Women warn: Website is an "open door to human trafficking"

Published: Feb. 21, 2013 at 7:10 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 23, 2013 at 9:13 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It's likely you've seen young women and sometimes men on street corners trading sex for cash.  Except now, there's a major change. Police say prostitutes are leaving the streets for a more dangerous environment. They are finding themselves "trapped" in the oldest profession.

WBTV spoke with two women who say a website, servicing Charlotte and the surrounding areas, doesn't only allow prostitution, but it's an open door to human trafficking. Local police are also concerned, but admit, catching people isn't that easy.

Jillian Mourning, 25, says she was sold into the sex trade when she was just 19 years old, spending nights with strange men in cheap area hotels.

"The Internet is really a sick world today," she said.

The second woman, Susan, who asked us to hide her face, says she can relate to Mourning. She too, says exploiting pictures of her are likely online.

"I hate that it's so easy to go buy sex one night," Susan said.

The two girls are fighting against a sex trafficking website called Backpage, a site they argue "promotes" trafficking.  There's a Backpage for every major city. With a few simple clicks you can buy a book, a car, or an intimate evening with a complete stranger.

"Backpage is worst then Craig's List was," Mourning said.

Craig's List took down its adult section after public outcry, even a murder, with a suspect called the "Craig's List Killer." Mourning and Susan are hoping for Backpage to take down its adult section.

Mourning and Susan both thank Mark Blackwell for helping women in similar situations. Blackwell, raised in Charlotte, dedicates his life to what he calls "rescuing" girls from sites like Backpage. He does it through his company, Justice Ministries.  He believes the girls who post on the site are sold like drugs, against their will.

"When I learned that there was a 12-year-old in my city that was being raped 20 to 30 times a day and sold for profit for someone, it just kind of crushed me," he said.

Blackwell's female colleague calls women on Backpage, hoping to make contact, offering options to shake loose of the Backpage lifestyle.  Sometimes a rescue is successful and sometimes it's not. Blackwell and Mourning say the girls are usually watched, and afraid to get help.

"There's definitely a pimp controlling a lot of them," Mourning said.

WBTV showed the website to Concord Police Major Gary Hatley who calls it "disturbing". He says the shuffle of prostitution from the streets to the Internet, makes his job tough.

"It moves so quickly and we can't catch up with it sometimes but we have people investigating Internet crimes and we always look for what we can find," Hatley said.

Blackwell says he can find what police can't. He is on standby seven days a week, waiting to offer other women, trapped in the Backpage web, a lifeline.

Blackwell says his group works to find temporary housing for his rescues. He's in the process of raising money to create a permanent shelter. WBTV reached out to Backpage for comment. Our calls and emails were not returned.

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