As the feds moved in to seize the classified ads website Backpage.com, advocates working with sex trafficking survivors celebrated the big move.
On Friday, those who logged onto the website saw a banner saying, "backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division."
The move comes after lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and advocacy groups have long called for an investigation into Backpage.com for allegedly facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking.
"We wanted them to shut it down a long time ago, this is just great," said Beth Jacobs, a sex trafficking survivor, who now works as an advocate representing other victims in Washington, D.C.
Jacobs has spent the last few years testifying about the problems in Washington, D.C. and working with federal agents to raise awareness, and help them understand what needs to be done to help sex trafficking survivors trapped in a dangerous world.
Like many victims, Jacobs got into the sex trade industry as a teenager. She says she was held hostage by her "pimp" who would take all her money and physically abuse her if she defied him.
Jacobs said these victims are living in fear. Many of them may not even know the pimps were soliciting for them on websites like Backpage.com.
"That is prostitution. As you look at the ads, you can see how they play with the words. 'Fresh, fresh in town, new in town' that just means they're young and they just started," Jacobs said.
Another sex trafficking survivor who asked us not to reveal her name said she left home at the age of 15 as she wanted to get out of the abusive environment.
The girl said "friends" she met on the street took her to California, but what she thought was a fun trip to see relatives and start fresh turned into a nightmare.
"I ended up becoming a victim, and not being able to leave. I was forced to do certain things. I basically was locked up in a hotel room all day," the victim said.
She said she was with other girls her age, and they would be physically abused by the man who locked them up, if they did not do as he said.
"Most girls do have somebody that is controlling them. Somebody that takes all the money at the end," the girl said.
She advertised herself on Backpage.com because she was told that was the "thing to do."
"Most of the girls they're not happy. Everything that glitters isn't gold. Most of these men they're not thinking about your age or that you're somebody's daughter. They're not thinking about that; they're just thinking about their own sexual urge and how they've got to take care of that," the girl said.
Advocates said while they were glad to see the FBI and Department of Justice taking action against the owners of Backpage.com and shutting down the website, they worried that the illegal activity would just continue at another venue.
"Now it's going to be more of walking the streets again or hitting up the casinos. They're not going to stop because a website has been taken down," the girl said.
Cari Sparks, an advocate who worked with the Starbright Foundation, a non-profit that helped sex trafficking victims get back on their feet sent ABC15 Arizona a statement calling this a "monumental event," but added her concerns.
"The dark web is waiting to take over where backpage left off. This is a big business that dehumanizes girls, boys, women, and men that fall vulnerable to predators that only see people as assets. It's so important to prevent our community from falling victim to these people and remember that there is more money in human sex trafficking in 2018 than professional football, basketball, and baseball combined."
Chandler City Councilman Rene Lopez is now behind an effort to create a non-profit called Cece's Hope Center. Their mission is to improve the lives of 17 to 24-year-old female victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by bridging the gap in available services and support.
Their primary focus was to help women who had aged out or were about to age out of the foster care or justice system or those recently rescued by law enforcement.
The organization is dedicated to the memory of a young woman who survived a traumatic childhood, successfully transitioned into adulthood, and found her happiness.
The organization will formally launch in May. To donate or get involved in the effort visit www.cecescenter.org.
The federal indictment involving the founder of backpage.com remains sealed by a federal judge.