A contractor for the controversial classifieds website Backpage.com has been aggressively soliciting and creating sex-related ads, despite Backpage’s repeated insistence that it had no role in the content of ads posted on its site, according to a trove of newly discovered documents.
The documents show that Backpage hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers — and customers seeking sex — from sites run by its competitors. The spreadsheets, emails, audio files and employee manuals were revealed in an unrelated legal dispute and provided to The Washington Post.
Workers in the Philippine call center scoured the Internet for newly listed sex ads, then contacted the people who posted them and offered a free ad on Backpage.com, the documents show. The contractor’s workers even created each new ad so it could be activated with one click.
Workers also created phony sex ads, offering to “Let a young babe show you the way” or “Little angel seeks daddy,” adding photos of barely clad women and explicit sex patter, the documents show. The workers posted the ads on competitors’ websites. Then, when a potential customer expressed interest, an email directed that person to Backpage.com, where they would find authentic ads, spreadsheets used to track the process show.
For years, Backpage executives have adamantly denied claims made by members of Congress, state attorneys general, law enforcement and sex-abuse victims that the site has facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking. Backpage argues it is a passive carrier of “third-party content” and has no control of sex-related ads posted by pimps, prostitutes and even organized trafficking rings. The company contends it removes clearly illegal ads and refers violators to the police.
The discovery could be a turning point in the years-long campaign by anti-human trafficking groups, and Congress, to persuade Backpage to stop hosting prostitution ads, which many teenage girls have claimed were used to sell them for sexual exploitation. Lawsuits and criminal prosecutions of Backpage in the United States have nearly all failed because Backpage cites in its defense the federal Communications Decency Act, which grants immunity to websites that merely host or screen content posted by others.
An investigation by a Senate subcommittee revealed earlier this year found that Backpage was editing ads to remove language indicating underage girls were available, rather than removing the ads. “Backpage has been righteously indignant throughout our investigation,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a subcommittee member, “about how we were infringing on their constitutional rights, because they were a mere passthrough.” She noted, however, that Backpage was not only changing ads but also was also guiding posters in how to conceal their true intentions.
“But that’s nothing compared to this” new information, McCaskill said after The Post described the data. “This is about as far from passive as you can get. This is soliciting. This is, really, trickery. . . . So I hope this opens the floodgates of liability for Backpage. Nobody deserves it more.”
The Post provided parts of the seized data to Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall for her review. She declined to comment after seeing it. Backpage has frequently noted that it cooperates with and has been thanked by numerous law enforcement agencies for providing investigators with connections to pimps and other criminals. McDougall has said that Backpage acts as “the sheriff of the Internet” and that sex ads would be dispersed among sites in other countries if Backpage stopped posting them.
Backpage, based in Dallas, is an online classified ad service similar to Craigslist, with sites operating in at least 97 countries and 943 locations, enabling users to buy and sell cars, audio equipment, concert tickets — and “adult services,” seemingly a smorgasbord of barely disguised prostitution ads.
Though Backpage announced in January it was discontinuing its “adult services” page, the same types of ads still appear under the “dating” category. Backpage has said that content is protected by the First Amendment, a view which has been endorsed by the courts.
Most ads on Backpage are free. But ads in the “dating” section cost at least $3, and they cost more for posting in more than one city or for periodically moving the ad to the top of the list. The Senate report said that more than 93 percent of Backpage’s ad revenue in 2011 came from its adult section, leading to $135 million in gross revenue in 2014, with projected revenue of nearly $250 million by 2019.
Among the sex ads posted on Backpage.com are those for underage boys and girls, authorities and advocacy groups say. The National Association of Attorneys General has described Backpage as a “hub” of human trafficking, which involves children or adults who are forced or coerced into prostitution. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on Backpage.
“This is the commercialization of this crime against children,” said Yiota Souras, the center’s general counsel. “And it’s what businesses do — they grow internationally; they have marketing plans to beat the competition and offer incentives to get more clients; they seek legal protections for their business interests. This is a traditional business model, but here the transaction too often is selling children for sex online.”
In January, Backpage’s top officials appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Chief executive Carl Ferrer, co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and general counsel McDougall all invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves and declined to answer any questions.
Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin are facing criminal charges in California for pimping and money laundering, though a court there threw out similar pimping charges last year. And among eight civil suits filed against Backpage this year is a wrongful-death action in Chicago by the mother of 16-year-old Desiree Robinson, who was slain in December after repeatedly being sold for sex on Backpage.
“Every single day, we’re learning something new,” said Yvonne Ambrose, Desiree’s mother. “Not just what’s going on with Desiree, but what’s happening with Backpage, what they’re doing on this site. Everybody knows they’re doing it, and they’re not being held accountable.” Backpage has not responded to the suit, which was filed in May.
In late June, federal agents arrested the man who allegedly had been posting Backpage ads for Desiree, which described her as “Nicki,” who was “new in town” and “looking for upscale Gentlemen to have a great time with.” The FBI alleged that Joseph Hazley, 33, would drive her to appointments for “commercial sex” and collected some or all of the money she was paid. “I’m in a situation where I’m being pimped,” Desiree wrote on Facebook days before her death. “He won’t let me leave.”
Hazley was charged in federal court with sex trafficking of a minor. Hazley’s lawyer, Michael Schmiege, said in an interview that Hazley didn’t know that Desiree was a minor and had no role in her killing.
The materials seized in December from the Backpage contractor, Avion BPO, a busy phone and online operation in Laoag City, Philippines, show workers focused on adding and promoting sexual ads.
One manual apparently created for Avion employees provides step-by-step instruction on how to find ads on other websites and copy them (“you can now transfer the details of your advertisement from the other Classified Site to Backpage,” the manual states). The manuals suggest that other types of ads, such as for jobs, are also targeted, but the spreadsheets seized from Avion focus largely on sex ads.
Then, after creating a fake user profile on the other classifieds site, the worker fishes for the advertiser’s email or phone number. Various translations of “Can you meet today?,” “Nice Pictures!,” “Want to have fun?” and other messages are then sent in the appropriate language to the advertiser. When the advertiser responds to the message, the workers in the Philippines either call or email with an offer to post their ad on Backpage free of charge, with the ad already created and ready to go.
In one email, a person with a Backpage.com email address reminded Avion workers to search its competitors’ sites for the latest postings, noting that dozens can be added each day. In the email, the Backpage employee included a list of ads from Vivastreet, a similar classified ad website in Europe and Australia, including one titled “Hot and Sexy and Ready for You” and another called “Sweet Christine New in North harrow - all service for you.”
The manuals also discuss creating and posting false ads on other sites. When potential customers respond, Avion workers responded with emails saying the poster had moved to Backpage.
“Hey baby, Sorry i missed your email. I got locked out of my Vivastreet account,” one email said, “and just finally got them to open it back up for me . . . I have one on back page now too.” A link to Backpage is included, though the phony ad is not posted. Instead, the redirected customer is now presented with Backpage’s actual advertisers.
There are also numerous spreadsheets that track the creation of fake profiles and fake ads on other sites and the responses to those ads, as well as a list of advertisers on other sites and their contact information.
Backpage says it uses an automated program to strip objectionable words from ads, such as “lolita” and “teenage” and “rape,” the Senate subcommittee report found, while leaving the rest of the ad online. But Backpage also uses Avion to manually review ads, and the new documents show how Backpage strives to keep ads from being deleted.
“I was reviewing deleted ads,” one Backpage employee wrote to Avion. “Here are a few removals that I restored. Some only needed pics removed,” meaning that Backpage republished ads that Avion agents had taken down.
The discovery of the documents came about accidentally, as part of a lawsuit in Kansas City, Mo. A D.C.-based commercial real estate data firm, CoStar, claimed last year that a competing firm in suburban Kansas City, Xceligent, was delving into the CoStar website and stealing its data. Xceligent has denied the allegations in the pending case.
CoStar said it believed that the actual alleged data theft was being committed by a contractor for Xceligent — Avion. In December, CoStar obtained a civil search order in the Philippines. CoStar executives say they assembled an 85-person team of Filipino officials, IT experts, lawyers and private security forces and raided Avion’s three-building complex in Laoag City, seizing 35 terabytes of information comprising some 6.5 million files. All of Avion’s computers were then bubble-wrapped and flown back to the United States to aid CoStar in its case.
While analyzing the data about Xceligent, CoStar discovered huge amounts of Backpage data on the same computers. CoStar founder Andrew Florance started going through the files.
“The word ‘Backpage’ was just all over the place,” he said. “We found organizational charts showing Avion’s two big clients are Xceligent and Backpage. So we googled ‘Backpage.’ ”
CoStar turned over the Backpage data to the FBI. The FBI declined to comment on whether it is investigating. Xceligent officials said in a statement that “we do not own or control Avion’s business, we are not affiliated with Backpage, and we have no way of knowing about Avion’s purported work for Backpage.”
Avion chief executive Von Nagasangan and chief operating officer Joy Nagasangan did not respond to requests for comment.
After Ambrose sued Backpage in Chicago over the death of her daughter, her lawyers subpoenaed the Backpage data from CoStar for their civil case. Ambrose’s lawyers at Romanucci & Blandin then turned the data over to The Post.
The documents include audio files of calls between Avion employees and people who have posted ads on other sites, apparently recorded for company purposes.
“Hey Crystal,” an Avion employee said in one recorded call. “I just saw your ad you posted on Escorts South Africa and we would like to invite you to repost your ad for free at Backpage. All we need is your email address.” Crystal declined, saying she had been warned about such inquiries, “and don’t ever call me again.”
But others agreed to the prospect of a free Backpage ad and provided their email addresses. Employee manuals and tracking spreadsheets show that in the follow-up email from Avion, a link is provided where the new advertiser can see what their ad will look like — Avion has already created it, having lifted the material from the original site, and it’s ready to go with just one click.
Invoices and call sheets indicate Backpage was pushing Avion to get as many new listings as possible, generating ads from competing sites including Locanto in Europe, Australia and South America, Eurogirlsescort.com, Privategirls.com, PrivateRomania, Gumtree and many others.
Virtually every attempt by sex victims or law enforcement to stop Backpage from facilitating such action has been shut down by Backpage’s reliance on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, written in 1996 during the Internet’s infancy. The law protects website operators from being held liable for content posted by their users.
In recent federal appeals court rulings in both Chicago and Boston, courts have sided with Backpage, as they have in numerous lower courts for years. “Users provide all the content for ads they post,” Backpage lawyers wrote in the Boston case. “The website does not dictate or require any content.” The lawyers went further: “The law under Section 230 is clear that if an online provider has actual knowledge of illegal content posted on its site, the provider is immune even if it fails or refuses to delete the content.”
Congress is gearing up to try to amend Section 230, though it faces a powerful opponent in First Amendment proponents and websites wary of government regulation.
Regardless of the law, Backpage has always claimed it has made “extensive efforts to prevent, screen and block improper ads from users,” as it wrote in one filing in federal court in Washington in 2015. “Backpage.com does not create or develop any of the advertising or discussion content,” it wrote in one presentation provided to Senate investigators, “but simply provides a forum for the online publication of users’ content.”
Various authorities have tried different approaches to try to shut down Backpage’s sex ads. In Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart issued a cease-and-desist order to Visa and MasterCard, telling them to stop accepting payment for Backpage. Backpage sued the sheriff and won. In Boston, three women who were sold on Backpage sued the site’s owners, but a federal appeals court, with a panel featuring former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, ruled that the Communications Decency Act shielded Backpage from liability.
But in Washington state, the state Supreme Court ruled that a suit by three victims of sex trafficking could proceed. Nacole S., whose daughter was trafficked on Backpage at the age of 15 for more than three months, was amazed by the new revelations. The Post is withholding her last name to conceal her daughter’s identity.
“I find it morally disgusting,” she said. “Not only are they exploiting young women that are clearly vulnerable, but they’re furthering their exploitation by putting them on another website. It just shows the lack of morality of this company, how little they care about the victims. Which child is going to be enough to make this end?”
This article has been updated to reflect additional comment from Xceligent. An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the ad offering “fresh young sweet simple girl” as a phony created by Avion workers to lure business. It was an authentic ad posted on a competitor’s site, the documents show, and Avion sought to persuade the advertiser to post it on Backpage.com.