A federal grand jury in Phoenix has brought charges of prostitution, conspiracy and money laundering against the founders and top executives of Backpage.com, an online classified ad marketplace. In all, seven defendants face 93 counts.
A 61-page indictment, unsealed today, alleges, "Backpage defendants have utilized a variety of strategies to make it appear that the prostitution ads appearing on Backpage are actually ads for 'escort' services, 'adult' companionship, dating, or other lawful activities."
The indictment alleges, "These strategies are a fiction designed to conceal the true nature of Backpage's ads and customers. Indeed, Backpage defendants have admitted...that the overwhelming number of the website's ads involve prostitution."
The indictment highlights sex trafficking cases across the country, including crimes whose victims had connections to Colorado. The indictment says a person identified as "Victim 3" from Colorado was forced by her pimp to perform prostitution in North Dakota.
"During these trips, which would generate as much as $2,000 in prostitution-derived revenue each day, Victim 3 would be forced to leave her children at home in the care of her pimp," according to p. 32 of the indictment.
Another female, identified in the indictment as "Victim 11," was sold for sex in Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, Oregon, California, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico. The indictment says the Backpage ads "included pictures of Victim 11 in provocative positions" and that her traffickers sexually and physically abused her.
The indictment says that defendants mislead regulators and law enforcement officials "concerning the supposed sincerity of Backpage's efforts to prevent the publication of prostitution-related ads."
The indictment alleges that Backpage published ads that depicted victims of child sex trafficking. The document says Backpage created a false perception that it tried to prevent the publication of such ads, but "the reality is that Backpage has allowed such ads to be published while declining – for financial reasons – to take necessary steps to address the problem."
RMPBS has reported extensively on child sex trafficking and the emotional toll child pornography has on victims, families and investigators.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told RMPBS that it received more than 10 million tips of child trafficking and child pornography in 2017.
The indictment alleges that Backpage artificially limited the number of referrals to NCMEC of children being advertised on the site, while claiming it "does everything in its power to alert [NCMEC]."
According to the indictment, a Backpage training document instructed staff to send emergency alerts to NCMEC only when parents complained that a child was being trafficked on the site. It alleges the company instructed its staff not to report cases when grandparents or extended family members complained about a related child being trafficked: "Neice [sic], nephew, grandchild, cousin, etc. doesn't count.”
Yiota Souras, NCMEC senior vice president and general counsel, told RMPBS today that the indictment indicates the company potentially left children to suffer.
"It’s heartbreaking to read that Backpage artificially limited the reports sent to NCMEC about children trafficked for sex on its site,” Souras said. “The indictment indicates that Backpage limited the reports made to NCMEC to “16 per day." What happened to the 17th child trafficked on Backpage that day? And all the children after that who were never reported to NCMEC?
“These children never had a chance to be recovered from being sold for sex on Backpage due to Backpage’s purposeful disregard of their suffering."
In a special report, Traded and Trafficked, RMPBS correspondent Lori Jane Gliha highlighted cases in Colorado that had connections to Backpage.com.
To learn more about child sex trafficking in Colorado, view the full report and listen to the podcast at rmpbs.org/insight/traded-and-trafficked/.
To learn more about the growing cases of child pornography across the state, view the special report by John Ferrugia, Rescuing the Innocent, and read a guide for families on how to protect their children, at rmpbs.org/insight/rescuing.