May 10th, 2012
03:59 PM ET

A lurid journey through Backpage.com

Editor’s Note: On CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," correspondent Deborah Feyerick reported on controversy surrounding the nationwide classified-advertising website Backpage.com. While working on the broad problem of sex trafficking, she and producer Sheila Steffen became aware of the website's adult section and how prosecutors say it's being used by some pimps to peddle girls online.

By Deborah Feyerick and Sheila Steffen, CNN

Go to Backpage.com, choose any city in any state, then click on the adult section of the nationwide classified ads website.

Young women wearing almost nothing pose provocatively. One of the first advertisements I open shows a girl in lacy black underwear. Her eyes are downcast, and she appears much younger than 19, the age stated in her ad.

No one checks whether it's true - not the ages or the identities of these young women. Someone else is clearly taking the picture. The pose appears unnatural, forced.

The text next to her photo reads, "Choke me. Spank me. Pull my hair. Do Whatever You Want...I don't Care - 19." The young woman promises "a time you will NEVER forget."

It's hard to know whether this alleged 19-year-old is doing this because she wants to or because she's being coerced. That's another thing the website doesn't check.

Although many ads are placed by consenting adults, others are not and stories are rampant of young girls seduced online by men who turn out to be pimps or sex-traffickers.

I'm struck by how young some of these girls look: 18-year-olds look 15 or 16. Nineteen-year-olds look 17. As it turns out, prosecutors across the country are seeing an increase in cases (50 in 22 states recently) of underage girls being sold for sex on Backpage.com.

With an increased focus on sex trafficking in the U.S., prosecutors want the site's adult service ads removed, calling it a hub for the sex trade. In Minnesota, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi says, "When we get a case involving trafficking or prostitution, usually the story is going to start on Backpage.com."

Armed with a fistful of these ads, I ask Backpage.com's lawyer (and chief defender) Liz McDougall how she would feel if she saw her own daughter selling herself in one of these ads.

Her response is immediate, "I would be horrified ... my heart goes out to those mothers and to their daughters who are victims of exploitation."

Yet it's happening every day.

We meet Violet in a neighborhood just outside St. Paul, Minnesota. The pretty blonde married young. Her high-spirited, 14-year-old daughter later ran away and was missing for three years. Prosecutors say the girl was prostituted by a man she met at a bus stop who gave her food and a couch to sleep on and then advertised her for sex on Backpage.com to "pay him back."

Violet, who asked we changed her name to protect her family, said, "The worst part was the torture I had to hear about. You know the torture she endured from different people along the way."

McDougall says the website is not the problem.

"The Internet is unfortunately the vehicle for this, and within the Internet, we are trying to be the sheriff," she says referring to the organization's effort to work with law enforcement to find missing kids. "If my daughter were missing, the first place I'd go would be to the Internet."

Examining the ads and what they appear to be offering, I ask an obvious question: "Isn't prostitution illegal?" McDougall's answer: "Prostitution is illegal, and we don't permit illegal activity on the website." But then what are they selling? "Legal adult entertainment services," says McDougall.

I read her a different ad from another 19-year-old: "Make me beg. Smack me. Spit on me. Degrade me."

McDougall looks genuinely surprised. "If that's online that's a mistake ... that should never be permitted, that violates the terms of use and our policy," which prohibits advertisements selling sex for money.

McDougall explains that the website scans for 25,000 terms and code words linked to prostitution, sex trafficking and child exploitation. She says a team comprised of roughly 100 people then checks each ad individually before it's posted. Some 400 suspicious ads every month are reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which contacts law enforcement. The suspect ads, however, are not removed.

With all the alleged safeguards, I wonder whether the ad I showed her actually did inadvertently slip through. I go back to the adult section to verify it's a coincidence. Instead, I'm inundated with propositions, positions, preferences & body measurements. And I'm only checking ads in a single city, in a single state.

Like Craigslist, McDougall's former employer, the nationwide classified ad website lets people sell all kinds of things.

In 2010, Craigslist caved to pressure and shut down its erotic ads section. It didn't take long before Backpage.com stepped in and filled the void, making almost $27 million in a 12-month period. It made $3 million in March, up more than 30% from a year ago according to AIM, an Internet classified advertising research and consulting group. Those figures appear to contradict McDougall's claim the Internet is solely to blame.

I asked McDougall if shutting down the adult section might, at the very least, disrupt child-sex-trafficking or make it more difficult.

Without presenting any evidence, she says no - that it might drive it underground or worse yet, she says, off-shore making it difficult for law enforcement to rescue children who are being forced into prostitution.

"When Craigslist shut down, people had said that was the silver bullet and that made no difference," says McDougall, who freely admits Backpage.com filled the void. Not only did it make $27 million, it's now the largest advertiser of online adult services.

Although it's likely that these ads would pop up elsewhere on the Internet, many groups want Backpage.com to take them down, believing it will stem the sale of underage girls and disrupt the ease with which ads are posted.

For moms who have seen their teenagers exploited and sold, McDougall's argument rings hollow.

Dawn, for example, knew her blue-eyed, blond-haired 15-year-old daughter had a secret, online "friend."

That friend made the teen feel good about herself, promising to buy her gifts and give her the good life.

"The only thing she got is a Happy Meal," says Dawn. The child ran away with him. In less than a week, her "friend," a known pimp, had posted pictures of her online in Backpage.com's adult section selling the child for sex.

"He took her and beat her into submission, raping her, and then held her in prostitution," says Dawn, who asked we change her name to protect the family. She learned details of her daughter's ordeal by reading the criminal complaint filed against the man, who has pleaded not guilty.

The case is being prosecuted by the office of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who says he has several cases against men prostituting girls as young as 15.

"These pimps are pretty adroit, manipulative people ... they may take them out for an evening and at the end of the evening is sex with the pimp and subsequently these girls are in the business of prostitution."

Both Dawn's daughter and Violet's daughter are in recovery programs near their respective homes trying to heal from the trauma. I ask Dawn whether her daughter will be able to somehow get past it, even with therapy.

"I believe that she'll probably still be damaged because even after the fact of her healing, she's still going to remember this."

There is now a major effort to shut down the adult section on Backpage.com. Major brands such as H&M, IKEA and Barnes & Noble recently pulled ads from publications owned by Backpage.com parent company Village Voice Media. Prominent musicians including Alicia Keys, members of REM, the Roots Alabama Shakes and others signed a petition to stop the sex ads.

That's in addition to 600 religious leaders, 51 attorneys general, 19 U.S. senators, more than 50 NGOs and 230,000 individuals.

McDougall sincerely believes she is helping stop child-sex trafficking and says the day she feels otherwise is the day she will quit.

Until then, Backpage.com will continue serving as the foremost classified advertising website for adult services - even if the ages and circumstances of some of the people selling those services remain questionable.


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soundoff (71 Responses)
  1. Bill

    "There is now a major effort to shutdown the adult section..."

    Don't journalists take high school English anymore? Shutdown is a noun. The verb phrase the writer meant to use would have been 'shut down'.

    May 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • RS

      That has to be one of the most minor corrections I have ever seen someone make on this website. Bravo. Have a cookie.

      May 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Reply
    • CNNI blog producer

      And fixed. Thanks

      May 11, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
      • Thor

        Glad to see CNN is paying attention to the MINOR corrections vice the rest. Good topic though... very relevent and meaningful.. not something usual for CNN.

        May 11, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  2. Bob Loblaw

    A buddy of mine is a cop in his robbery div., he's working on a few robbery cases involving backpage.com and men robbing, sometimes raping and robbing girls who post ads on backpage.com. This is in the Toronto, Canada area...

    May 10, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
    • FakeKname

      Shutting down these sites doesn't make sense to me. From a law enforcement view point would you not want to be able to easily monitor illegal activities? You shutdown this site and you lose some of that ability. Now you have to spend man hours on locating the new sites that the bad guys are using and forging relationships with the new site operators and instead of one major site you are having to monitor multiple sites. Did shutting down CraigsList adult section do anything to curb crimes that have always and sadly, will always occur? No, it has moved to sites like BackPage and once Backpage is shutdown it will move to others. Law enforcement is just creating work for itself, and taxpayers are paying for it. May as well be chasing their own tails.

      May 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply
      • shraeve

        These activities would be far easier to monitor if they were not illegal.

        May 11, 2012 at 11:17 am |
      • logical

        ANYONE who believes the Village Voice is in the business of protecting children, by trying to help authorities is being ridiculous! Freedom of speech should only go so far before anyone stops and looks at the obvious. The chances of children getting murdered are too high and not even worth considering anyone’s first amendment rights. Backpages is a playground for child serial killers. Village Voice, claims they got the green light from the organization missing and exploited children? I might believe that if John Walsh and Marc Klaas gets on CNN and says this publically. Keep in mind; once an adult crosses the line and hurts a minor, the chances of that child being murdered goes through the roof!

        May 14, 2012 at 4:38 am |
      • Aphrodite Phoenix

        You are absolutely, positively correct.

        May 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  3. RJ

    I am against trafficking but believe it would be a mistake to shut down the adults section. Keeping it accessible and having ads available to be checked by BP is much better than having a site go underground or based in another country. With BP reporting potential ads to the police for checking, even one person saved is better then the zero saved if underground. If you believe shutting down the section will help with all of the other sites out there that DON'T check, you're very naive and ignorant about the internet.

    May 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • autumn

      that is so true if you think about it if this site is shut down then noone can even have a chance to look into the harm that is being done to all these children and the sad thing is that what people fail to see is that it's not only children that are being hurt these day's well what I should say not only these day's cause I'm sure it has been going on since the beging of time! But what I was saying is that not only children are getting hurt grown women and maybe some men cause alot of people don't understand how hard life is and some times people have to do things that they don't want to but that is there only means to feed there family not all people have money or family that will help them and I hate to say this but if the states would worry about helping family's in need an not destory family's then alot of this stuff that's going on wouldn't be happening! I mean the cps the police all the people that you are suppose to be able to count on for help are hurting not helping they take children from family's that are not needed to be took and they are so many children that need there help but they don't help them poor kid's in home's they are getting beat not eating but yet they wil come in a loving home an take a happy loved feed child all cause the parents don't have $ well $ don't mean everything you can love and feed your child without being rich!

      February 18, 2014 at 1:55 am | Reply
  4. Just me

    What a freaking joke Deborah "those in glass houses" when was the last time CNN or any other advertiser in this country checked the legitimacy of there ads before cashing their check? Look to the right on almost any CNN page and you will find the ad of a scam artist trying to sell something with the appearance of it being a news article.

    TRUTH IN ADVERTISING WOULD BE AWESOME, LETS START WITH CNN, NO MORE ADVERTISEMENTS UNTIL YOU HAVE INVESTIGATED THE SOURCE, TESTED THEIR PRODUCT AND PRICE COMPARED!

    If we're going to blame BP for trafficking, then we should blame the keyboard for worthless opinion!

    May 10, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • Just me

      *for your worthless*

      May 10, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Reply
      • Thor

        Again.... somehow shutdown and shut down became an issue for the editorial staff... not this though!

        May 11, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • autumn

      they would not be in bussiness if that was the case LOL

      February 18, 2014 at 1:56 am | Reply
  5. Tom

    I will never see these ads, thanks in part to a great ad blocker I use: AdBlock Plus.

    (And yes, I just advertised an ad blocker, hope you like irony).

    May 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  6. Tizwicky

    Some of this stuff is revolting but what happened to the first amendment right of free speech?? Shutting down what newspapers and on-line web services print and publish becomes somewhat problematic when you consider the "law of the land". A bad precedent was set when Craigslist.org caved in to pressure on this same issue a few years ago. If I were Back-Page I'd make them sue and prove it in court.

    May 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • Nathan

      I agree wholeheartedly. When people say, "what's more important, protecting kids, or protecting free-speech," they really show their lack of perspective. Protecting free speech is more important by an order of magnitude, and if law enforcement can't enforce the law without violating free speech, we either need to get rid of the law, or get rid of the law enforcers, not get rid of the Bill of Rights.

      May 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
      • autumn

        I agree but they are not going to do nothing about none of this it's all good 4 them 2 tell us a bunch of bs I'm a prime example of law enforement an there lie's they told a big lie to my family and has ripped my family apart and this has been going on for almost 2 years and I can't get help don't know what 2 do 2 get my baby back that the police took not cps and 4 no reason I just found a lawyer that I can pay after it took me all this time to save the $ to pay her an now just hope it's not 2 late I have done every thing they ask of me but the good thing is that she say's I have a great chance of getting my baby home everything was done against the law's

        February 18, 2014 at 2:03 am |
  7. Richard

    As a journalist myself I cringe when I see stories like these. This is nothing but an attack piece and these correspondents obviously made up their minds about their subject matter before they even began the reporting process. They make baseless assumptions and observations (The pose appears unnatural, forced") without even attempting to follow it up with facts. And ironically their hit piece is really an attack on the First Amendment, the same amendment that gives them the right to spew this dribble.

    May 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Babak from LA

      Thank you for pharsing it better than I could!

      May 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Reply
    • Artifex

      I couldn't help but notice your use of the proper term "correspondents" instead of the inappropriate "journalists".

      May 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
    • Artifex

      And I forgot to add: didn't you mean "drivel"? I "dribble" a basketball; most anything I read on Fox is "drivel".

      May 10, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  8. JJbrown

    This article makes it seem much worse than it is. I checked it out to my utter disappointment. Knock it off with the sensationalism CNN.

    May 10, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  9. LMAO!

    Too bad nearly every add is 100% fake. This is much ado about nothing, as usual.

    May 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  10. Joe Six Pack

    Go ahead and shut it down. Another site will pop up in its place tomorrow. You can't stop crime, you can only mitigate it.

    May 10, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
    • octopus

      Well how many people die in car accidents? If they really want to save lives, why not to start from ban on cars – they'll save many more lives.

      Let's describe a few horrible car accidents, and in the end say that for victims' families, arguments of car advocates 'ring hollow'.

      If they really want constructive solution, they need to unbiasedly analyze both positive and negative sides and find out what the real balance between them is. The problem is that even mentioning a possibility of any positive side of adult ads is heresy to many people – including "600 religious leaders" – so the decisions are made from the position of ideology and not common sense.

      May 20, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
      • rich

        When you get in a car you choose to drive with the risk of accidents everyday. Getting kiddnapped and pimped out is not even in the same ballpark.

        August 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
      • Brutus

        Obama has not failed. He has scedueced in bringing peace to America and the world. He has not started another war, sending young Americans to die in battle fields. Guantanamo, Haiti, the Health Reform Bill are indices of his welfarist leadership philosophy. More successes would be recorded in the coming months.

        September 12, 2012 at 3:00 am |
      • King

        Lance Meadows Posted on Did pops give you any pointers on pltaning the okra? I threw a few seeds in some dirt a while ago with steady watering and nothing happened so I could use some tips.Nice recipe though, I think I will try it with some red beans & brown rice.

        September 13, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  11. Thlix

    Er.. didn't they learn anything? they forced craigs list to shut down thier adult section.. and with in what a day or three, Backpage filled in the "gap"

    Now they want to shut backpage down too? would it not be better to work with backpage, incress its protections and such, to stop the illegal stuff?

    than force it to shut down, only to find that once they do, Yet another site sprung up.. maybe this time based in a diffrent country? one with far less laws and regulations governing what a web site can or can not do?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • autumn

      you know I find it really funny how every time a site that can kinda help people make a lil $ or help them maybe find someone to talk to they shut it down well I bet it's because they don't like us telling how we feel about what all they do wrong when they could be spending all that time and $ on helping people and then most of this bs wouldn't happen!

      February 18, 2014 at 2:10 am | Reply
  12. DeeNYC

    traffic to that site has just jumped 10 fold because of this story

    May 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • Alouishous

      No doubt! The girls are probably saying "WTH!? How come I'm getting so many calls today?!"

      May 23, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  13. Common Sense

    Is CNN helping the problem by publicizing this adult section of a legit sit? No.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:08 am | Reply
    • James

      100% I never heard of this site before and this will be a great way to get their trash site better known.
      Question: Shouldn't it be easy now to arrest these pimps? I mean isn't that the basis for her defence to allow this type of trash online?

      May 14, 2012 at 6:13 am | Reply
  14. Anonymous gossip

    this woman is getting paid well !! to walk away from the exploitation she says... shut your site down you @##$$% woman
    you obviously look like a lesbian i think your using these services yourself.

    May 12, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Reply
    • autumn

      WOW really u du** a** who's paying me n 4 what the truth god tell me where i can get paid 4 this i will do it all day cause all i'm doing is telling the truth about this wanna be no it all's u must have or come from $ n don't know what it's like 2 b looked down on n treated like trash cause u don't come from $

      February 18, 2014 at 2:17 am | Reply
  15. Rich

    More bad news for Backpage.com. And if you check their own Terms of Service, they admit to NOT screening ads at all.

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/nypd_blotter/nypd_daily_blotter_PzQLm11CyfUIFiy2m0mN4H?utm_medium=rss&utm_content=NYPD%20Blotter

    May 14, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
  16. shraeve

    The article describes only two cases of trafficking on Backpage. Compare that with the total number of ads in the Adult section and it is obvious that trafficking is extremely rare.

    May 14, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  17. sm

    What happened to the concept of corporate social responsibility, where companies strive to better society through its core business activities?

    May 16, 2012 at 8:43 am | Reply
    • RL

      hahahaha....that's a good one! Next you'll be saying "corporations are people, my friend" like Mitt.

      May 22, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
      • Kraig

        "corporations are people, my friend"
        That is exactly what the Supreme Court ruled, my friend.
        ROTFLMARO

        May 27, 2012 at 4:58 am |
    • stephen murphy

      cool is as cool do...corporate response-ability...willing and able
      when will business schools teach ethics and social responsibility?

      October 26, 2012 at 2:07 am | Reply
  18. MRC

    Illegal drug deals are often consummated on cell phones. Therefore, we need to end cell phone service.

    May 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  19. rh

    I have a teenaged son, and he is not allowed to use the Internet without an adult present. None of our kids have a computer in their room, let alone Internet access.

    The fact that the Internet exists is no reason for poor parenting and lack of supervision for your child. If your child goes out, know where and when, and when they will be back, plus a number where they can be reached. Anything else is child neglect.

    May 24, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Reply
    • max3333444555

      you at least let him read penthouse, right?

      May 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
      • Mamuchy

        dakingro on June 26, 2011 this has helped me a lot. I stteard using many affiliate programs such as rolution(dot)com/en/E763294Z/ and starting earning revenue thanks a lot.

        September 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  20. Amber

    Check out IpostUbuy.com to post adult ads and much more!!

    May 27, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  21. tandblekning

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    July 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  22. Aluminium Gutter Guard

    Generally I do not read post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite great post.

    July 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  23. somoAmatete

    можно ли похудеть на яблоках

    August 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  24. rich

    I agree with BP, let the pimps advertise then let law enforcement take them down. I mean it's right out there in the open for cops too perform stings.

    August 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  25. social exposure

    You really make it seem really easy together with your presentation but I in finding this topic to be really one thing which I believe I would by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely wide for me. I am taking a look forward for your next put up, I'll try to get the hold of it!

    September 11, 2012 at 5:14 am | Reply
  26. Reality Check

    "When Craigslist shut down [it's adult section], people had said that was the silver bullet..."
    The only problem there is that no one said that. At least every remark on the subject I can recall was that CL traffic would just go to other venues such as backpage.

    January 11, 2013 at 5:58 am | Reply
  27. Chris

    Another classified ads site with adult content has surfaced. The site is http://www.tupatu.com.
    They actually offer rewards for posting online classified ads. Cool idea to be honest!

    March 8, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  28. charlie

    backpage provides a great simple service for consenting adults to meetup and enjoy time together. actual trafficking is very rare. most women who are escorts choose to do it for the money and enjoyment.

    July 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  29. ganha dinheiro

    http://www.patraoonline.com ganha dinheiro http://www.patraoonline.com/

    July 13, 2013 at 6:38 am | Reply
  30. Christopher

    I bought a new wordpress blog but it doesn't have the blog stats which shows site hits on it. The blog has over a million hits so I need it. And blog stats are on my other wordpress blog so where is it on my new one?.

    May 4, 2014 at 5:33 am | Reply
  31. Ryan Farnham

    Though I agree that this is a big issue, I must note that using someones visual appearance to judge age is (and increasingly so) hard to do especially with ages under 20. I am mistaking all the time, and I do mean all the time as being 18-19 when I am actually 31, but there is a trend where the new generation of folks don't age as fast on the surface. Also, smokers will skin age much faster than non-smokers, though that usually begins a few years after one starts smoking. So if one is looking around trying to find potential victims based on appearance of age, it will more than likely be false positives.

    May 21, 2014 at 2:33 am | Reply
  32. Aleya

    Back page is robbing people buy accepting charges for ads and not publishing the ads. I have 3 money transaction disputes. I also called them left mags and emailed many times and I have not received any response but they took money out of my account on many occasions.

    June 26, 2014 at 11:19 am | Reply
  33. punterthoughts

    Ads for adult services are still easily accessible on Craigslist. Just go to the dating section or look at the resumes/CVS many of which are thinly veiled solications for erotic services. What consenting adults do in private is a matter for consenting adults, it is no one else's business.

    July 11, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  34. Mike

    If what they are claiming is true then isn't just visiting the site illegal? The full clip of that video on YouTube shows kristof telling viewers to check out the site. How is visiting this site NOT illegal?

    September 5, 2014 at 10:20 pm | Reply

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