Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Sex trade thrives by exploiting Internet

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Tipp City case illustrates how Web is used to lure women into prostitution.

By Cornelius Frolik, Staff Writer
Sex traffickers in Ohio are using the Internet to meet and exploit women and children who they force into prostitution for their own economic gain.
Sex traffickers are taking full advantage of online classified advertising websites to promote, advertise and engage in sexual
slavery, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of federal court records, local police reports, online sex advertisements and interviews with law enforcement authorities.
“I think we have a dozen cases involving sex trafficking, and ... , in at least half of them the Internet was used,” said Mike Tobin, spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland.
Ohio lawmakers have attempted to crack down on the sex 
slave trade by enacting a law to address and penalize the activity. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is also calling on Backpage.com, a popular online classified advertising website, to produce information how it polices its postings to remove ads linked to sex trafficking, which is forcing a person to engage in commercial sexual activity by using force, fraud or coercion.
But victim advocates said Ohio needs a law to shield sex-trafficking victims from prosecution for prostitution crimes committed while enslaved. Sex traffickers, meanwhile, are finding new ways to skirt the law, avoid detection and grow their business, they said.
“When you address a particular aspect of the problem, the pimps, the operators, the organized criminals adapt, and they adjust how they are advertising, they change the ads,” said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Tipp City incident
On April 5, Tipp City police Sgt. Greg Adkins pulled over a sport utility vehicle on Interstate 75 after noticing the driver changed lanes without signaling.
Adkins said he spoke to the driver, Rodney Brown, 33, of Toledo, and sensed something was wrong after Brown voluntarily admitted he had marijuana in the vehicle and did not have a driver’s license.
“There were red flags,” Adkins said. “People just don’t act this way.”
Adkins said Brown’s passenger, Selma Hasanovic, 21, of suburban Detroit who died in July of an apparent heroin overdose, was reluctant to provide her name and information.
Based on Brown’s suspicious behavior, police decided to separate the pair for interviews, at which time Hasanovic immediately broke down, Adkins said. Hasanovic told police she was being held against her will by Brown, and he forced her to have sex with multiple men for money that he kept.
Hasanovic, who emigrated from Croatia, told police she met Brown only about a week earlier,
but he had prevented her from leaving his home, gave her drugs and sexually assaulted her multiple times a day, authorities said.
She told police Brown repeatedly hit and threatened her and referred to himself as a “pimp.” His SUV was stopped while en route to Indianapolis, where Hasanovic said she would be forced to engage in more prostitution.
“She was scared to death,” Adkins said. “He, basically, in a nutshell, was her pimp ... He controlled her movements.”
Brown now faces six federal charges, including sex trafficking. Authorities said he used the Backpage website to find customers to have sex with Hasanovic.
Hasanovic’s mother, Hana Gredic of Dearborn, Mich., said she is heartbroken and angry over her daughter’s death, which she does not believe was accidental.
“I think somebody put heroin in my daughter to die,” Gredic said. “My daughter never used heroin.”
Backpage is just one of a slew of websites that the illegal sex industry uses to promote its services, authorities said. But the company became one of the largest online classified websites to feature adult ads after the popular website, Craigslist.com, came under fire from law enforcement and groups that oppose human trafficking and shut down its adult services section in September.
Each day, Backpage and several other websites featuring “adult entertainment” have dozens of listings for the Dayton area for massage services, escorts and erotic entertainment.
Dayton police officials said they routinely perform undercover sting operations that bust some of the people who post the ads, most of whom are prostitutes who work for themselves or an escort agency.
But police Lt. Brian Johns, who heads the vice unit, said officers do encounter women who are working at the direction of a pimp, who coerces them into prostitution, monitors or controls their movements and takes all of their earnings.
Johns said they try to bring charges against the pimps, but many women are afraid to testify and grand juries often will not indict unless there is other corroborating evidence. A grand jury last year declined to indict a Dayton man accused of coercing a woman into prostitution for money he kept.
In Cleveland, a 40-year-old woman was charged after she allegedly posted on Backpage sexual photographs of a 16-year-old girl who she forced into prostitution.
An Elyria man pleaded guilty this month to juvenile sex trafficking charges after using Backpage to advertise and attempt to sell a teenage girl for sex.
About 1,000 American-born minors are forced into the sex trade in Ohio each year, while another 3,000 are at risk of becoming victimized, according to a report released this year by the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission. About 800 foreign-born people are currently trafficked for sex or labor in the state.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit against human trafficking organization, said the Internet is the number one platform that pimps, traffickers and customers use to buy and sell women and children for sex in the United States.
Polaris oversees the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which operates a hot line that provides information on trafficking to callers who have questions about the activity or suspect it may be going on in their community.
Last year, the hotline received 234 calls from Ohio, including 48 tips on possible trafficking situations, according to Polaris. The center received 13 calls from Dayton.
States vs. Backpage
Attorney General DeWine last month joined 46 other state attorneys general to call on Backpage to produce information about what it is doing to remove advertisements connected to sex trafficking from its site, especially ads that involve minors.
“At this stage, we would just like to get additional information on how they are complying with law enforcement and also how they are policing their site to make sure sex trafficking is not going on, said Melinda Sykes, director of children’s initiatives with the attorney general’s office.
Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage, did not respond to requests for comment. But articles in a “special report” section on its website argue that the prevalence of sex trafficking has been misrepresented by some media outlets, and the company allows adults to post ads featuring mature content as a matter of free speech.
Backpage has 123 employees who screen about 20,000 ads every day, and they report suspicious ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to an article published by the Village Voice in July.
To its credit, Backpage this year took major steps to police its ads to help curb sex trafficking, said Allen, with the center.
“Backpage has been aggressively reviewing their ads and trying to remove those ads that are unlawful and suggest they involve the sale of kids for sex,” Allen said. “Backpage has reported to us 1,600 ads that they believe are suspicious.”
Allen said Backpage management appears to be genuinely committed to helping stop sex trafficking, but he is unsure how effective their efforts will be at eliminating the problem because traffickers are good at adapting to enforcement efforts.
Allen said sex trafficking for too long has been a crime that is easy, low-risk and difficult to prosecute. To change this, he said prosecutors and law enforcement need to find ways to charge the customers, imprison the traffickers and protect the victims.
“We have been training law enforcement that when you make arrests, you don’t arrest the kid, because the kid is the victim,” Allen said.
Many of the trafficking victims are runaways, drug addicts and people who live on the streets, officials said. They are often distrustful of police, and they fear they will be harmed by their pimp or captor or charged by authorities if they admit what they have done.
Ohio does not currently have a law that explicitly protects the women and children victims of sex trafficking from prosecution for crimes committed while they were enslaved, advocates said.
A bill introduced in June by State Rep. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, that would protect minors from being charged with solicitation in sex trafficking cases stalled in committee.
Boosting Ohio law
The Polaris Project this year upgraded Ohio’s ratings based on its new human-trafficking law, and Ohio now meets most of about four of the organization’s 10 criteria for effective statutes regarding the crime. The state had previously ranked as one of the nation’s worst.
But James Dold, policy counsel with Polaris Project, said Ohio would better combat the problem if its laws protected underage trafficking victims from prosecution; provided victims with a right to take civil action against the traffickers to sue them for damages; and allowed victims to have convictions for solicitation while enslaved to be erased from their records. “Once they have these convictions for prostitution on their records, they stay with them and follow them — they have to report them on their job applications, their loans and when they are applying to go back to school,” he said. “The ability to erase that from their record and treat them as the victims that they are, allows them to move on with their lives.”
Gredic said nothing will ease the pain of losing her daughter, but she wants so see justice served. Gredic said she believes Brown did not work alone in enslaving her daughter, and she wants everyone involved to be punished and stopped. “I miss her,” she said. “I loved my daughter so much.”

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