Children sold for sex on the web
Efforts underway to shut down adult section of Backpage.com
It's a website where you can look for a job, find a roommate or purchase anything from concert tickets to pet supplies to furniture. Backpage.com is also the biggest marketplace on the Internet where women and girls are being bought and sold.
The adult section on Backpage.com hosts more than 20,000 prostitution ads a day, and about three dozen daily in southern Colorado. The ages listed are always 18 and over, but some of photos tell a different story. There are documented cases of underage girls being sold on the site.
This year in Denver, 14 people were indicted for using Backpage.com to run a child prostitution ring. Just last week in Washington, D.C., two men pleaded guilty to pimping young girls on the site and tattooing their names on the teens. There are also cases here in southern Colorado.
In May, police said 20-year-old Trevor Baker admitted to helping pimp a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old on Backpage.com. Baker claims the underage girl told him she was 18, and both teens were willing participants in the plan to make some cash. Baker is awaiting trial for pimping and pandering of a child, inducement of child prostitution and keeping a place of child prostitution. He's been accused of violating the restraining order in place for the underage girl three times.
"I think it's important that everyone understands that this is going on in our community," said Sergeant Bill Dehart, from the Colorado Springs Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children unit.
Tina Clouse's daughter is the 18-year-old involved in the case.
"I was devastated," said Clouse.
She said, at that point back in May, her daughter had moved from home, was hanging out with a bad crowd and had started stripping. Clouse said she had never heard of Backpage.com until she learned of the criminal case.
"I pulled it up myself, and it's interesting how there's no security on it. Interesting how anybody can get on there," said Clouse.
She said she was stunned by what she saw in the adult section.
"I mean, I'm a mom, I have three daughters. You can tell that these girls are not of age," said Clouse. "And the provocative pictures that are on there. The information that is on there. It's disgusting."
FAIR Girls, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., helps underage girls escape the sex trade, and has started a campaign to try to get the owners of Backpage.com to take down the adult section.
"What we're finding is almost every single girl we serve here in the D.C. area is actually a victim who was sold by her pimp on Backpage.com," said FAIR Girls Executive Director Andrea Powell.
FAIR Girls has created an online ad that tells the true story of what happened to one 13-year-old girl.
"I thought he was my boyfriend, I thought he loved me for real," begins the actress in the ad. "He sold me to four, sometimes five men a day for $100 an hour. One time, there was ten men in one day. I thought they would kill me. I thought I'd never get away. My pimp advertised me online at Backpage.com."
Research by the AIM Group shows Backpage.com generated about $29 million in prostitution ads over a 12 month period. Since the inception of the site until September of 2012, Backpage was owned by Village Voice Media. In an effort to separate the controversial website from the 13 weekly newspapers also owned by Village Voice, two executives from the company, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, took control of Backpage.com.
FAIR Girls online petition urging the owners to get rid of the site's adult section has gotten more than 41,000 signatures and support from attorneys general across the nation, including in Colorado.
"Our goal with that petition is really to show the public as well as the owners of Backpage.com that there is a true public outcry," said Powell.
TARGET 13 was unable to get in touch with Lacey or Larkin for comment, but attorneys for Backpage.com have argued that they have staff who police the site and report hundreds of ads to law enforcement each month.
Sgt. Dehart said that's true based on tips he's seen.
"Many of them have actually been initiated by Backpage staff. They do actually police their website," Dehart said.
The mother of the 16-year-old involved in the Baker case told TARGET 13 that she found her daughter's Backpage.com ad, and immediately reported it.
"Backpage didn't take my daughter's ad down until I sent two or three emails threatening to sue," said the mom, who requested her name not be used.
Both she and Clouse said they never thought this sort of thing would touch their families.
"I think I was naïve to think it wouldn't be a problem for me as a mother and my daughters," said Clouse.
She said her daughter is back living at home and going to school.
"She's doing wonderful," Clouse said. "I brought her home, she didn't have a choice. And she's doing excellent in school."
Clouse said Internet use is very limited now for all three of her daughters.
"The computer in this house is in my room. They only get an hour each and I monitor it," said Clouse.
She said she's joined the fight to get the Backpage.com adult section taken down.
"I think as a community we need to come together and try to stop this," Clouse said. "We need to get it off there. We need to close it down, shut it down."
If you have information about a child prostitution or human trafficking situation, you can call the National Human Trafficking Research Center at 1-888-3737-888.
There is also a local group that working to combat child prostitution and trafficking called the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado.
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