TAMPA - A website called Backpage.com took center stage in two major prostitution busts this week.
Sheriffs in Polk and Pinellas Counties say the web-based classified advertisement site claims to offer escort services, but actually facilitates prostitution and human trafficking.
'It's a promise. Backpage, you're going to be criminally investigated and so are the people that are in charge of the organization," pledged Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd on Tuesday.
Judd made the comment after rounding up over 90 suspects by posting or answering ads for sex on Backpage.com with graphic pictures and thinly veiled pricing.
"They're really good about saying 200 roses for an hour. Mmm, now that takes a lot to figure out," said Judd, sarcastically.
The much larger craigslist.com faced the same criticism until they dropped their adult services section in 2010. It's believed many of those customers seeking or offering sex for money switched to Backpage.com.
An Arizona State University study last year concluded that 80 percent of the listings on Backpage were for prostitution.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri believes human traffickers he arrested this week used Backpage.com to advertise sex with minor children forced into the trade.
But can a local Sheriff do anything to stop an out of state internet company with global reach? Civil rights and criminal attorney Michael Maddux believes a statewide or even a national task force would be a better approach.
"They could also use the RICO statutes, the racketeering enterprises to shut down what are, at essence, prostitution rings," said Maddux.
And while Maddux doubts Sheriff Grady Judd will be rounding up Backstage.com executives any time soon, he acknowledges his right to try.
"There is a legitimate law enforcement concern to the extent that this promotes human trafficking and that they are listing unwilling people. That would be a grievous thing that I do think that law enforcement should investigate," said Maddux.
ABC Action News wasn't able to reach the offices of Backstage.com, but in previous statements, their attorneys claim the company actively cooperates in child sex investigations and screens ads for possible illegal activity.
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