US authorities have closed down a classified listings website that had been repeatedly accused of facilitating sex trafficking and charged its founders with a number of prostitution and money laundering offences.
An indictment against Backpage.com creators Michael Lacey and James Larkin and five members of the website’s staff has been made public after it was taken offline and its servers seized on Friday.
Backpage.com, which is said to have raked in more than $500 million from listings linked to illegal sex work and laundered its profits through non-related businesses, had previously shut down the adult section of its US site, but critics said sex-related adverts were simply moved to other pages.
Visitors to the US version of the site are now greeted with a massage explaining that its serves have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the FBI, the US Postal Inspection Service and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.
In a statement, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said: “For far too long, Backpage.com existed as the dominant marketplace for illicit commercial sex, a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike.
“But this illegality stops right now. Last Friday, the Department of Justice seized Backpage, and it can no longer be used by criminals to promote and facilitate human trafficking.”
Campaigners and sex trafficking advocacy groups have long called for allegations that the site was routinely used to facilitate forced prostitution to be probed.
Prosecutors argue that while the site’s founders and the members of its staff who face charges were not directly involved in commercial sex exploitation, they were aware that the overwhelming majority of the listings on its sites were related to the services of prostitutes.
While some activists have welcomed the move, others have voiced concern that shutting down websites and forums such as Backpage.com could put sex workers in greater danger by removing a safe way for them to communicate with existing and potential clients.
“The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients,” the official Twitter account for the Women’s march movement tweeted on Saturday. “Sex workers rights are women’s rights.”
Towards the end of last month, Craigslist banned personal listings after the US government introduced new legalisation making online publishers responsible for the promotion of prostitution and sex trafficking.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) amends the US Communications Decency Act by specifically allowing criminal and civil actions against a website if its conduct violates federal sex trafficking laws.
In a statement, Craigslist said: “US Congress just passed HR 1865, ‘FOSTA’, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully.
“Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardising all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”
Crooked vendors exploiting flaw in eBay’s feedback system to con buyers into purchasing bogus and dangerous items
Buyers on eBay are being duped into purchasing substandard and counterfeit products due to a flaw in the online auction platform’s seller feedback system, according to an investigation conducted by UK consumer group Which?
The watchdog found that dishonest vendors can take advantage of these flaws by linking positive reviews of genuine products manufactured by companies such as Apple and Samsung to fake and low-quality items.
Which? found that crooked sellers are able to link thousands of positive reviews to eBay listings they have nothing to do with.
The organisation discovered that real reviews can be associated with fake products that are potentially dangerous, such as counterfeit mobile phone chargers that can pose a fire risk.
Sellers are able to do this by using “product IDs” associated with genuine items when adding their products to eBay, subsequently benefitting from the positive reviews those items have attracted.
The system is intended to make the process of listing products on eBay quicker and easier by allowing sellers to pull information from similar items that have a linked product ID.
As part of its investigation, Which? purchased 20 bogus Apple and Samsung accessories such as chargers and USB cables that were supposed to be official and shared the same reviews as products manufactured by the two technology firms
Calling for online ecommerce platforms to be held accountable for flaws in their seller feedback systems that allow dishonest vendors to pull the wool over buyers’ eyes, Head of Home Products and Services at Which? Natalie Hitchins said: “Our investigation has uncovered yet another example of online reviews being manipulated to mislead people.
“eBay’s product review system is confusing for consumers and could even direct them towards counterfeit or dangerous products sold by unscrupulous sellers.
“Online reviews influence billions of pounds of consumer spending each year.
“The [UK Competition and Markets Authority] must now investigate how fake and misleading reviews are duping online shoppers, taking the strongest possible action against sites that fail to tackle the problem.”
Responding to the findings of Which?’s investigation eBay said in a statement: “The research does not fully consider that there are distinctions between product reviews (which provide buyers with a holistic review of the same product), and seller feedback (which can be used to see specific reviews of a seller’s performance and may reflect the item’s condition).”
Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that US politicians had called on lawmakers to hold ecommerce companies such as eBay and Amazon to account if they fail to prevent third-party vendors selling counterfeit or substandard products on their platforms.
Major ‘lover boy’ prostitution gang broken up by coalition of European law enforcement agencies
A Romanian human trafficking and prostitution network that used the “lover boy” method to entrap young women before forcing them into sex work has been broken up a coalition of European law enforcement agencies.
The lover boy method, also known as the “Romeo pimp” method, involves young men seducing victims with the objective of coercing them into prostitution.
Lover boy traffickers groom their victims to believe they have entered into a serious romantic relationship before using emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse to intimidate them into working in the sex services industry.
Investigators from Spain, Romania, the Czech Republic and several other European nations were involved in the operation that resulted in the dismantling of the gang, which is said to have groomed and exploited at least 10 young women by forcing them to work as prostitutes.
The operation resulted in the arrest of 14 people in Romania and Spain, the safeguarding of 10 trafficking victims, and the confiscation of a number of items, including a quantity of cash, jewellery, expensive vehicles and several electronic devices.
In total, the agencies taking part in the effort raided 16 properties in the Czech Republic, Romania and Spain.
Having groomed their victims, Romanian members of the network would develop manipulative dependent relationships with the young women they targeted before forcing them into sex work.
Once under the traffickers’ control, victims would be abused and drugged before being sold onto other members of the network for as much as €6,000 ($6,632) each.
The women would then be moved between locations and countries on a regular basis as part of the gang’s efforts to avoid the attention of police.
Profits made by the network were laundered through the purchase of property, expensive jewellery and high-value cars.
Ongoing investigations into the network’s activities are focussed on the theory that it was working in cooperation with another gang.
Enquires have already resulted in the identification of more than 40 additional women who fell victim to the two criminal organisations.
In a statement, Europol said: “Europol facilitated the information exchange between the participating countries, provided coordination support and analysed operational information against Europol’s databases to give leads to investigators.
“Europol conducted a financial analysis based on the information provided which highlighted the extension of the criminal activity of the group and the presence and flow of illicit profits to other jurisdictions.”
Taking cocaine will not cure people struck down with the coronavirus, French government warns public
Authorities in France have been forced to inform the public that taking cocaine will not cure people infected with the coronavirus.
Taking to Twitter on Sunday, the French Ministry for Solidarity and Health told its followers that cocaine is not only ineffective when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, but is also a highly addictive drug that can cause serious harm to users’ health.
The government department was seeking to counter fake news circulating on social media that taking the drug could cure or prevent the virus, including doctored news stories that appeared to confirm the drug’s effectiveness at fighting the disease.
The ministry’s Twitter post included a link to a government information page that provided further guidance on disinformation circulating about the coronavirus outbreak.
As well as encouraging those worried about the coronavirus to start taking cocaine, online trolls have also suggested that bleach can also help fight the disease.
In a post on Twitter that has attracted many thousands of engagements, @Jordan_Sather_ told his followers: “Would you look at that. Not only is chlorine dioxide (aka ‘MMS’) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too.
“No wonder YouTube has been censoring basically every single video where I discuss it over the last year.”
In August of 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about that dangers of consuming bleach, noting: “Drinking any… chlorine dioxide products can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.”
As well as warning about cocaine’s inability to fight the coronavirus, the French government has also told members of the public that spraying bleach or alcohol on their bodies will not neutralise viruses they have already been infected with.
Elsewhere, US Vodka maker Tito’s Homemade was last week forced to urge people not to make DIY hand sanitiser out of its products.
Responding to one of its customers who said they had done just that, the company said on Twitter: “Per the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC. Please see attached for more information.”
For its part, the World Health Organisation, which today officially categorised the coronavirus as a pandemic, has published a webpage dispelling misinformation about the disease, noting that the virus cannot be killed of avoided by taking a hot bath or using hand dryers.
- Crooked vendors exploiting flaw in eBay’s feedback system to con buyers into purchasing bogus and dangerous items
- Major ‘lover boy’ prostitution gang broken up by coalition of European law enforcement agencies
- Taking cocaine will not cure people struck down with the coronavirus, French government warns public
- US politicians call for state action against Pornhub over allegations it hosted rape and child abuse videos
- Californian border officers catch Mexican man with enough fentanyl to kill 1.2 million people