Feds seizing Backpage.com, websites in enforcement action

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This Friday, April 6, 2018 image shows an FBI notice on the Backpage.com website. | Associated Press

Federal authorities have seized Backpage.com and its affiliate websites.

Friday afternoon, a message appeared on the website announcing the seizure as part of a joint enforcement action between the FBI, IRS and U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Also involved in the seizures were the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and U.S. Attorney’s offices in Arizona and California, as well as the attorneys general in California and Texas, according to the notice.

Additional details on the seizures were not immediately available.

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For years, Backpage has served as a classified ad hosting site that has been used by sex traffickers, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has in the past lobbied credit card companies to stop allowing their cards to pay for ads on the site.

“It’s a tremendous development in this very long fight against Backpage and a tremendous day for victims,” said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer. “This tremendous step acknowledges the long damage that Backpage has inflicted on victims.”

Backpage sued Dart in U.S. District shortly after he began lobbying the credit card companies in 2015.

Dart wrote a letter to MasterCard and Visa asking “as the Sheriff of Cook County, a father and a caring citizen” that the companies stop processing transactions from the site, a move that prompted a lawsuit by Backpage accusing Dart of “coercive censorship.”

Asked if she expects the seizures to affect the still-pending litigation, Smith said, “I think that will be sorted out in time.”

Dart’s efforts earned a rebuke from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which likened his efforts to use his office to discourage the card companies to cut ties with Backpage to “suffocating” the Backpage out of existence, language the website operators repeated in a press release.

CBS reported Friday evening that seven people who operate the site have been indicted, but additional details were not immediately available.

The Arizona homes of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, Backpage co-founders, was the subject of “law enforcement activity” Friday morning, according to the Arizona Republic.

The seizures came just weeks after the U.S. Senate approved legislation to crack down on sex trafficking by expanding the ability of prosecutors to go after websites that promote and facilitate it.

In January 2017, Backpage shut down its “adult” ads section hours after a U.S. Senate committee released a report that found the site knowingly aided users in posting ads for prostitution and child sex trafficking.

The 53-page report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is the most scathing probe yet of the controversial online marketplace built by the founders of the Village Voice.

The report found that Lacey and Larkin retain control of Backpage through a series of shell companies, despite claims they sold to the site to a Dutch company for $600 million in 2014. The report also found that Backpage “sanitized” ads for illegal sex and sex with minors, editing out terms like “teen” or “Lolita” automatically or rejecting ads with certain terms.

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