In town for one week only: How crime gangs are using legal adult websites to sell their victims - and why vice squads back them

Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 3:29 pm
Updated Friday, 19th February 2021, 1:16 pm

By Michael Holmes

Websites hosting adverts for sex workers remain a “significant enabler” of forced prostitution and sex trafficking, with vice squads shocked whenever they find a crime gang not using them.

But top officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA) say sites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork can also help to keep women off the streets and safe.

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Rob Richardson, head of the NCA’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, said the sites are widely used to target punters by criminals who fly their victims into the country and force them to sell their bodies for sex.

He said: “We recognise that adult services websites (ASWs) are a significant enabler, and if we are looking at the internet as an enabler of exploitation then ASWs provide the lion’s share of that.

“But one of the things that’s really interesting about ASWs is that there are positive aspects and negative aspects.

“The positive aspects are around providing a safe environment for sex workers to advertise their services, so it can be argued that using ASWs takes sex workers off the streets and potentially puts them in control of the services they offer.

“They are able to vet clients and they are able to be clear in the services they offer, so the ASWs do offer some kind of safety benefit.”

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Prostitution is not illegal in the UK but some related activities are outlawed, such as soliciting in a public place, pimping, and curb crawling.

While websites like Vivastreet, which is free to use for punters and instead charges those placing adverts, operate legally and largely cooperate with police and the NCA, it’s illegal to force people into prostitution - or to pay for sex with a trafficking victim.

Jess Harrison, an operations manager on the NCA unit, said: “It’s pretty common [for gangs to use the sites] because that’s how the majority of legal sex workers will advertise, and also because it’s advertising to the mass market.

“If we disrupt an organised crime group that was sexually exploiting victims and they haven’t used ASWs that would be very surprising to us.”

But working out which adverts are for legitimate sex workers and which are for trafficking victims is not easy.

“A lot of the time these criminals are actually very clever and they very much make the adverts very similar - if not identical - to those of legitimate users of the ASWs,” Ms Harrison said.

“Legitimate, legal sex workers will advertise themselves and, most of the time, I’d say 99 per cent of the time, an organised crime group advertising a victim of exploitation will mimic that.

“So from a law enforcement perspective it’s very challenging for us to identify which adverts are illegal and potential trafficking networks.

“A law enforcement agency or police force wouldn’t just look at an ASW and say, ‘Right, we think that’s a trafficker’, they would layer it with other sources of intelligence.”

Lancashire Police, one of the most successful forces at combating modern slavery, has smashed a number of trafficking rings in recent years.

Details of one operation were revealed during a Parliamentary inquiry into prostitution, which was told officers discovered one man being investigated had spent so much cash placing adverts on Vivastreet - £25,000 - the website even gave him his own account manager.

After visiting a suspected brothel, detectives realised the crooks were loading prepaid credit cards with cash in Preston, Lancashire, before using them to buy adverts on Vivastreet, which was launched in 2004.

One Romanian victim, who was brought to the UK thinking she was in a relationship with her captor, wrote in her diary, which was found by police: “I feel sad and tired, ill and fragile. I feel like I’m suffocating. I need some help to go through this and I want strength.

“My arms are heavy and my legs are numb. My head aches and it gets worse when I think about all the women around him.”

And late last year, the force said young Romanian women were being moved from northern town to town by a gang, which advertised them for sale on Vivastreet as “new to town”, with one sold as ‘Bella from Blackpool’ one week and ‘Kathy in Whitehaven’ the next.

The illicit ring was smashed - with five eastern European men and one woman jailed in November after brothels were uncovered in Leeds, Bradford, Nottingham and London - after neighbours tipped off authorities about a home in Blackburn hosting a “conveyor belt of men”.

Det Sgt Stu Peall, from Lancashire Police’s Exploitation Team, said the gang used the women as “nothing more than a commodity” with no regard for their well being or human rights.

He told the JPIMedia Investigations team: “Lancashire sex trafficking cases are mainly Romanian but we are seeing a rise in Hungarian brothels, which Greater Manchester Police have seen for years.

“In essence, the North West is very popular for setting up a brothel, one because of such cheap housing, and two because of a massive client basis, judging from our studies.

“Sex trafficking is a business model to the controllers, and the more women you can put into cheap accomodation the more money you can make.

“In terms of Vivastreet, it’s a difficult subject. They provide law enforcement with good evidence, but are they doing the necessary safeguarding and basics? I’m not so sure.”

He continued: “In one of the operations we did, the barrister made reference to Vivastreet being almost like a car showroom, in that punters who use these girls want different girls each time.

“So girls are moved around the country. We picked our main guy up on surveillance moving girls from Northampton up to Blackburn and, as they were being moved, their profiles were being activated on Vivastreet, which clearly wasn’t them.

“They were in the back of a car and their profiles were being made in Blackburn. It’s very much organised crime.”

The Parliamentary inquiry’s subsequent report said websites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork were “key” to the business model of organised crime groups who dominate the UK’s off-street sex trade.

“They provide a quick and easy way for traffickers to connect with men around the country who are willing to pay to gain sexual access to a woman’s body,” it concluded.

“Any notion that prostitution websites introduce ‘safety’ to the sex trade by making procurement visible is a dangerous and misleading fallacy.

“They hide sexual exploitation in plain sight. The websites significantly contribute to the ease and scale of sex trafficking.”

The report recommended that owners and operators of prostitution procurement websites be held legally accountable for “the sexual exploitation they enable and profit from” and for “negligently failing to prevent” their platforms being used for this purpose.

A debate was held to discuss the issue, leading to a demonstration from the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (Swarm), the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) and the xTalk collective, and the law remained the same.

“If we can’t advertise online and work independently, many of us would be forced to work in other ways, including on the streets where it is much more dangerous to work, or we will be pushed into the hands of exploitative brothel bosses,” the ECP said in a blog post.

A new Bill aimed at stopping the likes of Vivastreet and Adultwork, which had its first reading in the House of Commons in December, was introduced by Labour’s Dame Diana Johnson, who said: “This is a Bill to bust the business model of sex trafficking.”

The West Ham MP added: “Now to stop women being raped and abused for profit we must dismantle the business model of this sex trafficking trade.

“This will require two key measures: one, prevent the demand-driving sex trafficking by criminalising paying for sex; two, stop website companies and other third parties aiding and profiting from this appalling crime by making it a criminal offence to enable or profit from the prostitution of another person.”

The Bill is due to have its second reading, though a date has yet to be announced.

Dame Diana told JPIMedia Investigations: “Websites that host prostitution adverts are highly lucrative pimping operations. These online companies knowingly facilitate and profit from the prostitution of others.

“Traffickers need to advertise their victims to men who pay for sex – and pimping websites could barely make that process any easier. 

“It is a national scandal that our laws currently allow pimping websites to operate openly and freely.”

She continued: “Sex trafficking cannot be ‘designed out’ of pimping websites. There is no way the website company – or sex buyer – can know if a woman advertised on the site is being coerced by a trafficker or pimp.”

Ms Harrison from the NCA said the agency has engaged with Vivastreet and Adultwork, the two “market leaders”, at “relatively regular intervals over the past few years”.

She said: “On the whole, when law enforcement and policing request information … they respond very effectively and provide all of the information that was requested of them.”

Vivastreet, which operates in more than a dozen countries, said its top priority is “providing a safe platform for legal user-generated content”.

“We have a wide range of measures in place to enhance user safety, and detect and remove inappropriate content,” a spokesman said

“We proactively report any suspicious activity to police, either directly or via our long-term partnership with Ugly Mugs, a specialist charity that works with police forces across the country.

“We also partner with Unseen, a charity that operates the UK-wide Modern Slavery Helpline, through which we encourage users to report any concerns about trafficking or exploitation.”

The firm added: “As all those working to combat online exploitation will acknowledge, the challenge from those who seek to misuse our platform is complex and ever-changing.

“We therefore constantly review and update our safety measures.”

Adultwork, which launched in 2003 and was later labelled the “eBay of sex”, said: “Nobody disputes that sexual exploitation is abhorrent and AdultWork.com neither promotes nor permits any kind of exploitation. 

“We are continually updating our internal systems for detecting accounts and requesting additional documents for evidence of legitimacy.

There is no dispute that ASWs have a role to play in this area and now with Brexit, this will hopefully give the Government the opportunity to enhance border control policies.”

It said that, if the new Bill is passed, it would “ensure its business model adapts to remain” compliant with the law.

  •  The Modern Slavery Helpline can be called on 08000 121 700.