Responding to a demand from Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart, Visa and MasterCard have agreed to stop processing payments for sex trafficking industry profiteer Backpage.com.
On Monday June 29, 2015, Sheriff Dart wrote to Visa CEO Charles Scharf and MasterCard CEO Ajaypal Banga to brief them on the role their companies played within the sex trafficking industry and urge them to immediately cut off all association with Backpage’s so-called ‘adult’ section and its less prominent imitators. By Tuesday afternoon, MasterCard agreed to disassociate itself from Backpage, with Visa following suit Wednesday morning.
Such ads – millions of them posted a year – make up the foundation of a booming modern sex trafficking industry. It is a violent business that preys on the young and vulnerable, yet one that hides that reality behind a sense of normalcy created by sites like Backpage.com.
Removing Visa and MasterCard from the business will raise the bar for pimps and traffickers who seek to place ads, help eliminate a financial incentive to host such ads, and remove the mask of normalcy that has fueled trafficking’s dangerous growth. American Express was previously an option for trafficking ad buyers, but that company removed its card as a payment option earlier in 2015.
This development represents the first tangible progress in the national movement to address sex trafficking on Backpage and its imitators, which has included vigorous efforts by advocacy groups, state attorneys general and Congressmen.
Arizona’s Not Buying It Campaign, initiated by the Arizona’s Attorney General Tom Horne, worked to raise awareness of sex trafficking and support efforts to combat demand for victims. Kathleen Winn, who lead the effort under Attorney General Horne and is keeping the fight going through her work with AZMen, an Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network Program, said of Dart’s efforts, “This action makes it more difficult to purchase sex online and impacts the bottom line. It is our hope this will deter sex buyers and start to impact those trying to facilitate easy access to sex and interrupt those who engage in the illegal commercial sex trade.”
John Hunnicutt, owner of Paytran Merchant Services, and one of thefounders of the Electronic Transaction Association hailed the decision. “It is imperative that those of us in the merchant service industry support honest enterprises. We must do all we can to ensure that the services we provide, do not support those who would exploit the most vulnerable in our society.”
“Backpage has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for would-be sex traffickers, giving them easy access to millions of johns while cloaking them in anonymity and putting all risk on the shoulders of their victims. Raising that barrier will lead to less would-be sex traffickers entering the business and ultimately fewer victims,” said Sheriff Dart. “I commend Visa, MasterCard and American Express for doing the right thing in defunding this criminal enterprise and joining us in the fight to seek justice for sex trafficking victims across the globe.”
Backpage has quickly emerged as the trafficking industry’s leading profiteer. The ‘classified advertising’ website – similar in construct to Craigslist – offers traditional forums to find roommates, sell goods and more. Yet, its primary revenue stream comes through its “adult” page, which offers johns the opportunity to connect with ‘escorts’ – women and girls who all too often turn out to be sex trafficking victims under the control and exploitation of violent traffickers. In April alone, Backpage published over 1.4 million adult services ads in the U.S., with the company bringing in a conservative estimate of $100 million in revenue per year through that channel.
Sex traffickers seeking to advertise women under their control on Backpage pay anywhere from $5 to $17 per initial ad, depending on the size of the market. Prices can easily run into the hundreds of dollars with add-on features. With Visa and MasterCard’s move, there is now just one payment option for adult ads on Backpage: Bitcoin.
Originally owned by Village Voice, the website was spun off in September 2012 after Village Voice’s advertisers came under attack for Backpage’s nefarious business model. Backpage owners Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey have remained shameless and unrepentant for their role in the exploitation of millions of women and girls over the ensuing years. They hide behind outdated language in the Communications Decency Act (federal legislation signed in the mid-1990s) that gives them immunity from prosecution as long as it cannot be proven that they actively solicit trafficking ads. In late 2014, the website was quietly sold to a Dutch company, with a bi-partisan group of federal legislators led by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the sale.
Backpage has frequently attempted to claim it is a partner of law enforcement, yet its actions have demonstrated a callous aversion to any efforts to rescue victims and put sex traffickers behind bars. “It is devastating to know that sex trafficking continues to thrive on Backpage.com, and we commend companies that choose to combat this unchecked abuse,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris. “The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline that we operate has learned of hundreds of people who were trafficked through Backpage.com, and we have directly provided services to sex trafficking survivors who have been sold on the website. Companies can play an integral role in disrupting sex trafficking by making it more challenging for traffickers to carry out their business.”
Previously, Sheriff Dart demanded Backpage employ more robust ad screening and verification mechanisms and disallow prepaid credit cards, to no avail. Meanwhile, Cook County law enforcement has made more than 800 arrests since 2009 off of Backpage ads as well as more than 50 arrests for sex trafficking, involuntary servitude or promoting prostitution – including an arrest for juvenile sex trafficking.