Eros.com Still Lives, But Homeland Security Raid Has Sex Workers Worried
By Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason
The adult-services site Eros is still live for now, but federal agents seized servers, documents, and computers containing sensitive info on thousands of Americans in last Wednesday's raid of its North Carolina headquarters. And the feds won't say why.
"That is going to expose a whole bunch of innocent people," Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project told Raleigh-Durham's ABC 11. "There's a big question about how the government will honor people's privacy. People have the right to their privacy and they should not be convicted or set up for moral judgment for adult activity."
Eros.com is billed as an "escort and adult entertainment directory." It's affiliated with a company called Bolma Star Services, run by Greg Huling, which operates out of Youngsville, North Carolina. But its reach is much, much broader: more than 100 area-specific sites worldwide.
Agents of Homeland Security Investigations spent hours at the place on November 8, loading lots of boxes into their trucks, according to local news reports. The U.S. Attorney's Office said the raid was part of an "active investigation," but no charges have been filed nor arrests made.
Whatever is happening, the case remains sealed for now. And the fate of the popular ad-platform remains unclear.
After Backpage.com Censure, Pimps Move to Dating Sites and New Tactics
By Gabby Bess
In 2010, Craigslist shut down their "adult services" listing section to tamp down on sex work postings amid allegations that rampant trafficking took place on the site. Critics at the time feared that sex trafficking wouldn't end once Craigslist enacted the shut-down—it would just move somewhere else.
Their fears, it seems, were founded: Not only did sex work ads pop up on Craigslist in other forums, but another listings website, Backpage.com, started to corner the market. A 2012 report found that 70 percent of prostitution ads came from the site. So authorities turned their attention there, and last year, more than 1000 pimps and johns were arrested during a months-long prostitution sting that targeted ads placed on Backpage.com.
While independent, adult sex workers also list on the site, 71 percent of child trafficking cases reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children come from Backpage. The site recently shut down it's escort section voluntarily but federal authorities are still monitoring the site to catch traffickers and pimps.
A new study by criminologists from Michigan State University, led by Mary Finn, suggests that this increased police scrutiny on Backpage has just made these sellers of sex harder to detect.
"Police have used targeted enforcement in trying to address the sale of sex when it occurs in a physical place. We saw parallels from that type of space just being transferred to the internet," Finn explained over the phone. "There's been research that suggests that that kind of targeted enforcement can either lead to displacement—meaning that crime moves to another geographical location—or there could be a diffusion effect, in which less crime occurs in that area and the surrounding areas. We wanted to see if that same idea applied in the online world."
Her study, which interviewed 100 pimps who actively list on Backpage about how they use the site and the internet in general to manage prostitutes, suggests that these measures to curtail and criminalize sex work on the site are only virtually displacing pimps, not stopping their activity, which is only driving sex work further out of sight.
According to the interviews, these pimps have become savvier about their listings following the crackdown. "We refer to it as 'hiding in plain sight on the page,'" Finn said. "They would just place their ads in a different section, along with legitimate business. Backpage has ads for escorts and massage—there are these types of professional customer services that are advertised on the site. The pimps would simply place their ads within those lists of those types of services." Then, she said, they would just put in specific key words to convey to the buyer what the ad was really for.
"None of these ads say sex. But they certainly imply that there may be more than just a date," she said, adding that pimps will try to minimize their legal liability in their postings. "The pimps all say that they're just selling someone the opportunity to meet someone else—and what they do in the context of that meeting is their business."
Finn said that some pimps have also stopped using actual photographs of the girls they are advertising once they realized police were lurking on the site. One pimp said in an interview that he would "find a website and find females that look similar" to the girls he had and use their picture instead.
This in itself is a huge setback for the authorities. "The police, specifically when they're looking for those who are sex trafficked, or those who are children, they look at the images in the listing. They look to see if the person in the image looks exceptionally young, or if they're being kept somewhere. If they have reports of missing individuals this is a way to begin to do an investigation," Finn said.
Pimps have also started going back to Craigslist and responding to people who post that they're seeking romantic encounters to recruit potential clients. And according to the study, they're moving into dating websites. "A popular one among the gay community is the app called Jack'd," one pimp explained. "...It's supposed to be a dating app. It's anything but that. Most people go on there for sex. So that's another way that I can generate business... I have everything on there. Prices. What I'm about. What I will do. What I will not do."
So if police efforts to catch pimps are only dispersing them and making them harder to find, what can be done?
According to Finn, criminalizing sites like Backpage is futile. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack. [Sex work] is the oldest profession, and it's continuing to flourish," she said. "We enact [anti-prostitution] laws because we think we're helping vulnerable people, but, for those individuals who are involved in the sale of sex, criminalizing it just drives it further underground. This can prevent individuals from seeking assistance, and it's also a public health issue."
"I think we could come up with a different approach to manage the sale of sex, because it's certainly happening," she added. "We can't walk away from that reality. You would still, obviously, criminalize someone who exploited a minor or forcing another adult into this work. But we could make it healthier and safer for consenting adults by reexamining the wisdom of criminalizing sex work."
Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer pleads guilty in three states, agrees to testify against other website officials
By Tom Jackman, Washington Post
Carl Ferrer, the chief executive of Backpage.com whose name was conspicuously absent from an indictment of seven other Backpage officials unsealed Monday, has pleaded guilty in state courts in California and Texas and federal court in Arizona to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. In addition, he agreed to testify against the men who co-founded Backpage with him, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, who remained in jail Thursday in Arizona on facilitating prostitution charges.
Backpage, in addition to hosting thinly veiled ads for prostitution since 2004, was accused of hosting child sex trafficking ads on its site and even assisting advertisers in wording their copy so they didn’t overtly declare that sex was for sale, federal investigators allege. In a remarkable three-paragraph admission in his federal plea agreement, Ferrer wrote that “I conspired with other Backpage principals … to find ways to knowingly facilitate the state-law prostitution crimes being committed by Backpage’s customers.”
Ferrer also acknowledged creating a “moderation” process to remove terms and pictures indicative of prostitution. “Such editing did not,” Ferrer wrote, “of course, change the essential nature of the illegal service being offered in the ad — it was merely intended to create a veneer of deniability for Backpage.” He said that these “editing practices were only one component of an overall, companywide culture and policy of concealing and refusing to officially acknowledge the true nature of the services being offered in Backpage’s ‘escort’ and ‘adult’ ads.”
Federal and state authorities quietly took Ferrer on a three-state guilty plea tour beginning last week, but it was only revealed Thursday. Court records show that Ferrer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and money laundering in federal court in Phoenix on April 5, with the hearing and documents sealed. Backpage.com also pleaded guilty, by Ferrer as the CEO, to a money laundering conspiracy in Phoenix, where Backpage was created. Ferrer then on Monday appeared in state court in Corpus Christi, Tex., where he personally pleaded guilty to money laundering, and he pleaded Backpage and other related entities guilty to human trafficking of a teenaged girl, and money laundering by concealing the proceeds from facilitating criminal activity.
On Thursday, Ferrer turned up in Sacramento, where he was first charged along with Lacey and Larkin in 2016, and again pleaded guilty to money laundering. He was then released on bond. His California plea agreement indicates prosecutors will seek no more than five years in prison, and federal prosecutors agreed that any sentence in Arizona would run concurrently to that. The Texas plea agreement also caps Ferrer’s prison exposure at five years, court documents show.
Ferrer’s sudden capitulation launched a wild seven days for Backpage. A day after Ferrer’s first secret plea, the federal government arrested seven of Ferrer’s former colleagues, including Lacey and Larkin, and shut down Backpage’s websites in the U.S. and around the world. The indictments were unsealed Monday, and the lack of charges for Ferrer raised questions about whether he was cooperating.
Then on Wednesday, President Trump signed into law “FOSTA,” the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, a bill inspired by the stories of children being prostituted on Backpage, raped for months or even years, and sometimes murdered. In addition to removing a liability shield for websites that host prostitution ads, it enables victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against such sites.
2020 trial for Backpage.com founders in case over sex ads
May 02, 2018
Leaving a Phoenix courthouse Monday, Backpage.com co-founder Michael Lacey offered his first public comments about allegations of running prostitution ads and money laundering.
“Nonsense!” Lacey said before his attorney added that his client had no further comment.
Lacey, and co-founder James Larkin are scheduled to stand trial Jan. 15, 2020, on federal charges in Arizona that they knowingly ran prostitution ads and laundered money earned from the classified advertising site. Five site employees will also stand trial. Attorneys were given enough time to review an estimated 7 million to 9 million pages of documents about the case.
An indictment alleges Backpage.com ignored warnings to stop running advertisements promoting prostitution, sometimes involving children, because the site has brought in $500 million on prostitution-related revenues since its inception in 2004.
Authorities say Backpage.com portrays itself as trying to prevent such ads, but investigators have determined the site’s operators have declined to confront the problem. Employees are accused of helping customers edit their ads to say within legal limits while still encouraging commercial sex.
SESTA Won't Stop Sex Trafficking, But It Will Kill Sex Workers
By Laura LeMoon, VICE
Earlier this month, President Trump signed the controversial FOSTA/SESTA bills into law. This new measure, which is ostensibly meant to combat sex trafficking, will make online platforms legally liable for what users say and do on their sites — with no differentiation between consensual sex work and trafficking.
The effects have been immediate, and overwhelmingly devastating to the sex worker community. Already, Craigslist has shut down its entire personals section, Reddit has closed several subreddits, like /r/Escorts and /r/Sugardaddy, and Backpage — the whole site — has been shuttered and seized by the feds. To anyone who’s actually listened to sex workers, the implications of this are a terrifying. With their sources of income vanishing at a rapid clip, many sex workers will be forced return to the streets, making them far less safe and more prone to being trafficked and exploited.
“I feel as if I’ve lost control over the one thing I had control over in my life,” says Melissa, a sex worker from Phoenix. Like many sex workers, Melissa had relied on Backpage: “I left [the streets] after six years of being with my physically abusive ex, who whipped me with extension cords, wire hangers, dragged me through glass by my hair numerous black eyes, fat lips, fucked-up face,” she says. “When I was with him, I was forced to hop in and out of cars on the track from sun up until sun down until he said I could stop. I’ve been beat over the head seven times with a wrench, shot, stabbed, kidnapped, raped… Now, because of this stupid bill, I’ve been forced to go back to the one place I barely made it out alive.”
For many sex workers, online forums like Backpage, Craigslist, and others functioned as a much safer alternative to street-based sex work. Posting ads online allows one to use screening methods, such as running background checks, checking references, and looking through “bad date lists” compiled by other sex workers to warn about hostile clients. Additionally, online forums come with a greater degree of client volume, which allows a sex worker to be pickier about whom she or he takes on as a client.
Because of FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers are now in an incredibly vulnerable position — something those who wish to exploit them are well aware of. “I’m getting an influx of pimps contacting me because they know that all this is affecting me,” says Lauren, a sex worker who lives in Jacksonville, Florida. “I can’t pay my bills or eat or take care of other little shit like I used to.” Melissa has had a similar experience. “Since this stupid bill, I’ve had at least 20 pimps contacting me telling me to come work for them because they can promise me clients,” she tells Broadly.
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Escort Services Are Using Counter-Surveillance To Evade The Cops
A new government-sponsored report on America's sex industry has revealed how pimps and escorts avoid detection by cops these days.
The report by the Urban Institute analyzes information on the trade in eight cities: Miami, Dallas, Washington, Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Atlanta, and Kansas City, Mo.
Owners of escort services (essentially high-end prostitution services) structure their business carefully, keeping meticulous books and investing in shell companies or real estate, according to the report.
“We filed taxes and opened a business account … It was an escort service that allowed for massage and strip tease, but it was the acts of prostitution that made it illegal. We had them sign contracts [that included prohibitions against prostitution], but we turned our heads,” one person affiliated with an escort service explained in the report.
Related article: (How to) Encrypt It
Unlike street prostitutes, escort services actually use credit cards and often keep most of their money on the books, essentially hiding from law enforcement in plain sight. They also use sophisticated tactics to avoid police.
"In order to evade law enforcement detection, they run counter surveillance," the report said.
According to one law enforcement officer quoted in that report, there is a website called “Rate a Cop” for escort services to keep tabs on police who might be trying to root out their operations.
UPDATE: Following complaints about police officer safety based on concerns that the policeman (policeperson?) rating site ratemycop.com (that’s Rate My Cop .com, get it?) posed a danger to law enforcement personnel because it outed the full roster, including names and badge numbers, of police officers at nearly 500 police departments around the country (to the tune of some 140,000 police officers), RateMyCop’s host – GoDaddy – unceremoniously and without warning pulled the plug on the site.
Johns are also using another site called The Underground to learn where current stings are happening and how to detect and avoid sting operations.
Related article: Cops busted in prostitution stings
Prostitutes are also trained to suss out possible sting operations by proactively attempting to identify law enforcement prior to committing incriminating transactions.
Watching customer's body language, movement, and appearance for suspicious or nervous behavior
Describing all actions taken by customers aloud so that, should a police officer do something inappropriate during a sting operation, it is recorded and usable in court.
Actively catching and recording police during a sting doing something they aren’t supposed to do
Watching clients vehicles, according to CopsRCorrupt.com most clients using upscale escort services, drive high end vehicles likes Lexus, BMWs while narcs drive mostly Fords
UPDATE: Feds seize classified ad site Backpage.com over sex trafficking ads
(CNN) The classified ads website Backpage.com has been seized by federal law enforcement agencies, according to a banner that popped up on the site Friday.
The banner says, "backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action" by the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.