EDINBURG — Buying sex online can be as easy as buying a used bicycle or booking a hotel, according to Sasha Poucki, who spent two years researching the role of technology in sex trafficking.
An Edinburg couple was arrested April 12 after two underage girls from Louisiana told police they were being forced into prostitution and advertised on multiple websites, including classifieds website backpage.com.
Abelardo Gomez, 37, and his girlfriend, Cerena Ortiz, 24, were both charged with multiple first-degree felonies, including four counts of trafficking of a child, two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity, and two counts of sexual performance by a child.
The girls said they were threatened to earn money in order to be returned home and were also forced to work at a local strip club. Gomez and Ortiz are accused of knowingly supervising, housing and transporting the juveniles from various locations while allowing the girls to prostitute themselves via social media, according to a criminal complaint.
Gomez and Ortiz face a maximum sentence of life in prison if found guilty.
Poucki said this online form of trafficking has exploded in the past decade and surpassed the resources and manpower law enforcement needs to contain it. Poucki is a native of Yugoslavia and a visiting professor in the division of global affairs at Rutgers University and is the recipient of a research grant from Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to study the role of technology in human trafficking from 2012 to 2014.
“This form of trafficking 16 years ago was completely unrecognized and did not exist,” said Poucki, “Technology moves so fast and the everyday use of technology is exponential.”
Poucki studied how technology has made it easier for traffickers to recruit, groom and market victims while giving them a sense of security provided by the anonymity of the Internet.
“If you are a man and you are married or something, this is something you would hide. You would sit in the basement and do these kinds of things,” Poucki said. “You would not go to your colleague during your lunch break and say, ‘you know what I did.’ But there is now a place where you can talk to thousands of guys like you, it normalized everything.”
Poucki explained how there are now websites where traffickers and their customers rate and review each other, almost like reviewing a hotel or a restaurant, and have created ways to verify each others’ identities in an effort to protect each other from law enforcement.
Criminal networks, however, are not the only ones generating income from these illicit activities. Poucki said websites such as backpage.com and naughtyreview.com are responsible for hosting these posts and giving these communities a space to connect and grow.
More than 50 posts advertising women were added on Thursday alone in the escort section of mcallen.backpage.com. According to AIM Group, which owns the site and is not affiliated with The Monitor parent company AIM Media Texas, more than $3 million a month is generated from these ads alone. The online classifieds website backpage.com is similar to craigslist.com, which stopped selling ads for escorts and other adult services in September 2010.
“Five websites that carry prostitution advertisements in the United States set a record with combined revenue of nearly $3.3 million during January,” reads a post on the AIM Group website from 2012. “The total was up 1.4 percent from December and 3.3 percent from January 2011.”
Special agent Dennis Davidson said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security doesn’t have the resources to investigate every single one of these ads. Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of DHS is the agency responsible for most human trafficking investigations nationwide.
“It’s a huge trend that’s been growing for the last couple of years, and we’ve heard a lot of it through the media or through law enforcement,” said Davidson who heads the HSI office in Harlingen. “The government is probably not as advanced as we investigators wish it to be.”
Davidson, former section chief of the human smuggling and trafficking unit in Washington D.C., said their department has been trying to apply the technologies they’ve successfully used to combat child pornography, but it’s been difficult and ineffective.
Law enforcement agencies have been using PhotoDNA, a facial recognition software developed by Dartmouth College in collaboration with Microsoft and Swedish company NetClean in 2009, to combat child exploitation. The ads on backpage.com for instance are difficult to track because the faces are usually blurred or have images obstructing them in order to conceal the victim’s identities.
“We’ll find a lot of advertisements for prostitution or for sexual acts, which is against the law, but a lot of them don’t meet our federal definition of human trafficking,” Davison said. “It’s hard to go through thousands and thousands of pages to find the one trafficking case.”
According to DHS, human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.
Edinburg Police spokesman Lt. Oscar Treviño said Thursday the department also doesn’t investigate online ads, including the ones used to advertise the two underage girls allegedly being trafficked in the city earlier this month.
“We don’t have the manpower to have somebody looking into these websites and trying to determine whether any of them are illegal or not,” Treviño said. “The only time we’ll conduct an investigation is if somebody files a complaint, generates a report, and then we’ll go ahead and further the investigation.”
Investigators confirmed the juveniles were being promoted on backpage.com as escorts from March 28 to April 3, in the area of McAllen. Officers also found text messages that showed Gomez and Ortiz knew that the juveniles were promoting themselves online to engage in sex for money while living with them, according to the complaint.
Poucki said most law enforcement agencies lack the resources and the technology needed to combat this new kind of sex trafficking.
“They are not investing in the research to catch up with what is happening,” Poucki said. “They are not being proactive and catching up with technology and how it’s being used by criminals.”