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Portman threatens criminal action against CEO of sex-ad website

Cincinnati Enquirer | By: Deirdre Shesgreen | 11/19/2015

WASHINGTON — A Senate investigation into child sex trafficking, led by Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, took a dramatic turn Thursday when the two lawmakers charged the CEO of a major sex advertising website with flouting a congressional subpoena and suggested they would push for criminal proceedings against him.

Portman charged that the website, Backpage.com, sits “at the center of this online black market for sex trafficking,” including the sale of minors for sex.

More than 400 cases of child sex trafficking across 47 states have been linked to the website — including at least 13 in Ohio over the past four years, the Ohio Republican said. Those figures stem from a probe, launched by Portman and McCaskill, who lead the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs' investigatory subcommittee. Portman is the chairman, and McCaskill is the ranking Democrat.

Portman and McCaskill said they had also uncovered evidence that the website’s employees might be editing ads before they go online, possibly to hide evidence of an illegal service or transaction. The edits could include, for example, deleting a photograph or a word that indicated someone offering escort services was under 18.

“That raises some very serious questions,” Portman said.

Officials from Backpage.com did not respond to messages left at company headquarters in Dallas. And in a tense moment at Thursday’s hearing, there was dead silence in the room when Portman called the firm’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, to testify.

Ferrer did not appear, despite being subpoenaed. Portman said Ferrer’s attorneys informed the committee on Wednesday that the CEO was on an international business trip and would not be able to attend.

But Portman said Ferrer's refusal to appear was "a clear act of contempt.” Calling Ferrer’s move “truly extraordinary,” Portman said he and McCaskill would consider referring his action to the Justice Department for criminal contempt charges.

“If Backpage thinks they’re going to go quietly into the night, they are sadly mistaken,” said McCaskill.

'For God's sake, she is only sixteen'

The hearing put a spotlight on the growing problem of human trafficking in Ohio and across the country, and Backpage’s role in this shadowy arena. Human trafficking — selling labor or sexual services of minors or coerced adults — has flourished with the advent of the Internet, which provides anonymity to traffickers and customers alike. And child sex trafficking is particularly horrific, with reports of children as young as 11 being sold into virtual slavery.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there has been an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking the past five years, a spike the center says is “directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex.” More than half of sex-trafficking victims in the United States are 17 years old or younger, according to the Justice Department.

At Thursday’s hearing, Yiota Souras, general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that so far this year, 1,800 missing child cases reported to her organization have involved possible child sex trafficking. She and others said Backpage.com is the biggest player in what has become a lucrative industry.

“Because there are so many child sex trafficking ads on Backpage, our staff search Backpage first when a missing child is at risk of being trafficked,” she told the committee. The center says 71% of the child sex trafficking reports it receives involve ads posted on Backpage.

Souras recounted one heart-wrenching instance in which the mother of a missing 16-year-old girl saw an ad on Backpage.com of her daughter selling “escort” services. The mother wrote to Backpage.com employees, begging them to take the ad down.

“She is being pimped out by her old boyfriend,” the mother wrote, according to Souras. “For God’s sake, she is only sixteen.”

The company refused, Souras said, adding that her group has raised these issues with Backpage officials for years, to no avail. The company, for example, has refused to require basic validation — such as an email or phone number — for customers wanting to post ads for "escort" services. They also don’t store computer and other identifying data from its advertising customers, even though such information could help law enforcement track traffickers.

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