Why sell your wares on a street corner when you can actively cold call prospective buyers of sexual services on a site like Facebook?
I’ve reported crimes to the FBI before. This one was different. In all previous cases, I didn’t know who the suspect was. This time I did. That’s how I found myself sitting across from an FBI Special Agent at their New Haven, Connecticut offices. The crime I was reporting to him was child pornography. The perpetrator was Facebook.
First a little background on what brought me to the FBI’s interview room that day.
The widespread use of the Internet by human traffickers, pimps, and pedophiles has changed the entire landscape of commercial sexual exploitation throughout the world. “Technology has played a fundamental role in this change,” wrote Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor at Columbia University, “No self-respecting cosmopolitan man looking for an evening of companionship is going to lean out his car window and call out to a woman at a traffic light.” Quite simply, the web has become the new City Street Corner with all its former intrigue and ugliness. All manner of humanity roams there.
While the Internet is mushrooming with sex-for-sale sites like Backpage, Fling, Adult Friend Finder, Eros, and The Erotic Review, something else has emerged, bringing an entirely new dynamic to human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
Social networking websites like Facebook, Microsoft Live, Google+, and Twitter have completely moved the game to a different playing field. Enormously popular – and growing every day – these free sites offer very powerful tools for men who are buying sex, pimps who are selling it, and worse, pedophiles trading child pornography.
To begin with, in a brilliantly devious marketing ploy, pimps have used these sites in such a way that men no longer need to look for girls on the street corner or the Internet. Using social networking, the girls now come to them.
In the world of online prostitution and human trafficking, individual females are advertised extensively with personal pages of information, photos, and updates. Facebook is the perfect forum to begin or continue conversations with potential johns. This has added a new dimension for pimps and other human traffickers to aggressively market females working in prostitution: Tugging. Now they can go looking for men – pull them in – instead of waiting for men to contact them. “Even before the crackdown on (Craigslist’s) adult-services section,” observed professor Venkatesh, “sex workers were turning to Facebook.” He further estimated “that by the end of 2011, Facebook will be the leading on-line recruitment space.”
Some men, curious and perhaps willing to pay someone for sex, but unwilling to actively look for listings online, are open to having an attractive female “friend” them on Facebook and begin an innocent conversation. With millions of men sharing their profile on Facebook, it is extremely easy for those working in the sex industry to scour through profiles, seeking men in their geographic area who look like they have money to spend. This provides a new level of “sex marketing” efficiency since Facebook allows almost anyone to see enough information about an individual to determine whether or not they will make a profitable john.
Once the man receives the “friend” request, and not knowing from whom the request came, he may be curious enough to look at the sender’s profile. With no limitations on who sees her Facebook page, he will find a wealth of information to beguile him. The female’s profile begins with an exhibit of risqué photos, but still within the soft guidelines of the website so as not to raise any warning flags with its administrators. Her “Wall” will have references to her love of parties, men, and sex. Her updates will be perky, friendly, positive, and alluring.
At this point, the man has two options: “Confirm” or “Ignore” the “friend” request from his sexy new contact. If he takes the bait and presses “Confirm” she will be able to see his entire profile. He will receive constant updates from her and invitations to “Instant Message” her on Facebook, all in an effort to draw him in. After a short time, his new female Facebook friend will invite him to follow her on Twitter as well. Then, she begins inviting him, and other men, to dance where she is dancing, “party” wherever she is that particular night, or stay wherever she is staying “for the next few days.”
Women being sold are not only waiting on street corners. They are not only sitting by the phone waiting for men to call from their ads online. They are not waiting for e-mails and texts to come in. Now they are cold calling. Through legitimate and accepted websites like Facebook, they are knocking on the doors of men across America, peering into the windows of their virtual homes, and asking for an invitation to come inside.
Far more blatant is the use of Facebook by pedophiles to connect with each other around the world in order to trade sexually explicit images of young children. Typically, these men find each other by posting similar interests to their Facebook profiles. Using common profile “likes,” such as the novel “Lolita,” the movie “Thirteen,” or any profile name including the words, “young,” “kid,” “angle,” or “child,” pedophiles searching for explicit images of children can successfully search for their otherwise hidden brethren.
Recently, one profile on Facebook, “Marcos Teia,” had more than 500 “friends” with whom he shared hundreds of these photographs directly on Facebook’s pages. His Facebook gallery began with a single photograph of a young girl, perhaps six or seven years old. She was not smiling in the picture. With her head turned slightly to the right, she looked coyly at the lens. Her hair was coiffed in a highly stylized arrangement with green and yellow ribbons. Along with other makeup, she was wearing lipstick, eyeliner, and shadow. She was standing outside, a blue sky and unidentified foothills behind her. She was holding an inflatable Daffy Duck. And she was completely naked.
Most of the child’s body is exposed in a sexual manner – making this photograph a violation of Federal Child Pornography laws. Anyone involved in or possessing the photograph could be prosecuted. The photographer, the men posting it, the men downloading it and keeping it on their computers – all of them – are guilty of violating Federal and State laws.
At the time, this was part of a collection that was growing online by the hour. Along with other photos of naked, costumed, and posed children, the sexually explicit images were simply a collection called “Model Kids” on “Marcos Teia’s” Facebook page. “Marcos” is clearly an online “avatar,” a falsified Facebook profile that effectively hides the true identity of the person behind the page.
“Marcos Teia’s” profile, which used Spiderman as a profile photo and has a Brazilian e-mail address, disappeared every so often. One day he was on Facebook with hundreds of friends – whose profiles also exhibited sexually explicit photographs of children and adults on the social networking site – and the next day he was gone. A few days later he was back, eager to confirm friend requests from anyone.
Most of the reported 800 million users of Facebook probably think it was generally safe from such content and well patrolled. With some privacy concerns, the vast majority of Facebook users, from private citizens to major corporations, NGOs, politicians, and even the President of the United States, have no idea that it is home to a massive collection of unreported pornography of all kinds.
Having seen “Marcos’s” profile, images, and friends growing worse every day, I reported “him” to Facebook several times – which could explain why he vanished so often. Facebook may have deleted his account upon each of my reports. Yet he always returned a day or so later with the same name, profile photo, birthday, e-mail address, and, worst of all, sexually explicit photographs of children in his “Model Kids” collection.
Then, Facebook “groups” began appearing with names like “love little kids,” “nude boys,” “teen sex,” and the like. A Facebook visitor must request permission to “join” these groups, though once the request is made, acceptance is generally given within minutes. The images here were far worse than anything I had encountered previously. These photos – on Facebook – were clearly in violation of several federal laws.
The proliferation of illegal photographs was so profound that I immediately contacted the FBI by phone. The person answering instructed me to fill out an online form – an “IC3” – at their Internet Crime Complaint Center. As I was doing so, I wondered if the FBI would send me to a website had I reported a bank robbery, a kidnapping, or a suspected terrorist. Nevertheless, I submitted the online report, detailing everything I had witnessed.
The following day, with my trust in the Internet having decreased that much further, I made the same report in person – along with a colleague – at the FBI offices in New Haven. Without an appointment we were immediately interviewed by an exceptionally professional and compassionate FBI Special Agent who took all the information we could give him. Though overworked and with a very busy schedule, the agent sacrificed a good part of his day to get a clear picture of what we had found on Facebook.
Our intent was to report the crime we had witnessed and make the authorities aware that these images were not being traded among pedophiles via some hidden, back channel website flying under the radar. This was Facebook. While the people of Egypt were using the website to essentially overthrow their dictatorial government, these others were openly using Facebook’s system to display and trade images of children being sexually attacked.
Soon after filing the report, we began a Facebook Cause, “Force Facebook To Block All Child Pornography,” which now has over 50,000 members (and so far, no comment from Facebook). We also started a Change.org petition, “Stop Child Pornography and Child Sex Trafficking on Facebook,” and built an entire website to get the message out, StopChildPornOnFacebook.com. We also went to the media where some brave journalists reported the story.
On February 1st of this year, Facebook announced it was filing to make an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of the company’s common stock. The deal is predicted to value the social networking site at $100 billion. This will give the company a value greater than most car companies, computer manufacturers, software firms, defense contractors, and other online businesses like eBay, Amazon, and most certainly Craigslist.
“Facebook faces a security challenge that few, if any, other companies or even governments have faced – protecting more than 500 million people (sic) on a service that is under constant attack,” said Simon Axten, a spokesman for Facebook, concerning security issues with his company’s website. Those “challenges” don’t seem to matter to the US State Department which remains totally unaware of the web-based exploitation issues. In June, 2011, the State Department praised Facebook in their annual Trafficking in Persons Report saying, “Whether through issue-specific media, or far-reaching platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the growing capacity of new media allows concerned parties around the world to connect and share information with a speed and breadth of access unimaginable at the start of the modern anti-slavery movement just a decade ago.”
Hopefully, another Federal Agency – the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – will take a close look at the exploitation of children on the Facebook before it approves the massive IPO which will make Mark Zuckerberg one of the top ten wealthiest people in the world.
For now, the horror continues. And while many are eager to jump on the Facebook IPO bandwagon, it is one investment opportunity I am glad to ignore.
photo: dbarsky / flickr