A year after the CEO of classified ads website Backpage.com, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to federal charges and the site was permanently shut down, the feds have turned their attention to Backpage’s successors.
Per a Sunday report in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. authorities including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are looking into whether three websites that make money off of escort ads and user-generated prostitution reviews “have engaged in or knowingly enabled human trafficking, prostitution and money-laundering.” The investigation, focusing on massage parlor review site Rubmaps.ch, escort review site EroticMonkey.ch, and escort advertising service Eros.com, is also seeking to determine the scope of their ties to David Azzato, a Swiss businessman convicted in France in 2011 for running a network of escort sites.
According to the Journal, the three sites in question were among those that most benefited from Backpage’s removal, which allowed them to surge to success:
Among websites in the underground commercial sex economy in the U.S., Eros.com was the most visited ad platform in July, according to an analysis of visitor data compiled by Alexa Internet Inc. Rubmaps and EroticMonkey were the two most visited review sites that month, according to ChildSafe.ai, which performed the analysis and provides data and other tools to help law enforcement combat sex trafficking.
“All three of those websites benefited substantially from the seizure of Backpage,” said Rob Spectre, ChildSafe.ai’s founder and chief executive.
While Azzato has denied any current connection to the sites, sources familiar with the investigation told the Journal the authorities believe that he is actively involved. Forensic accountant Bassem Banafa, who assisted authorities in the Backpage case, told the paper “Critical parts of the intellectual property and payment and network infrastructure of these sites are linked to David Azzato. Based on this analysis, he is likely still the beneficial owner of all three sites.”
The Journal found that Azzato’s name appeared in registration information, email addresses, and corporate records tied to some of the sites in question, as well as that the .com versions of the Rubmaps and EroticMonkey sites appeared to have begun redirecting to .ch (the top-level domain for Switzerland) versions after the Backpage takedown. A spokesman for Azzato claimed that his name was fraudulently used as the contact for EroticMonkey.
A law that took effect after prosecutors destroyed Backpage, FOSTA-SESTA, limited immunity for sites that facilitate sex trafficking, and drove some operators to move their businesses outside the U.S. Per the Journal, authorities can still attempt to seize technology provider accounts associated with such sites or try to charge owners with violations of U.S. law.
Critics of FOSTA-SESTA, say that it has been ineffective at halting or even slowing down the online sex trade, and that driving it further underground has hampered both police work and put sex workers in danger. Last month, libertarian site Reason posted 2012 memos from federal prosecutors that appear to show that Backpage was actively engaged in fighting underage prostitution on its platform, as well as that it was highly communicative with law enforcement and aided police in investigations.