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 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.