ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Across the country, law enforcement has been cracking down on child sex trafficking by going after online ads for escorts. Five years ago, state attorneys general pressured craigslist to shut down its adult services forum. Now the target is backpage.com, a rival website. Visa and MasterCard stopped processing transactions with Backpage a few months ago, but people are getting around that by using the virtual currency bitcoin. Sasha Aslanian of American RadioWorks reports.
SASHA ASLANIAN, BYLINE: After making more than 800 arrests off backpage.com since 2009, Cook County, Ill., sheriff Tom Dart called a news conference to announce a victory this summer.
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TOM DART: We want to commend both Visa and MasterCard for their civic responsibility, for so quickly acting when we talked to them. American Express has already done that. They've now been narrowed down to where there's very little options for people who want to work with that website.
ASLANIAN: A version of this has played out before. Five years ago, the main site for escort ads was craigslist. Under pressure from activists, craigslist shut down its adult services forum, and many of those ads migrated to Backpage. For human rights lawyer Malika Saada Saar, who led the craigslist action, that nimble pivot was a disappointing.
MALIKA SAADA SAAR: I am no longer willing to play game of whack-a-mole with these websites. Until we start arresting buyers for statutory rape and putting them on the sex offender registry, craigslist, Backpage or the next mainstream website will continue to be popular and used in a widespread way.
ASLANIAN: Backpage, owned by a Dutch parent company, is fighting back, suing Sheriff Dart and making its ads free. It won't provide revenue figures, and an attorney for the company declined to comment. Backpage's free ads spurred a blizzard of listings, but free isn't always free. Advertisers who want to make their ads more prominent pay a premium.
That's where bitcoin comes in. It's a cyber currency that's sold peer-to-peer. There's no central bank, but there's an online ledger where transactions are recorded. Some bitcoin fans hope Backpage's credit card obstacle might become bitcoin's boom. Ray Youssef is the CEO of Paxful Inc in New York, a website that sells bitcoin. Youssef says the Backpage effect drove in a whole new clientele.
RAY YOUSSEF: I was getting calls from people. And they were just calling me up, begging me to help them. And I said, OK, just log on. Create an account. And they were like, account where? They didn't even know what our website was. People were just passing around our number on social media.
ASLANIAN: Youssef says these customers, many of them unbanked and not tech savvy, found bitcoin clunky. Tutorials sprang up on the web and in person, gatherings like this one near San Francisco, publicized by the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
In an apartment in a newly gentrified industrial area, a bitcoin workshop for Backpage ads is about to get underway.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So if you get what a play on it might be helpful to pleasure phones get this ready.
ASLANIAN: It feels like a neighborhood meeting with snacks and soft drinks. A tax attorney arrives with his PowerPoint. He shows the group how to trade the virtual currency on their cell phones.
ASLANIAN: He points out they can also use bitcoin to reserve hotel rooms on Expedia. Those attending the session view the easy movement of virtual currency and the difficulty of tracing it as appealing. And for those trying to combat the sex trade, strangling the money flow to an industry this adaptable remains a challenge. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Aslanian.
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