Amid a crackdown on websites that cater to prostitution, the feds have shut down Backpage, the classified ad service long derided as the go-to hub for human trafficking, particularly in South Florida.
And they’ve indicted the website’s founders and employees, alleging the company raked in tens of millions while knowingly facilitating the prostitution of minors.
It was billed as a resounding victory for law enforcement, but the demand for sex won’t stop.
Critics say the site’s shutdown may make work more dangerous for women in Florida’s ever-thriving sex industry — and will push the business to murkier parts of the internet, complicating the job of local police officers who regularly scoured Backpage to find trafficking victims.
“People are celebrating a hollow victory,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an author and criminology professor at George Mason University who serves an expert witness in human-trafficking cases. “Backpage was a honey pot for law enforcement. It was a centralized location where they could find ads and decide whether or not to initiate a sting.”
Said Amber, a co-founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Tampa: “Sex workers all over the country are in a panic. It was affordable — 5 to 10 dollar ads, whereas many websites can charge as much as $200 to post an ad. Backpage was accessible to people living on the streets. People living in real dire situations.”
Backpage’s seizure follows the passage of a new federal law targeting websites that post escort ads, leading an array of sex-industry websites to close or restrict usage. That includes the popular mainstream classifieds website Craigslist, which shut down the personal ads, where many prostitutes advertised in coded language.
The moves are again stirring debate among law enforcement and victim advocates about how aggressively to go after websites such as Backpage, which until recently generally responded to subpoenas and cooperated with police seeking information on traffickers and underage victims.
“It was long overdue. They operated so blatantly,” said Miami Beach Police Capt. Daniel Morgalo, head of the street crimes unit, who acknowledged detectives will have to find new ways to combat trafficking. “If the demand is there, the internet will find a way. We just have to adapt to the trends.”
John Rode, a South Florida private investigator who identifies traffickers through his non-profit, the Global Children’s Rescue, said the closing of Backpage is “going to make a major dent on people who look for prostitution and underage girls.”
“It’s not going to stop it 100 percent,” said Rode, a retired Miami and Hialeah police officer. “Some of the women from Backpage are now on other websites.”
Backpage was started in 2004 by Michael Lacey and James Larkin, former owners of the Village Voice and the Phoenix New Times. The company was based in Dallas, although its bank accounts and computer servers are in Arizona, authorities say.
The website offered free or low-cost classified ads for people renting rooms, selling cars or peddling used furniture. But it quickly became known as the most popular place for buying sex, with prostitutes buying cheap, frequent ads in cities across the world.
For some sex workers, the advent of sites such as Backpage and Craiglist cut out the dangerous pimps who took their money and forced them to work on dangerous streets, and allowed them to better screen clients.
One 57-year-old woman from Tennessee began posting Backpage ads for erotic massages nine years ago, a move necessitated by a faltering economy. She was earning a couple thousand dollars a month.
“I’m an independent woman in my 50s. I can do what I want,” she said, reached by Herald via a private Facebook page. “I’m not some chick robbing money. I’m not a drug addicted freak. I’m just trying to be a mother and grandmother, to live a comfortable lifestyle. By no means am I rich.”
For Bella, a 30-year-old sex worker from northern Florida, the business was lucrative. She spent $200 to $300 for advertising on websites such as The Erotic Review, earning up to $8,000 for just a few days’ work. She also used another website that screened clients. Both sites have now stopped taking ads from the United States.
“We’re not being forced to this. I am college educated. I have a family. I have a husband. I do this because I enjoy it,” she told the Herald.
Not all women, however, are independent, willing participants in a state that draws visitors from across the globe.
In Miami-Dade, posts on Backpage have resulted in many high-profile human trafficking cases. In recent years, those charged include a local Spanish-language singer, a man who forced a runaway teen to tattoo his street name on her eyelids and a businessman who lured girls from Kazakhstan with the false promise of working at a yoga studio.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 74 percent of all its child-trafficking report last year was generated from Backpage.
The State Attorney’s Human Trafficking Unit and local police have used Backpage as a chief tool, leading to scores of arrests in recent years. Just over half of adult victims in recent Miami-Dade cases, and 40 percent of minor victims, were advertised on Backpage.com, according to prosecutors.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has been outspoken against Backpage; her office filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit filed last year by trafficking victims against the website.
“Backpage has been a real criminal institution, in my mind,” Fernandez Rundle told the Herald this week. “They’ve needed to be held accountable for a long time.”
Various law enforcement agencies have tried, with little success until this month.
In 2016, California’s Attorney General filed pimping-related charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, and founders Lacey and Larkin. A state court judge threw out the case, echoing the site’s longtime position: that Backpage was protected when publishing speech posted by other people.
The state later filed new charges against the men, this time charging them with money laundering. The trial is still pending. Backpage’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.
Efforts against Backpage mounted in January 2017, when a U.S. Senate report blasted the site for facilitating criminal activity. The Senate investigation found the website edited out phrases such as “Lolita” and “Amber Alert” from ads — code words for minors that might attract law-enforcement attention.
Backpage shut down the adult content portion of its website, but the ads simply moved to the “dating” portion of the site.
The pressure ramped up last month when Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which amends federal law to make it easier for state prosecutors and sex-trafficking victims to go after website operators who knowingly allow third-parties to post ads that facilitate prostitution.
Critics say the law, which has yet to be signed into effect by President Trump, is overly broad and will stifle free online speech. In response, Craigslist — which remained a popular hub of prostitution — took down its personal ads for users in the United States. Several other popular escort sites also shut down in response to the bill’s passage.
“Any tool or service can be misused,” Craiglist wrote on its site. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”
Then late Friday, visitors to Backpage discovered that the website had been taken over by the FBI, U.S Postal Inspectors, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies as “part of an enforcement action,” according to a notice posted on the website.
The move was not applauded by Lois Lee, the founder of Southern California’s Children of the Night, a venerated foundation that works to rescue child sex-trafficking victims. She said “Backpage gave us a bird’s eye view of all our social problems,” while trafficking remains thriving on mainstream social media pages such as Facebook.
“It’s selective enforcement,” Lee said.
Three days later, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona unsealed a sweeping indictment against Lacey and Larkin, plus five other Backpage executives, alleging they conspired to help users edit prostitution ads to stay off law-enforcement radar. Authorities also accuse Backpage of laundering the ill-gotten money through unrelated companies, foreign banks and cryptocurrency.
That has left those in the sex industry scrambling, creating group chats, private social media pages and messaging app chains to share info on what sites are up and running. Websites based overseas are largely out of the reach of U.S. law, which means they don’t have to respond to subpoenas or requests for information.
Bella, the worker from northern Florida, said she can still use The Erotic Review, but had to buy a “virtual private network” app that makes it appear as if she is posting ads from Asia. New clients, however, have not caught up.
“This is censorship at its finest,” Bella said of the newly passed law targeting websites.
The Tennessee woman, who suffers from anxiety, said she is afraid her livelihood is ruined — and the demand for companionship won’t stop, despite the shutting of Backpage.
She said: “I’m just going to have to rely on Twitter and Facebook.”