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The truth behind Backpage.com

Village Voice Media, the company behind Backpage.com stands by its classifieds site.

The truth behind Backpage.com

CREATED May 17, 2012

Reporter: Marcelino Benito

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Prostitution and underage sex trafficking are now taken off the street and on to the world wide web. When the popular classifieds site Craiglist shut down its erotic ads, Backpage.com took over.

Just a few keystrokes and a few mouse clicks away is a world where a man's fantasies can come true.

"They're trying to have the sex their wives and girlfriends have said "no" to," said Norma Ramos, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Welcome to Backpage.com. Log on and the choices are endless. From busty beautys to Italian bombshells, how about naughty, nice, or even underage.

"It's all code for sex," said one former prostitute 9OYS interviewed.

Today this woman is a wife, a mother of three, a changed woman. To protect her identity, we'll call her "Allison."

"It's a life where I knew taht I had no worth, and I was only good for sex," said "Allison."

"Allison" was a prostitute in Tucson for years. She started as an underage teen, but while she was in the business, she walked the streets. Backpage wasn't around.

"I had to promote myself and that was a lot harder," she said. "It'd be easier today to just go online and promote myself and get responses in minutes."

On the other side of this Backpage debate is a woman we'll call "Becky."

"I found an Internet site, started posting ads and started answer my phone," said "Becky." "And I liked it."

Becky is an escort we tracked down by responding to her ad on Backpage. She gets responses like this via email and sees three to four clients a week.

"Escorts exchange money for time and companionship," she said. 9OYS reporter Marcelino Benito pushed back asking if that companionship usually involves sex. "I'm not comfortable answering that question," she said.

Backpage opponents say no answer is answer enough. Public pressure is building on Backpage and its parent company Village Voice Media. Human trafficking activist Norma Ramos cites news reports claiming the company is banking $22 million from these ads.

"I think it's very hard for this company to walk away from profits it's never experienced before," Ramos said.

9OYS asked Village Voice Media, true or false?

"The goal isn't making money off of illegal activity," said Liz McDougall, general counsel for the website. "The goal is to do the right thing and fight human trafficking."

That answer led to an obvious question: How is a company that posts ads from prostitutes and pimps fighting prostitution? McDougall tells 9OYS the site filters over 25,000 inappropriate terms, bans certain I.P addresses and manually reviews every ad. McDougall says site administrators remove 400 ads of underage girls a month and reports them to authorities. Then, there's self policing. The rules are visible before anyone can post an ad. Still, even McDougall admits it's not enough.

"Criminals online are smart and devious so as we develop measure they will develop counter measures," McDougall said. "But we will continue to fight them."

Backpage faces a fight too. Attorneys General from 48 states including Arizona have signed letters of condemnation. In Tucson, a rally against the website led city council to pass a similar resolution. Local activists say the ads aren't fooling anyone.

"Everybody knows that they're doing that," said Jerry Peyton, vice-chair of the group Southern Arizona Against Slavery. "The fact they're using certain terms is just a scam. Even law enforcement knows that. Everyone knows that."

But everyone can't see it. Instead it's hidden behind a blocked phone call. It's harder for police to track and the numbers tell the same story. Prostitution related charges in Tucson dropped from 277 in 2007 to 100 in 2011. Backpage.com went online in 2008.

9OYS reporter Marcelino Benito asked if there's more Backpage can do. "It's not a perfect system, and we're endeavouring to improve and tighten policing," said McDougall.

In the meantime, two different women offere two different stories about this website.

"Nobody chooses to be raped, nobody chooses to be abused," said "Allison."

"I don't feel the work I do is demeaning," said "Becky." "It's empowering for me personally."

Concensus on this website is hard to find in a society where the lines between right and wrong aren't as clear as they used to be.

So far there have been no sex trafficking cases prosecuted yet in Pima County. Activists say things are changing in Tucson though and for the better. The newly formed Southern Arizona Human Trafficking Task Force meets every month to tackle these issues. Log on to Facebook and let us know what you think about Backpage.com