Two alleged victims of underage sex trafficking in Massachusetts filed a lawsuit Thursday against Backpage.com, accusing the company of assisting in the abuse that occurred approximately 2,000 times by allowing pimps to advertise sex with minors on its website.
The civil complaint, filed in federal court in Boston, asserts that the purported victims, identified in court papers as Jane Doe No. 1, now 17, and Jane Doe No. 2, now 20, were sold for sex in Massachusetts and Rhode Island more than 1,900 times combined when they were from 15 to 17 years of age.
Their attorneys at the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray wrote in the complaint that the illegal services were advertised in the escorts section of Backpage.com, which the plaintiffs allege “took various steps to sustain the impression” that the site is “a safe and effective vehicle for transactions involving young girls and boys.”
Elizabeth McDougall, general counsel for Backpage, defended the company in a phone interview.
“We vigorously dispute those allegations,” she said. “We do more, to my knowledge, than any other online service provider to try to prevent the use of our service” for trafficking minors.
“We work extremely closely with law enforcement to find and to help rescue victims and to collaborate in facilitating arrests and prosecutions of perpetrators.”
McDougall told an Arizona task force last year that the company’s preventative measures include subjecting every adult ad to review by moderators and blocking e-mail and IP addresses tied to illegal activity, according to state records there.
The lawsuit alleges that while Backpage claims to be taking steps to combat child exploitation on its site, the classified advertising company is aiding the practice in several ways.
The website has “deliberately chosen” not to use analytic tools that can detect when an advertisement involves a child, the complaint states.
McDougall told the Arizona panel that the company uses an automated filter system that rejects or reroutes for review any ads with phrases, codes, or data that may suggest illegal activity.
But the plaintiffs contend that while those who post the advertisements are barred from using terms such as “teenage” or “schoolgirl,” terms such as “girl,” “young,” “underage,” or “fresh” were allowed.
Other harmful practices include allowing writers of escort ads to post phone numbers in obscured forms with letters, such as “two” for the number 2, rather than strictly numeric listings, the complaint states. The company allegedly only searches for numeric numbers in response to requests from law enforcement agencies.
The website also allows people to pay for the ads with prepaid credit cards and Bitcoin digital currency, which are both difficult to trace, the complaint states.
McDougall declined to respond to specific allegations in the complaint, since she had not yet had a chance to review it in detail.
“What we’re saying is that . . . Backpage has systematically fostered a relationship with traffickers, by which they are, in essence, participating in a venture which trafficks kids through their site,” said John Montgomery, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and a former managing partner at Ropes & Gray.
The civil complaint does not identify the people who trafficked the alleged victims during the period of 2010 to 2013 or say if they were ever arrested. Montgomery declined to comment when asked if the traffickers had been convicted in criminal proceedings.
The complaint does not specify the monetary damages that the plaintiffs are seeking, though court papers indicate the demand is greater than $75,000.
Carmen L. Durso, a Boston lawyer who represents child sex-abuse victims, said in a phone interview that the Internet is now the main resource for predators.
“There’d be lots of other ways to make contact with kids in the past,” he said. “But this [the Internet] has become the primary way.”
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.