Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that faced persistent allegations of profiting from illegal prostitution, was shut down by the U.S. government Friday as authorities reportedly brought criminal charges against seven of those involved in operating the site.
GREEN BAY – The end of Craigslist personal ads and Backpage.com this month was a significant step forward in the fight against human trafficking, but only a step.
The online advertising sites were two of the most prominent websites where people could search advertisements for sex services or companionship.
“Backpage and Craigslist were the platforms that a lot of human trafficking violators were using to market their product, for lack of a better word,” said Winnebago County Sheriff’s Capt. David Mack.
The websites also offer legitimate services and items for sale. The sites were used in investigations by law enforcement to contact users during stings to combat human trafficking and internet crimes against children.
Craigslist closed the personal ads section of its website in late March after the passage of Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law April 11.
The act is meant to give authorities the ability to hold those who run websites accountable if they knowingly allow sex trafficking or prostitution to occur.
When visitors click on Craigslist’s personals section a message about FOSTA comes up.
“Any tool or service can be misused. 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,” the message states.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided and shut down Backpage on April 6.
Last week, its CEO, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, money laundering and facilitating prostitution.
The sites were frequently used by law enforcement to contact users during stings to combat prostitution, human trafficking and crimes against children.
Human trafficking can take many forms, including people being sold for sex or forced labor, Mack said. His office most often deals with cases where people are being forced into prostitution.
During investigations, officers often pose as a prostitute or parent offering their child for sex online, he said.
This year the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office has conducted two online investigations that led to a total of 12 arrests, Mack said.
He is certain those who used Backpage and Craigslist for human trafficking quickly moved on to other social media sites.
“Certainly, we will continue to monitor social media outlets and other public forums where people who would violate prostitution laws and other forms of human trafficking, that is where we will be putting our focus now,” Mack said.
Although, Backpage and Craigslist for years were the main websites law enforcement used for its investigations, stings have also been conducted on Kik, Omegle and various dating platforms, said Brown County Sheriff’s Investigator Jim Valley.
“At the end of the day, there are so many applications and websites out there that our focus is to equally work all of them and not just a specific one. So, I don’t see a big effect that (the end of Backpage and Craigslist personal ads) will have on us” and investigations, Valley said.
As far as investigations of internet crimes against children, investigations often begin with tips rather than online sting operations, Valley said.
If people come across something illegal pertaining to children, they should report it to local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Valley said. Tips can submitted on the center’s website www.missingkids.com.
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