Legal websites making millions from sex trafficking

Legal websites making millions from sex trafficking »Play Video

Young girls are being sold online for sex in Portland but not much is being done to stop some of the most popular websites with hundreds of prostitution advertisements.

One of the leading sites is Backpage.com. It’s a general classifieds website but makes millions of dollars each month from "escort" and "body rub" listings. Portland police search Backpage for sex trafficking victims under 18 years old and use the site to set up stings. It’s how investigators recovered the 17-year-old victim they say was recruited by a friend in Lake Oswego.

Officer Mike Gallagher with the Portland Police Prostitution Coordination Team said it’s frustrating to know Backpage.com makes money off illegal activity, but if it went away, another similar site that is less cooperative with law enforcement would likely pop up.

“It’s sort of that Catch-22 when there’s bad things that happen on the website, but there are also good things that law enforcement can use as far as tools to help find underage girls,” said Gallagher. “Not every website doing these escort ads are like that at all. Most of them do not cooperate with the police.”

Research shows Backpage.com profits are soaring. By March 2013, the site made nearly $5 million in one month with listings in just 26 of the nearly 400 cities it operates. There is just as much demand on similar websites.

“This one was posted at 7:51 yesterday morning and it’s had 1,224 people look at that particular ad,” Gallagher showed KATU on another website. “There are a lot of buyers out there.”

Police work to educate those “buyers” after making arrests. They explain the prostitutes are actually sex trafficking victims, and their money goes straight into the hands of the traffickers, also known as ‘pimps.’

Backpage.com did not respond to KATU’s request for comment. However, Portland police say the site will flag posts with pictures of minors. People posting ads must also click through certain warnings on the topic.