Sex trafficking website seized, Great Falls police continue monitoring web for illegal activity
Backpage.com, a website known for sex trafficking and prostitution, was shut down on Friday.
The website and affiliate sites were seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, with assistance from the Joint Regional Intelligence Center.
Capt. John Schaffer of the Great Falls Police Department said he checks the website regularly for any activity in Great Falls and GFPD has used the site in undercover stings over the last few years. He’s also a member of the Cascade County Human Trafficking Task Force.
“For us, it was just huge news,” Schaffer said Friday night. “It takes out one big player, at least for a while.”
There were three girls on the site all week in the Great Falls area, Schaffer said.
“It’s the way girls are bought and sold in the sex trafficking industry. Backpage was the biggest website for sex trafficking in America,” he said. “It was easy with Backpage.”
Schaffer said it’s not t the top problem in Great Falls, but as more people recognize what trafficking is, the better the chances they’ll report suspicious activity and report it.
According to several national media outlets, the FBI raided the Arizona home of Michael Lacey, one of Backpage’s founders, on Friday.
On Friday, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children posted a statement about the website’s seizure.
“This is another step in the years-long fight against the exploitation of child victims who were bought and sold for sex on Backpage.com. NCMEC is waiting alongside the rest of the world to see what will come next. We stand by the victims and their families as they process this news and continue to fight for justice against those who profited from their abuse.”
This week, Great Falls College MSU hosted the fourth annual NoMore Violence Conference, which included presentations and training on human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, among other topics.
In March, Sen. Steve Daines tweeted support of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was recently approved in Congress and sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.
Both Daines and Sen. Jon Tester voted to support the bill, as did Rep. Greg Gianforte.
The bill, according to Congress’ legislative tracking system, expresses the sense of Congress “that section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 was not intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims. Section 230 limits the legal liability of interactive computer service providers or users for content they publish that was created by others.”
The bill also amends federal criminal code to add penalties on people who, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempts or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.
The bill establishes enhanced penalties—a fine, a prison term of up to 25 years, or both—for a person who commits the offense in one of the following aggravating circumstances: (1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of five or more persons, or (2) acts with reckless disregard that such conduct contributes to sex trafficking, according to the congressional tracking system.
Schaffer said that law enforcement agencies are still monitoring the web for other websites or apps where sex trafficking will migrate now that Backpage is being investigated.
“The sex trafficking industry is going to find a way, they always will,” Schaffer said. “As long as they can get away with it, they’ll continue.”
But, Schaffer said, the action against Backpage is a signal that the websites will be held accountable for allowing sex trafficking and that could help reduce the activity online.
Schaffer said if people suspect trafficking of any kind they can call 911 in an emergency, or to report something suspicious at the non-emergency line, 727-7688 ext. 5, or call the Voices of Hope sex assault hotline at 453-HELP(4357).