched her in the chest five times and stripped her naked.
Jones’ lawyer, Roy Jeffrey Kahn, denied the accusations, saying the crime was committed by the girlfriend, who worked as a prostitute, recruited other girls and posted the Backpage ads. All Jones did was buy her a cellphone.
Jones, who was arrested last June, is charged with facilitating underage prostitution.
An adult ad on Backpage.com costs $10 in South Florida. Village Voice doesn’t say how many ads it gets, but one estimate comes from a consultancy group that specializes in online classifieds.
The latest AIM Group report acknowledged that Backpage.com isn’t the only business in the adult ad business. That includes The Miami Herald, which runs paid ads for massage parlors in its sports section.
But it appears to be the industry leader online. In June, the AIM Group estimated Backpage.com posted more than 95,000 listings for escorts and body rubs, bringing in up to $2.45 million.
After Backpage.com, the next most-profitable group mentioned in the AIM report is Eros.com, which brought in just $477,000.
Part of the way the ads generate money isn’t just the number of girls advertised, said Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Guisseppe Weller, who works with the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Pimps will place the ad and renew it over and over again, pushing it back to the top of the page.
That’s what happened in Jacksonville, where a 16-year-old foster care girl got recruited into prostitution by the man accused of being her pimp. Her pimp renewed her ad on Backpage.com five times in less than a month.
In June, four alleged pimps were arrested as part of an investigation into a ring of human traffickers who preyed on abused and neglected children in foster care. They used a Homestead building as a brothel. And they too advertised on Backpage.com, which served as both their advertising medium and the paper trail for authorities.
Backpage.com’s McDougall said the site has three layers of review and immediately reports suspicious content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
But pimps find ways around the filters, said BSO’s Weller, who also works as part of the FBI’s Minor Vice Task Force.
They learn to avoid the words for which Backpage.com screens, Weller said. Both cops and customers now assume that the girls pictured in websites are younger than advertised. If the real picture is too obvious, no problem: Pimps will substitute a woman with more seasoning.
In a letter to Village Voice, the National Association of Attorneys General called the screening efforts window dressing.
The filters failed to raise a red flag when a Miami couple posted pictures of a 15-year-old girl on the website last May.
The girl told police a 22-year-old woman from her neighborhood approached her in late March and “told her that she would post [her] on the website ‘backpage’ and that no one would find out,” according to a criminal complaint.
She wore lingerie in the ad.
She was told never to undress until after her customer did so first, insist on being paid up-front, and always ask whether the client was a cop. She was to charge $70 for 15 minutes of work, $100 for 30 minutes and $170 for a full hour.
The 15-year-old earned her first payment her very first day, $100 that she was allowed to keep. On her second work day, she generated $175 but only got to keep $25.
Her stint as a prostitute was short-lived. On May 4, the girl’s mother called the Hialeah Police Department, which returned the teen to her family.
Why can’t technology detect that she didn’t belong on a site like Backpage.com? That’s a question being asked by researchers, including Mark Latonero, research director at the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California.
Latonero’s human trafficking online report, published last year, says the Craigslist shutdown, followed by the migration to Backpage, suggest that truly ending human trafficking is more complicated than shutting down one website. The entire ecosystem — from the recruitment to the grooming and the selling, almost all done via the Internet — must be addressed.
But his work also takes Backpage.com and other members of the online community to task for not doing enough to protect children from becoming victims of human trafficking.
“The private sector capitalizes on the online visibility of Internet users by routinely collecting data on consumer behaviors for targeted marketing and advertising strategies,” he wrote. “Yet efforts to harness data and technological tools to address social problems lag behind.”