Winnipeg police and RCMP are watching a U.S. website closely for local ties after a major prostitution bust south of the border led to 150 arrests.
On Monday, U.S. authorities arrested 150 alleged pimps accused of selling sex with teens online using the website Backpage.com.
An FBI investigation into the site alleged that 105 young people were being sold for sex.
The website is active in Canada, and a number of Winnipeggers use the site.
Winnipeg police said they’re watching the site closely, and as recently as last month charged a man with pimping out two 19-year-old women on the site. Last year, another man was charged with selling sex with underage teens on the website.
“We have seen Backpage.com utilized across the country where people’s sexual services are being offered in various cities,” said Cpl. Nilu Singh, with the RCMP’s Human Trafficking National Co-ordination Centre.
A Winnipeg escort, who asked only to be identified as “Kristin,” has been active on the site for over two years. The 26-year-old credits the site for her thriving prostitution business.
She said she takes about 20 calls a day responding to her Backpage.com ad that advertises sex for $300 per hour.
“I make a lot of money. I can make about $1,000 a day. It helped pay for my school, helped pay for my car,” she said. “I have everything I need.”
She said she began advertising about two years ago. Before that, she worked for a private agency that took half of her earnings, she said.
Kristin said she was concerned that underage girls are using the site.
“When I was 18, if I’d known about this site, I would’ve went on it a lot sooner,” she said.
“I know girls lie [about their age],” she said.
Singh said RCMP officers have made efforts to prevent minors from being exploited on online sites, but there is much work to be done.
Ads with young prostitutes may have special wording to attract clients.
“They may utilize the word “young.” Just that in itself may indicate the person is actually under the age of 18,” said Singh.
In the U.S., more than 40 states have called for Backpage.com to be shut down. But at least one Canadian advocate against exploitation said that could exacerbate the problem.
Signy Arnason is the director of Cybertip.ca, a website where people can report the online sexual exploitation of children.
Arnason isn’t sure shutting down the site is a solution.
“The top three [sites] would be Craigslist, Kijiji and Backpage. We need to be prepared to move in the direction the public goes with this type of advertising,” she said.
Arnason said if the sites were shut down, it would likely just drive the trade further underground.
“It may be more difficult to ID, number 1, these poor victims, and secondly these individuals who are breaking the law,” Arnason said.
Kristin doesn’t think the site should be shut down, but does agree “some kind of security person that checks on the site” is needed.
Shutting down Backpage.com would be meaningless, she said, “because they can just open up another site.”
Kristin said she plans on pulling her Backpage ads in a month, so she can start a new career as a health-care aide.
Backpage.com has not yet provided comment to CBC, but did say it has co-operated with all police investigations to date.