The online ad for sex is indistinguishable from the rest. The ensuing text exchange — the intermittent chat about services and prices — is unremarkable.
It’s the message received a few days later on the would-be buyer’s cellphone that’s designed to deter the trade and conjure images of a Dateline-style sting.
“This is the New York Police Department. Your response to an online ad for prostitution has been logged,” the text reads. “Offering to pay or paying someone for sexual conduct is a crime and punishable by incarceration up to 7 years. The NYPD posts hundreds of decoy advertisements that are indistinguishable from the real thing. People who show up in response to our ads are likely to get arrested.”
The undercover officers who lure subjects into this particular snare are superstars in the ranks of law enforcement. They need no sleep, takes no breaks and need no days off. And they earn no salary.
They are bots.
“We are using the worst of the internet to protect the best of the internet,” says Rob Spectre, a New York-based programmer employing artificial intelligence to protect children from predators and help police identify would-be buyers of sex.
In 2018, Congress passed FOSTA/SESTA, a pair of laws aimed at eliminating online ads offering sex for sale. The measures put Backpage.com, a popular site for sex traffickers, out of business and prompted Craigslist to discontinue its personal ads last year.
“It’s never been harder to buy sex online,” according to Spectre, who spoke Monday in Las Vegas with police, prosecutors, and social workers at a summit hosted by Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford.
And it’s never been more expensive, says Spectre, who says lower demand is resulting in a “dramatic increase in hourly rates,” that can be attributed to three possible causes:
- Legislative roadblocks to conducting transactions are resulting in a dwindling supply as “people get out of the game.”
- Sex workers are colluding to drive up prices
- Sex workers are adjusting to lower demand by planning for fewer “dates” and charging more
Some sex workers complain the inability to “screen” prospective clients online places them at greater risk by forcing them onto the streets to procure business.
Ford said he didn’t know enough about the issue to comment.
Human trafficking generates $150 billion a year in profits worldwide, according to an International Labour Organization report from 2014.
The economics of the trade make it an attractive alternative to drug trafficking, says Spectre.
Profit margins are large. There’s little risk of getting caught and little penalty for those who do. There’s no inventory to purchase, no office to maintain, and business can be conducted with nothing more than a cellphone.
Combating sex trafficking in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some counties, poses unique challenges.
“Clearly it confounds the issue at some level,” Ford admitted during an interview with the Current. “But the area of focus remains on survivors and victims — that we’re able to determine those who are not involved in legalized prostitution but instead are those who have been caught up in sex trafficking. Then we are going to utilize every resource we have to prosecute the perpetrator and to provide wraparound services to the victims and survivors.”
Ford declined to comment directly on the elephant in the room – the longstanding allegations of at least two pimps that Las Vegas Metro police provided protection to favored pimps and prostitutes while targeting their competitors for arrest and prosecution. An FBI investigation has resulted in no local indictments thus far.
“If we find prostitution occurring in places where it’s not legal, we are going to be looking for signs of sex trafficking and attempt to address it with every resource we have,” Ford said.
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