It's not unusual to see a couple hundred advertisements for sexual services daily on the Charleston adult section of backpage.com.
At the click of a mouse, almost anyone can buy a girl online, anytime.
Photos of young women posed in skimpy lingerie are posted next to short blurbs about how sexy they are and what they are willing to do for the right amount of money. The ads invite “serious inquiries only,” and often list criteria about ideal candidates to be serviced. Several ads warn “no young black males,” “no thugs or pimps” or “no men under 30.”
Similar ads with identical phone numbers can be traced to other cities, including Columbia and Myrtle Beach — often a sign, police say, that the women are on the move with their traffickers. Some ads even state “only in town for three days, special.”
That's the pattern of traffickers, always on the move, according to Charleston Police Detective Doug Galluccio and North Charleston Investigator Charlie Benton, who is known locally as the foremost law enforcement expert on sex trafficking.
The ads give no clue, though, which women are being forced to sell themselves or are under 18. And the men who often answer the phone aren't about to volunteer that information.
Local agencies have a couple of detectives who monitor backpage for clues, and two or three FBI agents also are assigned to the task, focusing specifically on finding minors being forced to sell themselves. But it's usually only when a victim escapes and asks for help or an investigator gets a credible tip that a trafficker is busted.
Special Agent Robert Brown oversees the FBI's criminal investigations in South Carolina. No agency has the resources to stake out motel rooms across the state or line up dates with the hundreds of “escorts” on backpage to see which ones involve coercion or underage girls, he said.
“More needs to be done and it has to do with resources,” he said. “We're not as proactive as we'd like to be.”
In 2011, the FBI's Gang Task Force used a wiretap to identify criminal activity within the Bloods Street Gang in Columbia. They found that some members had been recruiting girls for sex trafficking as they traveled up and down the East Coast.
As a result, several members were charged with interstate prostitution and sex trafficking in a 134-count indictment that also included charges involving racketeering.
Supervisory Special Agent Brian M. Jones said the sex trafficking was just another way for gang members to make extra money. Documents indicated gang members used backpage to sell the girls.
Some have tried to shut down backpage, but judges have consistently ruled against those efforts.
Backpage spokeswoman Liz McDougall declined to comment about how the company addresses potential sex trafficking stemming from its site. The website has a disclaimer requiring users to report suspected illegal activities, including the sex trafficking and exploitation of minors. But it is unclear how often that occurs.
Craigslist, a similar website, removed its “adult services” section in 2010, a move that was applauded by many state attorneys general and advocates fighting sex crimes.
Commercial sex solicitation can occur anywhere, but the Polaris Project reports hotels, motels and the Internet as the most common settings for trafficking transactions.
Other places solicitation can be present include city streets, truck stops, strip clubs, residential brothels and escort services.
Carole Campbell Swiecicki, executive director of Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center, pointed out that traffickers target places with large crowds and anonymity, such as the Super Bowl, golf championships or other special events.
“People want to be anonymous doing something like that, and when they're coming to a place where just by nature they're more anonymous because people don't know them ... that's a risk factor,” she said.
The robust tourist trade is also a contributing factor to increased instances of sex trafficking in areas such as Charleston and Myrtle Beach, Swiecicki said.
Because of that, she said people in the hospitality business are in a good position to identify all kinds of red flags that could amount to trafficking. She and others have pushed for training among hotel and motel operators and housekeeping staff.
“If there is a hotel where a child is coming in and several people coming into a hotel room, that's a risk factor,” Swiecicki said.
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.