On April 6, U.S. law enforcement agencies seized Backpage.com as part of an ongoing investigation by the Federal Bureau Investigation's probe into the website.
The Washington Post reports that visitors to Backpage.com were greeted with an announcement that read: “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by agencies including the FBI as well as the law enforcement wings of the U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service."The Seattle-based law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC, which represented multiple women who the firm said were sold for sex on Backpage.com, issued the following statement:
“For too long, survivors of online sex trafficking were told they were the cost of doing business, and those who profit from out-dated laws generally looked the other way. Today’s shut-down and seizure of Backpage.com gives us hope that internet giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft will work with us to fix out-dated laws and to strike a balance between profits and protecting children.”
ORIGINAL STORY: April 4, 2018
It didn't take Marie Voth long to count the number of what she said were suspicious posts advertising girls in Boise on backpage.com.
A number of the ads promised "hot, young new girls," and promoted the fact that they were "three minutes from the airport," where there was ample space for "truck parking."
Jennifer Zielinski, the IATC director, shook her head.
"And that number came after the federal law had been changed," said Zielinski.
That change was to the Communications Act of 1934, which had previously allowed online services to be immune from liability for the actions of their users. The modification allows criminal and/or civil actions against a website if its conduct violates federal sex trafficking laws. Within hours, popular websites like Craigslist announced they would shutter personal ads for what had been called "adult services." A statement on Craigslist read, "We can't take such a risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline."
"The interesting thing is that Backpage also shut down its personals, but many of those ads were diverted to another page, usually under goods and services and/or massage," said Voth.
The very idea of sex trafficking in Boise may be an enigma for some, but recent headlines have made it a front-page issue across the Treasure Valley. No fewer than 10 Southwest Idaho men were busted this month, accused of trying to arrange sex with minors. A sting operation led by the Idaho Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which falls under the Office of the Attorney General, resulted in five men facing charges in Ada County court and five others charged in federal court. In a separate case, a teacher at Jefferson and Longfellow elementary schools in Boise was charged with attempting to have sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl.
"We don't often see prostitutes, if you want to call them that, walking up and down the streets here like you would see in major cities," said Zielinski. "Where are these girls who have been victimized? They're in our neighborhoods. They're attending schools with our kids. They're victims of trafficking through coercion or force, quite often by members in their own families."
Zielinski and Voth said the timing was opportune for the first major IATC event, a free training session geared toward parents, students, caregivers, law enforcement and the general public called "Sex Slaves in Idaho Hide in Plain Sight." It's set for the evening of Tuesday, April 10, at the Vineyard Boise Christian Fellowship.
"The response has been amazing: We have 600 people coming so far," said Zielinski.
The major portion of the two-hour event will feature a presentation from Matthew Smith, executive director of the Idaho Falls-based nonprofit Operation Shield.
"We're typically working with kids in the range of 11 to 17 years old that have been trafficked," said Smith. "A lot of people want to believe that it's just the poor kids, and that's absolutely not the case. I've worked with a lot of victims who have come from very influential or upper-middle class families. The majority of the time, predators are luring these kids as a love interest. That's part of the grooming process these guys employ. What happens is that these teens are absolutely convinced that this guy they've never met is madly in love with them and wants to marry them. They actually run away to go live with this guy, later to find out they're going to be sold."
Any parent who doesn't think it could happen to their child might want to check out the apps that have been downloaded to their children's smartphones.
"Have you seen these?" asked Voth, pointing to a list of apps that, at first glance, look harmless. With titles like "AfterSchool," "BurnBook," "Gather," "Tango," and "Whisper," many of the apps feature anonymous social networks, encouraging users to share photos or communicate with random strangers. One particularly chilling example, with the generic name of "Calculator," has a seemingly innocuous icon that looks exactly like a calculator, but when the user opens the app and enters a private code, photos and videos begin appearing.
"It can start with chatting. But those chat rooms, where most everyone is anonymous, are hotspots for predators," said Zielinski. "Make no mistake. Human trafficking in the United States alone is a $9 billion annual industry."
Zielinski only recently took over as the IATC executive director, but she has worked with vulnerable populations for years, chairing the Consortium of Idahoans with Disabilities and serving as program coordinator for Idaho Parents Unlimited. Her advocacy is also very personal.
"My husband and I have an adopted daughter who was a foster child. She was a victim of sexual abuse in the first years of her life. Then she was placed in residential care, but the husband and wife caring for those kids had been sexually abusing the kids," said Zielinski, who took a long breath before continuing. "I understand the need for comprehensive treatment [of] significant mental health issues, particularly for severe abuse."
Cari Moodie knows a thing or two about victims of abuse as well. She's a faith community nurse coordinator at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.
"I was at a conference in Michigan about a year and a half ago and there was a breakout session of human trafficking. It was a real 'wow' moment—that moment when you realize that it's happening everywhere. Once you hear about it, your radar goes up," said Moodie, who added she was anxious to network with others on the issue of sex trafficking in Boise. "I started chatting with friends about this, and it didn't take long for me to reach out to Denise Ewing, our mission director at St. Al's. Look, our mission is to serve people, to keep them safe. We're going to do something about this."
Zielinski said her organization is partnering with St. Al's to create a model program of training and advocacy, helping prepare health care professionals to identify potential victims.
"So many of these girls may be brought into clinics, say for treatment for an STD, but they're not identified as possible victims. Typically, the child isn't going to tell you they're being trafficked, especially if their pimp is standing there next to them. But if we set up formal protocols to put up red flags, we might be able to get them to a safe room," said Zielinski. "But then, there's the bigger issue of having a safe place for them to stay."
Which is why, she said, one of the next big goals for the coalition is to create a safe house where victims can find a path toward healing.
"We'll be touring some existing safe houses in other states very soon, so we can envision our own safe house right here," she added.
For the immediate future, Zielinski, Voth and Moodie say it's all about informing the public that sex trafficking is a major issue here in Boise.
"I think we just sometimes live in a comfortable, and even naive, bubble," said Zielinski. "But then you think of your own child. That's when this becomes a very hot topic."