Backpage.com was hub for sex trafficking

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Backpage.com, notorious for hosting X-rated ads for sexual services, plays a role in nearly all the trafficking cases local law enforcement agencies investigated over recent years. And advocates say almost all the victims that come through their doors were sold on the website.

But both authorities and service providers alike have expressed mixed feelings about the site’s being shut down earlier this month.

Notice of seizure of Backpage.com, which local law enforcement authorities say played a role in nearly all the sex trafficking cases investigated in recent years. But the site also left a digital trail that helped police and prosecutors.

The site was shut down just days before President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that will make it easier for law enforcement to file criminal charges against similar websites and for victims and state attorneys to file lawsuits against those sites. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) passed through Congress with overwhelming support.

On April 7, the Department of Justice seized Backpage.com and announced it is charging seven officials in federal court. In addition, a week and a half ago the website’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, 57, of Frisco, Texas, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and to engaging in money laundering.

Detective Kyle Hartsock with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office said that, historically, the website provided little oversight to prevent minors from being trafficked, leading it to become a hub for such activity.

“It was obvious that they were not doing many things to try to discourage child sex trafficking for many years,” he said. “It was very easy – we’ve created posts ourselves as part of investigations – it was incredibly easy to post on their website if we wanted to pretend to be an underage minor.”

When federal agents arrested an Albuquerque couple and another man who they say were running a sex trafficking organization that was involved in two brutal murders last year, they gleaned information about their activities from Backpage.com.

Authorities say Tobi Lynn Stanfill, 20, had been trafficked by Cornelius and Danielle Galloway and had been killed, along with Daryl Young, 39, because “their activities were contrary to the objectives of the criminal sex trafficking organization.”

According to documents filed in federal court, a Google search of Danielle Galloway’s phone number turned up on multiple ads on Backpage.com that included several different women wearing lingerie and posing suggestively under such names as “Candy.”

At least one ad was for a 17-year-old girl.

And when agents served a subpoena on Backpage.com for specific ads, the phone number and email address led back to Danielle and her husband, Cornelius Galloway.

The Galloways are just two of several suspected traffickers in Albuquerque whom local and federal authorities charged with using Backpage to sell sex.

Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque charged eight defendants with sex trafficking of minors in New Mexico and Arizona. Again, many of their activities were channeled through Backpage.

But because the site emerged as a hub for sex trafficking, it became a targeted central location for investigators to gather information, Hartsock said.

“Backpage has helped us build cases, build stronger cases, in New Mexico, because we have a nice digital trail of what (traffickers) did,” he said. “It was not the only thing that helped do it, but it was a big part of it.”

Now, he said, they expect traffickers to move to other sites.

“There have always been other websites that you can find sex trafficking and sex traffickers on,” Hartsock said. “They existed before Backpage, and they will continue to exist after Backpage, and we already know about 21 different websites that do this kind of stuff.”

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office said its officials are also monitoring the other websites to see where traffickers move.

The AG’s spokesman, Matt Baca, said they recognize FOSTA as a step forward in fighting human trafficking but know that traffickers will adapt their tactics on and offline.

“We as investigators must always be changing our investigative strategies to hold offenders accountable,” Baca wrote in an email. “The Office of the New Mexico Attorney General Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) and Human Trafficking Task Force will continue to look at all websites and social media platforms, in addition to a continued collaboration with advocacy groups on the streets, shelters, and anywhere a trafficking victim may be.”

However, Lynn Sanchez, the program director for The Life Link’s Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative, worries that if more victims are forced onto the streets or other avenues, they won’t leave a digital trail.

She said FOSTA is an important first step but it’s a long way from curbing sex trafficking.

“Because nearly every single trafficking victim has been trafficked through Backpage, it needed to happen,” Sanchez said. “But I also believe that predators and traffickers are going to find other ways that are going to be harder to track.”

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