AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – A push by lawmakers to end prostitution on Backpage.com has done little to stop the advertisements online.
Police say sex workers have been meeting customers in the Mahoning Valley, particularly in Austintown where officers have made at least one arrest during each of their undercover sex stings.
In January, the advertising website shut down its adult personal ads section amid pressure from a Senate panel working to end human trafficking.
Those advertisements have just moved to the dating section of the website, however.
Undercover officers with the Austintown Police Department have set up several sex stings by contacting people who have advertised on Backpage.com under the dating section. Investigators said the township’s high volume of traffic and location to major highways and truck stops make it an ideal location for the activity.
An undercover officer who didn’t want to be named for fear of blowing his cover said Backpage.com isn’t the only website where they’ve seen prostitution arrangements. He said they’ve also popped up on a number of websites, including a free dating website and a site for “Sugar Daddies.”
The officer contacts people who advertise sex services online and then arranges to meet them at a hotel or local truck stop. There, the men and women are arrested.
Sen. Rob Portman, who has been instrumental in leading a push to shut down the website, acknowledged that there are other challenges that need to be addressed when looking at online ads.
He discussed problems with online prostitution although he’s specifically looking to address human trafficking – women and men being sold for sex against their will or for drugs and shelter.
“I think you need a more comprehensive approach because although unbelievably Backpage has at least 80 percent of the human trafficking, sex trafficking ads – in other words, it’s the site where most people are going to traffic young girls – there are other sites that are popping up,” he said. “It’s just going to migrate to other sites if Backpage is stopped, so it needs to be a broader effort.”
Portman said his goal is to take a look at the Communications Decency Act – legislation that was designed to protect free speech on the internet. He said the law was never intended to protect websites from illegal activity.
“The online part of this – the internet – has caused a great increase in this kind of trafficking. I have talked to a number of people who were victims of trafficking and they tell me, ‘Hey, Rob. This has really gone from the street corner to the iPhone,’” he said. “To me, it’s the dark side of the internet, and we really need to address it as a country.”
Backpage issued a statement after the Senate panel’s investigation into prostitution on the site. It said its decision to remove its Adult section came after “an accumulation of acts of government censorship using extra-legal tactics.”
The company argued that the “act of censorship” will not reduce human trafficking.
“Instead, it undermines efforts by Backpage.com to cooperate with law enforcement and provide information to identify, arrest and prosecute those who engage in human trafficking,” the statement read.
Austintown Detective Lt. Jeff Solic started investigating sex crimes for the Austintown Police Department in 1991. Then, women used CB Radios to advertise sex services and were dropped off at truck stops, where they walked from truck to truck.
Now, an estimated 80 percent of all sales of sex now occurring online and pimps are exploiting the anonymity of the internet, according to researchers at Michigan State University.
“Amazon, all the other retail establishments are going to online sales. Why would the sex trafficking or the sex industry be any different?” Solic said. “It’s strictly business, and that’s what it is, unfortunately. You can order a pizza online; you can order a prostitute online.”
Major Jeff Allen, of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, said any criminal enterprise, including prostitution, will always find a way to operate.
After drug dealing, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second-largest criminal industry in the world today and the fastest-growing. The enterprise makes $150 billion per year, according to the International Labor Organization.
At one time, Allen headed a human trafficking task force in the Mahoning Valley. During the task force’s first major sting last year, five suspected “Johns” were arrested after responding to an advertisement that investigators posted online. Allen said they received 49 calls during that investigation, so the demand is there.
“Prostitution is just like drugs. It’s a supply-and-demand business. If the demand’s there, the supply will come,” he said.
His task force is now focused on investigating drug overdoses and charging dealers.
The two issues often go hand-in-hand. It’s the Valley’s drug epidemic that is spurring prostitution and human trafficking.