The Death of BackPage.com

Yesterday a dream of Beth Klein’s came true, BackPage.com died. The on-line brothel – which has trafficked more than 80% of all victims and where hundreds of missing children were sold – was removed from the web. It happened after a Senate subcommittee released its report and just before a scheduled hearing during which internal operations could have been brought into daylight. The executives of the electronic brothel were too ashamed to talk about their activities, and they all took the 5th.

The website was founded in 2004 and operates in cities around the world. It began as a part of Craigslist. In 2010 Craigslist (and Ebay related company) divested Backpage which operated for profit until yesterday.

“This is a concerted effort to build a business enterprise around the trafficking of human beings,” Yiota Souras, general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek last October. The center has identified more than 420 cases of missing children who wound up in Backpage ads. A separate team led by Arizona State University researchers has found more than 150 Backpage ads that feature minors.

The Report reviewed the company documents, totaling more than 1.1-million pages, and found evidence that Backpage knowingly facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking. The business was highly profitable and experienced explosive growth, from $5.3 million in gross revenue in 2008 to $135 million in 2014.

Backpage has faced several lawsuits by women who say they were trafficked through the site and calls from The Sheriff of Chicago and others to cease its adult operations. Every lawsuit to shut it down has been dismissed ironically under an internet free speech law that Senator Ron Portman of Oregon sponsored. Ironically, Senator Portman was a co-chair of the anti-Backpage subcommittee. His law 47 U.S.C. 230 (Section 230), passed in 1996 was intended to protect websites from liability for third party content. This very law has protected the crime.

Last October, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced charges against the website’s chief executive officer, Carl Ferrer, and its founders, James Larkin and Michael Lacey. A judge dismissed those charges in December; about two weeks later, Harris announced new charges against the men.

Back page whined: “For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed, but new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a 53-page report on the findings from its investigation. “The company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability,” the report said. “The internal company documents obtained by the Subcommittee conclusively show that Backpage’s public defense is a fiction.” The report went on to say that Backpage had “concealed evidence of criminality” by editing ads, that it had acknowledged its role in facilitating sex trafficking and that Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin continued to own the website even though they had claimed to have distanced themselves from it.

Senator Claire McCaskill said Monday on Twitter, “It pays to never give up. Congressional investigations matter.” In another tweet, she indicated that the hearing would proceed despite Backpage’s decision to remove its adult ads.

Abolitionists celebrated the page’s death. The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) vowed to “fight back,” saying in a statement:

“It is hard to put into words the intense anxiety, stress and sense of oppression our community is currently experiencing. Right now, thousands of individuals are wondering where they are going to go to earn money they need to pay rent, buy their family’s clothes and food and fill their metro card or gas tank.”

Perhaps a look at the job ads on Craigslist would be a good move.

End of Year Updates

North East Colorado Coalition Against Trafficking

In the final month of 2016, we spotlight the North East Colorado Coalition Against Trafficking (NECCAT). NECCAT was founded by a group of committed members of the Zonta Club-Greeley chapter in January of 2015. Zonta Vice President, Diana Laws, was a driving force in getting the group off the ground. As she explained it, Zonta’s mission is to empower women through service and advocacy. The Greeley Zonta membership recognized that there were already several organizations addressing a variety of women’s issues. But, Zonta believed it could address a gap by elevating the issue of human trafficking and its intersection with violence against women in their local community.

In less than two years of operation, 26 agencies—including area law enforcement and social service agencies—have joined the group. NECCAT sees its role as a convener of key stakeholders who have the experience and expertise to respond to cases of human trafficking. NECCAT also serves as a central repository for education and resources in the area. The group receives multiple requests for training on human trafficking and is able to enlist members to carry out education and outreach events based on their areas of specialization. Likewise, NECCAT has partnered with Zonta to raise funds to support human trafficking survivors. It has dedicated a portion of those funds to make survivor kits that include such things as basic toiletries and handmade socks. The kits benefit survivors immediately and support local law enforcement in their efforts to build rapport and a sense of safety among those they identify as potential trafficking victims. For more information about NECCAT, please contact Diana Laws.

In the News
Shared Hope International recently released its 2016 state report cards regarding their response to domestic minor sex trafficking, especially each state’s legal response. Colorado earned a “B” grade. You can read Colorado’s report card here.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Magazine published an alternative business perspective on the topic of human trafficking in supply chains. Among other things, their article outlines ways that companies can comply with various national laws and directives from the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union.

Recent Convictions

A man was convicted in Greeley on 32 counts related to a sex trafficking operation and was sentenced to 248 years in prison in a Weld County District Court. This conviction represents the longest sentence to be handed down for human trafficking in the state’s history. The defendant was convicted after a 13-day trial. He was arrested in 2014 following an extensive investigation by the Greeley Police Department, FBI’s Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force, and Colorado State Patrol.

Another man was also found guilty of human trafficking in Weld County District Court early in November. The investigation began with a traffic stop in 2014, which led to a joint law enforcement investigation.The defendant was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

National Updates

Victim Services Study Launched
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) are launching a national data collection effort to better understand crime victims needs and the services available to them. This data collection effort will be conducted in two phases, phase one will involve the launching of the first-ever National Census of Victim Service Providers (NCVSP). Phase two will build off of the census by conducting the National Survey of Victim Services Providers, a longer survey aimed at reaching a representative sample of victim service providers.

National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month (January)

To help you prepare for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January, OVC announced a series of resources to assist in raising public awareness on the issue. These resources include the Faces of Human Trafficking Resource Guide, as well as the Human Trafficking Task Force E-Guide. You can learn more by visiting OVC’s Human Trafficking website.

New Name for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has changed its name to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. You can learn more about the change on their website.

Forecasted Grant Opportunity

The Administration for Children and Families and the Office for Trafficking in Persons have a forcasted funding opportunity, Look Beneath the Surface Regional Anti-Trafficking Program (LBS). The LBS Program will serve as a focal point in targeted geographic areas and focus on the identification and referral of foreign and domestic human trafficking victims. Learn more about this opportunity by visiting grants.gov and searching LBS. The estimated posting date for this opportunity is January 6, 2017.

Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force

Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force

Our November spotlight is on the Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force (RMILTF). Founded in 2012, the RMILTF is one of several law enforcement task forces across the country funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), including domestic minor sex trafficking.  RMILTF represents a joint effort between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Task force members include representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the police departments of Denver and Aurora, the Colorado State Patrol, and the sheriff departments of both Arapahoe and Douglas County, along with an investigator with the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s office. Since its formation, RMILTF has recovered nearly 400 minors, arrested over 100 traffickers and trained over 20,000 individuals on how to identify and respond to potential CSEC and domestic minor sex trafficking situations.

RMILTF has routinely seen success during Operation Cross Country (OCC), the FBI’s annual nationwide law enforcement effort focused on recovering minors exploited through commercial sex. This year marked the 10th annual operation. Held over three days in October, this year’s regional OCC involved the collaborative efforts of over 280 law enforcement personnel, from 38 participating law enforcement agencies, who utilized a variety of methods to locate potentially exploited minors across Colorado and Wyoming.  Of note during this year’s operation, RMILTF personnel worked to identify commercially sexually exploited youth via social media sites and dating applications.  Over the last two years, RMILTF noted an increase in the use of such applications by traffickers and sex buyers alike to identify and exploit children.  RMILTF ranked second in the nation for OCC child recoveries and in the number of traffickers arrested. Overall, 9 juveniles (5 females and 4 males) were recovered and 11 traffickers and 32 buyers of commercial sex were arrested.  To learn how your law enforcement agency may become involved with RMILTF or to report a tip, please contact the FBI-Denver Office at (303) 629-7171.