AUSTIN (WKBN/KXAN) — The Dallas headquarters of Backpage.com was raided by authorities Thursday as part of a human trafficking investigation.
The CEO of Backpage.com, 55-year-old Carl Ferrer, was arrested on a California warrant when he landed in Houston on a flight from Amsterdam. Ferrer faces ten charges related to pimping in California.
Backpage.com is known as an adult website which authorities say makes millions of dollars annually from its classified sex ads. California investigators say Backpage’s escort service essentially operates as an online brothel.
In a joint investigation with California, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said their investigators uncovered evidence that adult and child sex trafficking victims were forced into prostitution through escort ads on Backpage.com. Backpage has been in business since 2004.
“Making money off the backs of innocent human beings by allowing them to be exploited for modern-day slavery is not acceptable in Texas,” Attorney General Paxton said in a press release. “I intend to use every resource my office has to make sure those who profit from the exploitation and trafficking of persons are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Police who fight human trafficking say the problem won’t be stopped until all websites like this are shut down.
As of now, Backpage.com is still up and running. Some women on the site choose to be there, but others are part of human trafficking networks.
Recently, two women charged with promoting prostitution in Austintown had advertised escort services in the Youngstown area on Backpage.com. Officers responded to the ad and set up a meeting at the Super Motel on 76 Drive in Austintown.
Police said the women arrived in a car containing several devices for sexual purposes, as well as 19 Oxycodone pills.
Officers arrested 30-year-old Brittany Miller and 31-year-old Casey Torres. Both are charged with aggravated possession of drugs, promoting prostitution, solicitation and possessing criminal tools.
Detective Eric Dattilo with the Beaver Police Department says Backpage is the most-used website for prostitution and human trafficking ads in the Youngstown area. According to Google, the average monthly searches for Backpage.com in the Youngstown area is 14,800.
An ad on Backpage led to the arrest of a suspected prostitute and a man believed to be involved at the Liberty Inn on Monday.
Giovanne Gutierrez, 38, is charged with solicitation, criminal tools, drug abuse and possession of drug paraphernalia. James Heck, 41, is charged with promoting prostitution, drug abuse and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Hotels grouped by busy intersections and truck stops are considered hot spots.
Officers with Dattilo’s department try to keep up with new ads, but even if the site is shut down, he says it won’t stop prostitution and sex trafficking.
“There are certainly other avenues. I don’t want to mention all the other websites available, I don’t want to give anyone any ideas.”
Major Jeff Allen with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department says human traffickers and sex workers will find another way to advertise.
“That’s the issue, where people are being force to get in this trade. It’s very profitable and as long as the profit is there, they’ll find a way.”
U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), chairman and ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), released a statement after the arrest of Ferrer. They have been working to get the website shut down.
“For the past 18 months, we have led a bipartisan investigation into the scourge of online sex trafficking. That investigation led us directly to Backpage, an online marketplace that has been involved in hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including child exploitation. We certainly wish that Backpage had willingly cooperated with our investigation. Despite its refusal to do so, our investigation was the first to uncover Backpage’s practice of editing ads in a manner that serves to conceal evidence of criminality. As law enforcement officials in Texas and California do their job, we will continue to press forward and complete our longstanding investigation.”
Portman says Friday’s ruling against Ferrer is “a major step forward in our efforts to stop the scourge of online human trafficking, and stand up for its thousands of innocent victims across the United States.”
Since 2012, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) says they have worked on more than 400 cases involving children sold for commercial sex on Backpage. According to the arrest warrant, investigators interviewed numerous victims who said they were victims of sex trafficking that involved ads being posted on Backpage.
Department of Justice auditors examined the website’s internal financial records and determined that from January 2013 through March 2015, 99 percent of Backpage’s gross revenue (worldwide income) was directly from adult ads. In April 2015, the percentage dropped to 97 percent and in May 2014, it dropped to 90 percent. According to court records, the timing of the decrease coincides with the decision of credit card companies to stop processing Backpage payments.
Our sister station KXAN contributed to this report.