ST. PAUL, Minn.--The tremendous jump in online requests for sexual services that seems to occur during large political conventions has placed police departments and advocacy groups on the alert.
Denver and St. Paul police, as well as nonprofits the Klaas Foundation and the Polaris Project, have turned to classified advertising Web sites like Craigslist to monitor such illegal activities during the Democratic and Republican conventions.
The Colorado branch of the Polaris Project, a national organization that combats human trafficking, monitored ads on Craigslist, particularly in the "casual encounters" section, from April 1 through the Democratic convention last month.
"This is one way we can publicly document participation in the commercial sex industry and the increase during large events," said Amanda Finger, the coordinator for Polaris Project Colorado.
The results mirrored what, according to Finger. She said through July, there was an average of 390 posts per day requesting sexual services, but that the ads spiked to more than 800 per day on Monday and Tuesday during the week of the convention. She said the online activity is typical for an event of that type.
Carl Ferrer, founder of classifieds site Backpage.com, said that large events do spur an increase in postings in all of the site's categories, including its adult section.
To be sure, neither the police nor the advocacy groups turned up any evidence of human trafficking--meaning the involvement of people under 18 years old, or situations involving coercion--at either the Denver or St. Paul conventions. Nor was there evidence of additional prostitution, at least in the form of increased arrests.
The Denver police department, according to a report in The Denver Post, has not seen an increase in online prostitution ads during the week of the convention (the department did not return our phone calls for this story). Similarly, the St. Paul police department has not seen any unusual illegal activity online during the Republican convention, according to Tom Walsh, the department's public information officer--although he added: "We have information that supports the idea that human trafficking and prostitution increases during large events."
This raises the possibility that there may be zero human trafficking and minimal additional prostitution occurring during these events--and the spike in sex ads online amounts simply to more people in town partaking in a perfectly legal practice between consenting adults.
In preparation for the Republican convention, the St. Paul police contacted police departments in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Diego--the previous locations of the last few Republican and Democratic conventions.
"St. Paul takes the idea of human trafficking very seriously," Walsh said.
Even with other departments' help, however, "we're learning as we go," he said. "Four years ago, the Internet wasn't the tool it is today."
A nationwide effort
The Klaas Foundation, a national organization that helps to locate missing children, has found a number of ads for high profile escorts servicing the Denver and St. Paul areas explicitly for the conventions, according to Brad Dennis, the director for the foundation's national search center for missing and trafficked children.
"The activity is unusually high," Dennis said. "They're coming in for the conventions--that's exactly what they put on their Web sites."
The Klaas Foundation monitored more than 135 sites for Denver-based sexual services during the Democratic convention, as well as about 80 targeted at St. Paul during the Republican convention, for any indications of child sex trafficking.
Dennis said the organization has not found any ads in either region indicative of child trafficking.
"We do it for large events to help us understand the situation better and to see if we can find some child that is listed as missing," he said.
Overall, the Klaas Foundation is currently monitoring more than 300 sites for suspicious sexual ads. Besides those affiliated with the political conventions, they're also monitoring sites in regions of the country where there are missing children, in the event they are being prostituted by human traffickers.
Anyone under the age of 18 who is providing commercial sexual services would be considered a victim under Trafficking Victims Protection Act (PDF) if there is another person benefiting from the minor's services, such as a pimp.
Dennis said the Klaas Foundation looks for certain indications on Web sites of trafficking, such as key words having to do with age, out-of-state phone numbers, or photographs that hide a person's face. He said the Klaas Foundation searches Craigslist, Backpage.com, and a number of other sites that he would not disclose.
"There are sites we monitor with law enforcement circles, but we don't think they know about the monitoring," he said. "Craigslist and BackPage know we're on there, but people on those sites don't care. Quite frankly, the ads are getting worse and worse."
Web sites try to discourage trafficking
Contrary to Dennis' findings, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster told us: "The trend on Craigslist is clearly positive."
The site implemented new measures in March of this year such as telephone verification for ads that have reduced inappropriate erotic service ads by 80 to 90 percent, Buckmaster said.
The new measures supplement Craigslist's previously established protocol, which includes prohibiting illegal activity and asking users to flag inappropriate ads. Additionally, Craigslist derives no revenue from erotic service ads.
The Web site also participates in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline program and collaborates with law enforcement when contacted.
Ferrer said Backpage.com also bans ads for illegal services and responds to law enforcement subpoenas promptly. Like Craigslist, the site tries to deter inappropriate ads by soliciting the help of its users, who remove 150,000 postings each month out of the million the site hosts, according to Ferrer.
"It is a big challenge for sites like ours to keep out spam, scam, inappropriate, and illegal content," he said.
Backpage.com also requires users to submit credit card information when posting any adult service or in the massage category.
Mobilizing support online
The Polaris Project has turned to the Internet for more than just monitoring sex ads. The organization uses sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Change.org to enhance their grassroots efforts to promote awareness of trafficking risks. The organization also makes daily updates to its online grassroots action center.
"We recognize that online advocacy is incredibly important and critical to reach whole new populations who are more online- and tech-savvy," said Bradley Myles, Polaris Project deputy director.
He said Polaris is using the Internet to appeal to people who may be vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation, mobilize supporters to contact their representatives in the U.S. Congress, promote media awareness of the issue of trafficking, and to solicit donations to support victims of trafficking.
While certain Web sites have made it easier to track what's happening in this area, Finger and Myles said the rise of Internet pornography has exacerbated the problem of trafficking. Internet pornography desensitizes the public to human trafficking, Finger said, and enables traffickers to exploit victims worldwide. (In the United States, child pornography laws prohibit the possession or distribution of lascivious visual depictions of a minor. Obscenity laws regulate what kind of material depicting adults can be distributed; only a handful of Web sites have ever been declared by a court to be obscene.)
"When we're talking about individuals being forced into trafficking, many have been videotaped, and it's difficult to track those images online and remove," Finger said. "We're talking about the constant victimization of these people globally."