Police Effectively Using Technology to Fight Prostitution

I’ve written before about how ridiculous it is for politicians to think shutting down a website will impact prostitution. We’ve seen this happen with Craigslist’s erotic services postings, and pressure has ramped up to shut down Backpage after BP became the next big player in erotic classifieds once the government eliminated their closest competitor.

I’ve mentioned before that law enforcement would be better off using the existing online platforms to police their local adult services industry rather than pretend that shutting down a website will make it go away. As I see it, the web provides less anonymity than, say, street walking where people meet anonymously with no electronic records. For two people connect through a website, email or phone needs to be used (unless the prostitute puts their physical address in the ad, which doesn’t appear to happen since they likely prefer to screen their customers).

Which brings us to Roseville, Minnesota. It turns out that Roseville’s cops figured out how to use Backpage to find escorts operating in the city and solved their escort problem. How did they do it? They searched for “Roseville” on Backpage and set up appointments with local advertisers then stopped by for a visit to the local motels they were using to run their businesses. They also cracked down on customers visiting the escorts.

Think about this: While sitting behind desks, police officers were able to determine where escorts were working in their city. Roseville cops focused on the problem and used the same technology used by the escorts to solve it.

Perhaps politicians can learn something from this?

Backpage Faces Same Wrath as Craigslist in Infinite Game of Whack-A-Mole

Back in October 2010, I wrote a post here about how Backpage would benefit from the work by attorney generals around the country who eliminated Backpage’s biggest competitor, Craiglist, from the adult classifieds advertising business.

According to traffic reporting service Compete.com, Backpage was averaging around 2.3 million unique visitors/month to their site before Craigslist was bullied out of the adult classifieds business. In the first month without CL as a competitor, Backpage gained around half a million new visitors:

backpage.com after Craigslist Dropped Adult Ads

Checking back in with Backpage today, we can see that Backpage’s traffic has continued to increase. Since 2010, Backpage’s unique visitors have increased 70% to 3.9 million/month:

backpage.com unique visitors Compete.com

Advanced Interactive Media Group attempted to quantify how much money was in play in adult services ads back in 2010 and came up with the following figures:

Backpage.com’s revenue from online prostitution ads in 23 U.S. cities increased 15.3 percent to at least $1,671,685 in September compared with August, according to research conducted by the Advanced Interactive Media Group in Altamonte Springs. Fla. That’s an annual rate of just over $20 million.

Assuming the revenue correlates with unique visitors (it wouldn’t necessarily, since it correlates with ads rather than how many people look at the ads), Backpage might be generating an additional million dollars per month thanks to attorney generals taking Craigslist out of the adult classifieds business.

For a local perspective here is how traffic has grown over the past year on the Minneapolis portion of Backpage:

minneapolis.backpage.com on Compete.com

Back before Craigslist caved to pressure from Attorney Generals around the country, CraigsList had implemented a manual screening process for every ad published to their erotic services categories. They also worked with law enforcement to help identify people involved in sex trafficking. Beyond that, law enforcement across the country have effectively patrolled Craigslist to solve crimes ranging from prostitution to bike thefts. Here’s a sample of headlines illustrating this:

Craigslist leads to arrest headlines

At this point, it seems clear to me that politicians have learned nothing from shutting down Craigslist – a site that monitored itself and cooperated with law enforcement to help solve crimes. History is repeating itself two years later with Backpage.com. Personally, if I had to choose a partner for policing prostitution online, I’d rather have Craigslist on my side than fight Backpage, but I doubt we’ll see history rolled back anytime soon.

Backpage does appear to be screening posts to their site (at least within the USA). For example, a search for “BBBJ Young” (look it up if you’re curious) doesn’t return ads for USA cities, but does for Canadian ones:

Over time, we’ll likely see Backpage fold, leading to the next round of adult classifieds whack-a-mole. Some early contenders can be found by looking at the other sites visited by those who visit backpage.com on Google Trends:

People who visited Backpage.com also visited

These sites cost nearly nothing to operate, and don’t necessarily need to be profitable to operate (although the market shows that there is a $20-30 million/yr business in this type of classified advertising). They also don’t need to be operated from within the United States or by an American company, which means that it may become tougher and tougher to pressure the beneficiaries of Backpage’s demise into shutting down. Look at The Pirate Bay for an example of this.

If the goal is to prevent sex trafficking, surely there are better approaches than playing a game of whack-a-mole where business could be driven to jurisdictions where local governments have no influence. More on that tomorrow.

Shutting Down Craigslist Erotic Services Ads: 2 Years Later

Back in May 2009, I wrote about how strange it was that state Attorney Generals would go through the effort to shut down erotic services related ads on Craigslist. At the time, I predicted the following fall-out:

1. People looking to sell themselves on Craigslist will shift to other categories, polluting non-sexual services classifieds categories with innuendo-laden ads.

2. Some sellers will shift to other sites that continue to provide a platform for erotic advertising, such as CityPages.com’s backpage.com site.

3. Non-Craigslist publishers will profit from the changes.

Which brings us to this story from August 2011 about a human trafficking arrest covered by the StarTribune where a local police sergeant explains the Craigslist fallout:

When Warren was arrested two years ago, Craigslist was a primary website for women offering sexual services and a bountiful target for investigators to cull juvenile and adult prostitution cases. Amid public pressure, the website shut down its adult services section last September, but that hasn’t slowed down online prostitution, law enforcement says.

“Now we see new websites pop up all the time,” said Sgt. John Bandemer, head of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force. “We see the same girls posting an ad on four or five websites. It’s nearly impossible to keep track.”

The article goes on to mention that Craigslist tracked users, worked with law enforcement, and even sent an employee to testify in this case in Minnesota.

One of the witnesses called by the U.S. attorney’s office in Warren’s trial was Clint Powell, Craigslist’s head of customer service and law enforcement initiatives. Powell, who told Congress last year about actions Craigslist had taken to weed out and prevent adult services ads, was flown in from the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. He discussed how the website tracked people who post ads. After his testimony, he said he has been asked only a few times to testify in a criminal trial.

Looks like were have a situation where attorney generals managed to increase advertising costs for prostitutes, increase profits for less cooperative online properties, and increase the complexity of tracking crimes for law enforcement.

Back in 2009, I also mentioned that this would be good for Backpage.com, the classifieds site owned by Village Voice Media that powers the escort ads served by CityPages and similar sites around the country. Related to that, check out this Google Trends chart of the relative search volume for “Backpage” vs “Escorts” related search traffic.

Backpage vs Escorts on Google Trends

It’s almost as if the term Backpage is to Escorts as Kleenex is to facial tissue.

Has Backpage.com Benefitted from Craiglist Shutting Down Adult Ads?

Back in early September, I mentioned that it’s pretty ridiculous to think that the work state attorney generals did to get Craigslist to shut down their adult ads would have any deterrent effect on people interested in selling adult services. At the time, I suggested that Backpage.com was an obvious next stop for people advertising such services, among others, and that this is a game of whack a mole where new sites can pop up over night.

Additionally, many of those sites may be less willing to cooperate with law enforcement than Craiglist was, which could mean that the AGs actions have actually made it tougher for local law enforcement to figure out who’s behind the ads.

One interesting stat on this is to look at whether Backpage benefited traffic-wise from Craigslist shutting down their adult services section. September was the first nearly whole month where Craiglist was adult services ad-free. With that in mind, here’s a look at the monthly visitors to Backpage through September:

backpage.com after Craigslist Dropped Adult Ads

Looks like September was a good month for Backpage with traffic up 15.8% month over month. For comparison, here is what things look like for Craigslist.org:

Craigslist.org on Compete.com

Down 2.4% month over month, according to Compete.com. It’s worth noting that the scales on those two graphs vary. By Compete.com’s measure, Craigslist is the 13th largest site in the USA while Backpage is 579th (while doing a brisk business in escort ads these days).




Sites Like Craigslist

We can all thank the 17 state attorney generals who solved the prostitution problem in America by pressuring Craigslist into shutting down their Adult Services classifieds category.

Right?

Well, as I mentioned earlier this week, the web is nearly infinite, so shutting down any given site will have little to no impact on escort advertising.

Currently, one of the most popular alternatives to Craigslist for “Adult Services” advertising is Village Voice Media’s classifieds site, Backpage.com. I counted the number of Escort Ads posted in Minneapolis over the past 9 days, and found this:

Backpage Minneapolis Escort Ads Per Day

Whack a mole.

Every time the government attacks Craigslist, Craigslist alternatives like Backpage benefit.