DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Undercover vice detectives in Metro Atlanta say Backpage.com is still a marketplace for prostitution, despite the fact that Backpage removed its adult escort section from its website in January.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne spent days embedded with the DeKalb County Police Department's Vice Unit and saw first-hand how Backpage is still the go-to website for sex trafficking.
When prostitution first migrated from streets to smart phones, both Craigslist and Backpage were under pressure to stop adult advertising. Craigslist stopped in 2010. Backpage pulled its escort page this January.
But Vice Commander Curtis Williams told Winne that ads for prostitution -- though they use code words -- simply moved to elsewhere on the site.
"It's under the dating site at this point," Commander Williams said.
The meetups involving undercover police weren't exactly dates.
One male undercover officer called a number on Backpage. When he met the woman at a DeKalb hotel, he used a code word to alert uniformed officers to come on in.
"DeKalb police, open the door now," an officer told the woman.
Commander Williams spoke with one woman caught in the sting: "How long have you been doing this?"
"Two years," she replied. Williams asked, "You wanna get help, you wanna get off the streets?" "At the moment, no," she replied.
Winne later asked her, "How come you turned down that officer's offer of help?"
"Cause I don't want it!" She said.
But there's more to the story than how women use Backpage classifieds to get paid for sex. It's also how the women can pay a heavy price.
"I've been raped and robbed and everything," one young prostitute told Winne last month.
The 21-year-old said she’s been doing this since last June, and that her pimp is her ex-boyfriend. Winne asked her how many clients she’s met through Backpage. “More than I can count,” she replied.
She told Winne she’s been held at gun point by at least one client.
Police allege something even worse happened at the Quality Inn and Suites on Snapfinger Drive last November. An indictment charges Terique Hall raped and strangled Ashley Mays.
A document says her hands and feet were zip-tied, and said, "The victim advertised on Backpage.com."
Hall is accused of assaulting two other women who advertised on Backpage; one in DeKalb, another in East Point. Hall's attorney says Hall pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Backpage says it's protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
That argument has held up in court cases, including Doe V. Backpage, which was filed in Massachusetts. In that case, three women said when they were underage, they were sold for sex online using Backpage.
Backpage won that case, and when the women appealed, the appellate court also sided with Backpage. This January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The Appellate court indicated that this issue would better dealt with through legislation instead of litigation.
The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spent months looking into Backpage's business. The protracted fight over documents spilled into the court system after the company pushed back on subpoenas issued by the subcommittee.
While no one from Backpage would speak to WSB for this story, lawyers for Backpage told the subcommittee the company had spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars working with or training law enforcement.
On Jan. 9, the subcommittee issued a report entitled, "Backpage.com's Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking."
The report claimed "Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its 'adult' ads."
Backpage took its adult page off its website the day the report was published.
In a statement the day it removed the adult page, Backpage said it was because of "... government censorship."
The statement also said removing the escort section would ".... not reduce the problem of human trafficking."
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