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Online Advertising CEO of Backpage.com Arrested on Sex Trafficking Charges in Texas, US

CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested on a California warrant after arriving in Houston, Texas, on a flight from Amsterdam

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This photo released by the Texas Office of the Attorney General shows Carl Ferrer. VOA
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October 7, 2016: Police in Texas have arrested the CEO of online advertising website Backpage.com and raided the company’s offices on charges of prostitution and sex trafficking.

CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested on a California warrant after arriving in Houston, Texas, on a flight from Amsterdam. California Attorney General Kamala Harris accused Ferrer and his partners of setting up “the world’s top online brothel” and aiding criminals who used the site to advertise prostitutes.

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“Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal,” Harris said in a statement.

Backpage.com is primarily used to host advertisements for adult escorts but is also used to advertise goods, services and jobs.

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Internal revenue reports obtained by the attorney general’s office show Backpage.com made 99 percent of its revenue between January 2013 and March 2015 from its “adult” advertisements, according to the statement. During that time, the company made around $51 million in revenue just in the state of California.

The charges came after a three-year investigation, in which the California Department of Justice used undercover agents to set up meetings with people who advertised in the “escort” section to confirm the meetings were arranged for commercial sex.

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Ferrer, along with Michael Lacey and James Larkin, controlling shareholders of Backpage, were all charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, a felony. Ferrer also received charges for pimping a minor, as some of the prostitution ads were for victims younger than 18, according to Harris’ office. (VOA)

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Rebecca Portnoff: A Doctoral Candidate from US Fights Human Trafficking Using Algorithms

Rebecca Portnoff has developed two algorithms aimed to fight human trafficking

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Ethnic Uighur Muslim boy stands inside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand. He was in a group of 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp
Ethnic Uighur Muslim boy stands inside a police van in Khlong Hoi Khong of southern Songkhla province, Thailand. He was in a group of 200 people rescued from a human trafficking camp. VOA
  • The new research uses an algorithm that analyzes writing styles to identify authors and could be applied to online trafficking ads
  • A second algorithm can use time stamps to trace ad payments to accounts known as wallets at Bitcoin

A U.S. researcher Rebecca Portnoff says that she has developed automated ways to identify links between online sex trafficking ads and the digital currency Bitcoin, techniques that may help locate children being sold for sex.

Law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups could use the methods to investigate Backpage.com, an online classified advertising site where sex ads can be found, according to a statement by the University of California Berkeley, where the research was based.

About 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of human trafficking, mostly for sexual exploitation, according to anti-trafficking groups.

Most sex trafficking victims are children, and most are advertised or sold online, according to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report released this year.

Algorithms do the digging

The new research uses an algorithm that analyzes writing styles to identify authors and could be applied to online trafficking ads, Rebecca Portnoff, its lead author, said Thursday.

A second algorithm can use time stamps to trace ad payments to accounts, known as wallets, at Bitcoin, a web-based digital currency that allows money to move quickly and anonymously.

Comparing time stamps of ad purchases on Bitcoin and time stamps and information on Backpage ads could help identify who is paying for them, said Rebecca Portnoff, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate in computer science who developed the techniques as part of her dissertation.

“Where previously you might have five different phone numbers that you had no idea were connected when you can see that they all came from the same wallets, that the same person paid for them, that’s a concrete sign that these five phone numbers are all related to each other,” Rebecca Portnoff said.

Rebecca Portnoff added, “I knew this was an issue that law enforcement was especially interested in.”

ALSO READ: Human Trafficking is one of the most derogatory Criminal Activities, should be Nipped in the Bud

Boost for law enforcement

Having automated style and time stamp analyses to identify sex ads by authors and Bitcoin owners is significant, said Damon McCoy, a New York University Tandon School of Engineering assistant professor of computer science and engineering and a co-author of the research.

“Any technique that can surface commonalities between ads and potentially shed light on the owners is a big boost for those working to curb exploitation,” McCoy said in a statement.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has said more than 70 percent of the reports it gets of trafficked children involve Backpage, based in Dallas, Texas.

Backpage did not respond to a request for comment.

The findings will be published by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, UC Berkeley said.

It said the work was funded by the Amazon Web Services Cloud Credits for Research Program, the technology, and security firm Giant Oak, Google, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. (VOA)