Popular listings site Backpage.com has long been a topic of debate for its decision to continue advertising escorts even as other sites like Craigslist tried to back away from these lucrative listings. But now comes news from California that the state has actually arrested the website’s CEO and charged him, along with two of Backpage’s controlling shareholders, with illegally promoting prostitution.
According to the criminal complaint [PDF] Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, along with shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, have been charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, in violation of California state law. Additionally, Ferrer has been charged with pimping, and pimping a minor — including some escorts allegedly under the age of 16.
Until July 2015, prostitutes and other sex workers could pay to advertise on Backpage using their credit cards. Then Visa and MasterCard both shut off payments to the site, following a very public campaign by the sheriff of Cook County, IL.
According to the complaint, before the card networks shut off payments to the site Backpage was pulling in $2 million per month just from adult advertising in California.
The state also contends that even though Backpage had created a system for screening escort ads, it nonetheless accepted multiple ads from escorts who were not only illegally selling sexual services, but were under the age of 18 at the time.
The complaint lists five instances of minors allegedly paying to advertise on Backpage in California. Of these five escorts, the state says four had not yet turned 16 at the time the site ran their ads.
In addition to Backpage.com, the state says the defendants ran other sites — EvilEmpire.com and BigCity.com — that are allegedly nothing more than extended platforms for Ferrer to promote the BackPage escort listings.
EvilEmpire describes itself as a an “escort service phone number directory,” but the state notes that while there are plenty of listings to look at on the site, there doesn’t appear to be any way for the escort to upload or pay for a listing.
That’s because, according to the state, EvilEmpire.com is just using data scraped from escort listings on BackPage. In fact, on each escort’s profile page the only clickable link takes you back to their BackPage.com listing page.
In a sworn declaration [PDF] filed in support of the arrest warrant, a special agent for the California Department of Justice details his part in the years-long investigation that led up to the arrest.
Starting in May 2014, CA DOJ agents would place calls to set up “dates” with escorts. Not surprisingly, the state says that each of these dates was in actuality an appointment for prostitution. Once the escort began negotiating the cash-for-sex deal, the ruse was up, but the escorts were only interviewed and not arrested.
These interviews included the underage escorts referenced in the criminal complaint, all identified only by initials. One 15-year-old, E.S., told the agent she’d been a prostitute since she was 13. The same for 16-year-old A.C., who claimed that she met up to a dozen clients a day. When asked if she’d ever had difficulty posting to BackPage because she was a minor with no credit card, she explained that she used a prepaid money card to pay for the ad, and besides, “how are they supposed to know I’m underage?”
In a statement regarding today’s announcement, California Attorney General Kamala Harris claimed that “Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.”
We’ve reached out to attorneys currently representing BackPage in its ongoing legal dispute with the Cook County sheriff to see if their clients have any statement to share. We will update if we hear back.
by Chris Morran via Consumerist