Claire*, like so many fourteen-year-old girls, loved going to the mall. One day, a vaguely handsome older man approached her there. “You’re beautiful. Such defined cheekbones. You could be a model, did you know that?” he said, with a disarming smile. “I’m Scratch. I’m a fashion photographer. Why don’t you stop by my studio tomorrow?” And like so many fourteen-year-old girls would, Claire beamed. She liked him instantly.
The next day, Claire arrived at Scratch’s and knocked on the door. Scratch opened the door and Claire entered, noticing that it was a small, cramped apartment. Not a studio. But before this could register, Scratch gave her some underwear. “We need some photos of your body.” Claire changed, feeling self-conscious. Scratch looked at her and began snapping a camera. “Bend over, pout, smile,” he instructed, moving so quickly that Claire didn’t quite know what to think. “OK, we got it!” Scratch shouted after about 30 minutes. “Get changed.”
Claire went into the bedroom to change and shut the door. The door then opened and Scratch said, “Let me help you,” and he began removing Claire’s clothing and pushing himself against her. Claire’s hair suddenly stood on end. She was terrified. No one had ever touched her this way.
Claire ran from the apartment as fast as she could. She was not certain what she would tell her new foster mother, Jane — she hadn’t been in Jane’s home for very long at all. But when Jane came home from work, Claire burst into tears. Jane immediately called the police. The officer arrived to hear Claire’s story, and he shook his head. “Do you know what these people do?” he asked Claire. “They take your photo, and then they advertise you for sex with men. On Backpage. This is the first step into The Life.”
When this case landed on our desk as prosecutors, we began the investigation by searching backpage.com for Scratch’s phone number. We immediately found several posts advertising very young-looking girls for sex. Scratch was a pimp, and he was trafficking children.
As prosecutors, we were trained on the recruitment and grooming techniques of pimps and traffickers — and how traffickers exploit the most vulnerable populations. Like Scratch, many pimps recruit their victims by telling young girls they are beautiful, that they can be models. These pimps then take their photos and post them online, usually without the child’s permission or knowledge. And in our experience, they all use the same website: backpage.com.
For those who are not aware, backpage.com is a classified advertising website (like Craigslist) previously owned by Village Voice Media. In the United States, Backpage is sometimes used to sell mundane things like couches and television sets, but about 80 percent of the company’s revenue is from sex ads — including ads of children. Pimps and traffickers pay for these ads by cash, check, and Bitcoin, which is an anonymous form of payment. The president of Backpage once even encouraged users to use Bitcoin to remain anonymous … and thus remain untraceable. The U.S. Senate found that selling a motorcycle on Backpage required more information and more steps than selling a child.
The traffickers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year off these young women. Another teenage girl who came to our office, Sheena, had been introduced to a man named Max at a family barbecue. Max began picking Sheena up from school every day, spending hour upon hour with her and asking her to be his girlfriend. Sheena began to see less of her family. Less of her friends. Max was demanding all her time. Sheena thought this was normal for people in love.