Backpage.com CEO charged with pimping in California (wrong placed to get charged)

The top executive of the online classified portal Backpage.com and two of the company’s controlling shareholders were charged on Thursday with felony pimping charges in the state of California as authorities alleged the web site operators were effectively running an “online brothel.”

Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage, which runs its operations out of Dallas and Amsterdam, was arrested after arriving in Houston from a flight from the Netherlands.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and California Attorney General Kamala Harris said that a three-year-long joint investigation revealed that adult and child sex trafficking victims were forced into prostitution through escort ads that appear on the web site, and that Ferrer and stockholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin made millions of dollars from illegal sex trade. Ferrer faces charges of pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping, while Lacey and Larkin face conspiracy to commit pimping charges.

Lacey and Larkin were not in custody on Thursday, and it was not immediately clear when Ferrer would make his first court appearance.

Undercover officers in California posted escort ads online and met with those who posted to confirm that the communications were to arrange for commercial sex. They also interviewed more than a half dozen sex trafficking victims who confirmed they paid Backpage to post ads on the web site promoting prostitution.

“Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal,” Harris said in a statement.  “Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.”

The web site, which is similar to Craigslist, has been under pressure from lawmakers and law enforcement for years to end adult services advertisements. Craigslist ceased posting adult and erotic service ads in 2010.

Backpage has been at center of Senate hearings into its classified ads. Last month, the Supreme Court declined to block a Senate subpoena seeking information on how Backpage screens its ads.

In addition to its adult services ads, Backpage also publishes advertising from people renting apartments, selling a car or advertising a job opening.

But the company’s internal revenue reports show that from January 2013 to March 2015, 99% of Backpage’s worldwide income was directly attributable to the “adult” section, according to charging documents filed in California. The company collected over $51 million revenue in California during that period.

During that period, Backpage’s internal documents showed that gross monthly income in California was $2.5 million per month.

At one point in May 2015, Ferrer asked in an e-mail to one on his credit card processing partners whether they should not disclose the e-mail addresses of some customers, which had handles such as sexygirl69, porn_star and Naked_goddess.

“Do the banks see these email addresses when we send the transaction to the processor?” Ferrer wrote in the email, according to the charging documents. “We think for example Chase might block transactions for their card holders based on overtly sexy email address names.”

As part of their investigation, California law enforcement officials said they interviewed several sex trafficking victims, including one who was only 13, who said they posted an ads on Backpage.

“Backpage’s escort service section essentially operates as an online brothel,” authorities said in arrest warrant. “Transactions consist of a user paying a fee to Backpage. In exchange for the fee, Backpage advertises on behalf of and solicits clients for prostitution services. The ads unequivocally sell sexual services, featuring extremely provocative pictures and lightly veiled or coded sexual terminology.”

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