Jennifer Puhl, Assistant U.S. Attorney, talks about the challenges of prosecuting human trafficking cases during the 2014 statewide summit on human trafficking put on by North Dakota FUSE at the Bismarck Civic Center last November. - Photo by Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service
The Internet opens a world of possibilities for pimps. But it opens doors for law enforcement, too
By Katherine Lymn and Amy Dalrymple
Forum News Service
Talking to seventh-graders in the small town of Scranton, N.D., this past November, Windie Lazenko told students that even they aren’t immune from pimps.
They may not be in a big city and they may have safe, secure homes, but potential traffickers may be watching every time they log online, she warned.
“With the Internet, every single one of you kids is at risk,” said Lazenko, who herself was first prostituted when she was around their age.
Lazenko’s November visit to the school was part of her ongoing work in western North Dakota, fighting the increase in prostitution and trafficking brought on largely by the oil boom.
It’s an unlikely topic, one many of the kids in the town of fewer than 300 hadn’t heard about before Lazenko’s talk. But increasingly across western North Dakota, communities are opening their eyes -- or rather, being forced to see that commercial sex is all around them.
To many who remember history, the sex trade is no surprise: These are mining towns after all, used to a “work hard, play hard” approach to life and aware that companionship for hire is available.
But this time, the prostitution “track” isn’t a certain street corner or strip. It’s the Internet.
Backpage and other more obscure sites host the ads that connect johns and women. It has put Backpage, the most well-known of the sites, at the center of a legal and political debate.
While many are quick to blame the Internet for helping prostitution flourish, others point out it’s a new tool for investigators to help crack down on the crime.
“With pimps advertising on the Internet, they out themselves and now they’re trackable,” said Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, a California-based nonprofit that rescues children from pimps.
In online stings, agents post ads, posing as pimps, and communicate with potential johns in increasingly common operations throughout western North Dakota.
They see incredible demand.
Agents had to shut down a fall 2013 sting in Dickinson because the responses came to the Craigslist and Backpage ads so quickly that the arrests soon overwhelmed officers.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Dickinson police Det. Sgt. Kylan Klauzer said of the general demand. “We’re definitely not immune to it. It’s here, and it’s close.”
Agents say if they had the resources to run operations more often, they would easily catch more johns.
A Forum News Service analysis of data collected by independent group Marinus Analytics shows escort ads on one prominent website have not only grown tremendously in North Dakota, but that in recent months they’ve surpassed the amount of ads in Minnesota, where Duluth and the Twin Cities are recognized longtime trafficking hubs.
“We don’t know how many cases there are, we don’t know how many prostitutes there are, we don’t know how common this is,” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in an interview. “We just know when we do a sting, we never have a shortage of people who are looking.”
The debate over Backpage
On an average day in fall 2014, Backpage had pages of commercial sex ad galleries for Oil Patch cities.
North Dakota frequently has than 150 to 200 ads every day, with Williston and Minot being the most popular cities.
But still, the demand outpaces supply. Women say when they post an ad in the state, the phone rings off the hook, and right away. The posts even occasionally include offers to do “out-calls” to smaller towns like Belfield, Stanley and Tioga.
“If it disappeared tomorrow, I’d be happy,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said of Backpage at a Bismarck sex trafficking training in September.
But talk of simply shutting Backpage down is quickly met with concerns from many fighting trafficking, who say that would simply lead to the ads popping up on smaller sites less likely to cooperate with investigations.
The Association of Attorneys General successfully pressured Craigslist to shut down its adult services page in 2010. Now the majority of state attorneys general, including Stenehjem, have taken on new frontrunner Backpage, which has resisted taking down its “escorts” ads. The company says the ads would just migrate to international or more obscure sites, hindering law enforcement efforts. When Craigslist shut down its adult listings page, its ads just migrated elsewhere, including to Backpage, and a similar phenomenon could happen if Backpage shuts down, except the ads would go deeper underground.
Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage, has been the carrier of an unconventional message: Yes, the site houses prostitution ads. But it’s responsible about it, responding to subpoenas quickly and reporting possible cases of trafficking to law enforcement, who can then take advantage of the footprint criminals leave online.
She expanded on that in a statement she wrote for Forum News Service:
“Unless the Internet is wholly shut down, the end result of this strategy will be that our children are advertised through offshore websites who do not endeavor to prevent such activity, who do not report potential cases of exploitation to law enforcement, who do not expeditiously cooperate with law enforcement to rescue victims and arrest pimps -- and who are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement so they can thumb their noses at U.S. law enforcement requests, even pleas, for evidence to find a child or stop a perpetrator.”
Talking by phone one November night from Lyon, France, where she and McDougall had just attended an INTERPOL conference on trafficking, Children of the Night’s Lee lauded Backpage’s cooperation with law enforcement, saying it’s better than any other social network.
Along with enabling a flourishing commercial sex trade, the Internet marketplace can make the individual crime harder to see. Before the Internet age, johns and the women would have to go to a physical location to find each other, said Tim Wittman, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Minneapolis office. “But with the Internet facilitating it,” he said, “it can maybe escape the community’s notice on a wide level.”
But the sites -- like Facebook, with 1.3 billion regular users -- do also lead to criminals unwittingly documenting their crimes in ways helpful to prosecutors.
Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said someone’s own words can be “incredibly valuable evidence” against them.
Prosecutors used hundreds of chat logs obtained from Facebook with a search warrant in the case against Darrin Anderson, a Minnesota man now serving 12 years in federal prison.
Anderson, in his mid-30s at the time, communicated with hundreds of girls using a fake Facebook profile, purporting to be a cute younger boy. One conversation led to him arranging commercial sex with a 13-year-old girl. Over roughly two years, he engaged in 800 Facebook chat conversations with, most of the time, 14- to 17-year-old girls in the Red River Valley region.
To get the girls to talk to him, he would say they had a mutual friend, or she had “popped up” on his Facebook scroll, or he just added her as a friend because she was attractive.
He would send them sexually explicit photos despite their protest, and convince some to send pictures back.
“I think this is especially concerning here because the defendant was in the home of so many local adolescent girls via their computers,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Puhl said at Anderson’s May 2011 sentencing. “He was in their homes … to sexually exploit them.”
The case showed how easily predators can find their prey with the Internet: Of the roughly 800 girls Anderson reached out to, 795 responded, Puhl said at a sex trafficking conference in Sioux Falls last August.
“I was shocked to see how many of these girls communicated with him,” she said.
Emily Kennedy, CEO of Marinus Analytics, said the goal of the project that involves analyzing online ads was to see how technology has opened new avenues for criminals, especially pimps. “Technology really enables them to expand their market, to keep their identities safe while still exploiting these girls,” she said.
When grouped with South Dakota and Minnesota, North Dakota’s share of ads on one prominent ads site has grown substantially, according to an FNS analysis of Marinus’ data. In 2012, North Dakota made up 12.4 percent of the ads in the three states, and through November of last year, the Peace Garden State made up 45 percent.
Now Marinus works with various law enforcement agencies to find evidence or establish timelines for trafficking investigations.
Speaking at a sex trafficking conference in Sioux Falls last year, Facebook’s Monika Bickert acknowledged how sites like hers can be attractive to pimps for recruiting victims and then threatening or coercing them, or to arrange transactions. But Bickert, head of global policy management with the website, said there’s another way to look at it.
“They may feel the Internet is a really powerful tool for them,” she said, “but I have to say I think the Internet is a much more powerful tool for those who are fighting against human trafficking.”
‘Why is it our business?’
Leaders in the fight against sex trafficking say the root problem is society’s willingness to accept the buying of sex, and that “boys will be boys” -- a problem amplified in an oil boom.
“We have a whole culture now that has become, I think, desensitized to the innocence of children, number one, and desensitized to how horrific something like this is, in fact it’s the kind of attitude of ‘Willing buyer, willing seller, why is it our business?’ ” Heitkamp said.
“What I would tell them is probably some of the most horrific victimization in this country happens in those relationships, and so we have to have a change in societal attitude about human trafficking, about prostitution and about the value of children.”
Boomtown prostitution opens a lucrative field for pimps, who know those selling sex willingly will never meet the demand, and word of the oilfield market is spreading fast through pimp networks and in larger cities like Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
The Internet fuels that.
Pimps are bringing their “stables” of women to North Dakota, or sending women on their own after first filling their heads with threats of violence or what will happen to their families if they don’t come back with their quotas filled.
Motels and hotels around the Oil Patch have had to maintain blacklists of women they suspect of operating there, and john stings show how easy it is to catch the low-hanging fruit: men cruising the Internet.
Agents say they hope to get to the traffickers eventually, but that in the meantime, the stings may deter some men who, lonely but wealthy, give in to curiosity and log on to the “Backpage.com” they’ve heard so much about at work.
“The condition of the men here, they’re vulnerable and the traffickers know that,” Lazenko said. “The men are being exploited on a whole ’nother level.”
If you see potential trafficking or are a victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- Phone: (888) 373-7888
- Email: NHTRC@PolarisProject.org
- Text: "INFO" or "HELP" to BeFree (233733)
Toll-free, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Confidential with interpreters available.