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By Sarah Mervosh. Update at p.


Senators, including Texas Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have introduced bipartisan legislation that would hold websites such as Back able for hosting that facilitate sex trafficking. For many of us, gift cards are presents for hard-to-please family members who want to pick out their own gadgets at Best Buy.

For pimps and prostitutes, gift cards have become a currency to pay for sex on Back.

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Dallas-based Back, a classified-ad site similar to Craigslist, is the leading online marketplace for sex, according to government investigators and federal prosecutors who have been struggling for years to shut it down.

The U. Justice Department says more than half of sex-trafficking victims are under Credit card companies stopped doing business with the website two years ago. People could still buy Backbut it became more difficult: They had to mail in checks or use complicated digital currencies like bitcoin. But now, Back has begun accepting gift cards from major retailers, The Dallas Morning News has confirmed.

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That means a pimp could walk into any local grocery store and pick up a convenient, untraceable way to pay the site to post selling women, critics say. Neither Back nor its lawyers responded to requests for comment.

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The company has said that it simply serves as a platform for third-party content and that attempts to shut it down amount to an assault on free speech. It also says that it cooperates with police; the site even warns users that it will report posts exploiting minors to law enforcement. Bare-bones are free, but it costs a couple of dollars to get the site to repeat the ad, or move it to the top of the listings.

In exchange, the customer receives credits that can be used on the site. The people who respond to and buy sex do not pay Back; they pay the women directly — usually in cash, experts say.

The News watched someone in the anti-trafficking field successfully submit gift cards for payments on two Back s. Three anti-trafficking advocates familiar with the site's payment methods also said the website is taking gift cards.

Not every Back can pay that way; a new set up by The News did not include the gift card option. But Janet Ruiz, an anti-trafficking advocate who has posted fake to dissuade the people who responded from buying sex, said her did. Not everyone agrees that Back's use of gift cards makes selling sex easier.

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People who make their livelihoods off sex have already mastered other, more complicated methods of payment, such as bitcoin, said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a trafficking expert who has interviewed convicted traffickers and sex workers.

But the new payment method touches a host of retailers, including national chains like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, online companies, and locally based Southwest Airlines. Contacted by The Newsthese and other companies expressed surprise and displeasure that their brands had been associated with a site that peddles sex.


Senate report. Most of its money comes from sex advertising, which includes illegal prostitution and forced trafficking, according to the California attorney general's office. It said Back's internal reports show that 99 percent of its income was attributable to its "adult" section between January and March It's unclear exactly when Back added the gift card option, but it's new enough that law enforcement agencies who investigate prostitution and trafficking did not know about it.

The Dallas Police Department, the district attorney's office, and the Texas Department of Public Safety said they had not seen it in their cases. This creative twist to Back's payment structure comes as the company faces enormous pressure to crack down on sexthe cornerstone of its business. Incredit card companies Visa, MasterCard and American Express stopped allowing the site to process their cards.

A judge later threw out that case on First Amendment grounds.

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But court records show that Ferrer and other Back executives now face charges in California of pimping and money laundering. The pressure intensified this year: A Senate subcommittee condemned the site for intentionally facilitating sex trafficking — and Back begrudgingly shut down its adult section in January. Sex did not go away, but simply migrated to the "dating" section.

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Recent investigations suggest that Back plays a more active role in hosting sex than the company ly disclosed. A report by the Senate subcommitteemade public this year, found that Back employees deleted words like "young," "teen" and "school girl" frombut still published posts that appeared to advertise minors.

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And despite claims that Back has no control over sexThe Washington Post reported earlier this month on documents showing that Back hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers away from its competitors and post sex on Back instead. Back makes money off by charging for upgrades, which cost more in the dating section than on the boards advertising rare records or outdoor patio sets.

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It costs money to post an ad to multiple cities in the same market, a practical necessity in a sprawling area like Dallas. The site also charges to recycle an ad to the top of the listing, crucial for wooing customers in a hot market. But experts identified one way Back could profit: by selling the gift cards for cash.

An entire industry thrives on re-selling gift cards.

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You can sell gift cards online, or do it in person at some checking-cashing stores. Angelyn Bayless, who noticed the gift card choice on Back a few months ago as part of her work for CEASE Network, a national effort to deter people from buying sex, said stores ought to know their gift cards support prostitution. The accepted retailers changes periodically, Bayless said. This month, a bipartisan group of senators recommended that the Justice Department launch a criminal investigation into Back. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee that issued a report on Back this year, said he would propose legislation to hold websites like Back able.

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The company no longer performs this service; it sold the kiosks that offered that option last year. Sarah Mervosh. Sarah is an investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News.

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She focuses on stories that give voice to the vulnerable. Since ing The News inshe has covered a variety of topics, including courts, domestic violence and affordable housing. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame. Get alerts on breaking news stories as soon as they happen.

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Original post, July For many of us, gift cards are presents for hard-to-please family members who want to pick out their own gadgets at Best Buy. Get the breaking news Get alerts on breaking news stories as soon as they happen. By Allie Morris.


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