The owner of CityXGuide, the website that users have described as having taken over where Backpage.com left off, has been indicted on sex trafficking charges and the site has been shut down.
According to the Justice Department on Friday, CityXGuide, a leading online source of ads for prostitution and trafficking, has been seized and the owner has been charged with 28 federal criminal counts.
Wilham Martono was indicted earlier this month on one count promotion of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking and on another separate count of interstate racketeering conspiracy, which means facilitating prostitution. Other charges included interstate transportation in aid of racketeering and money laundering. Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Secret Service arrested Martono last week.
Following his arrest, his website was officially seized and "replaced with a splash page notifying users that the website had been seized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security pursuant to a warrant," according to a DOJ release.
“As soon as DOJ shut down one despicable site, another popped up to take its place,” said U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox.
“Like the owners of Backpage, this defendant made millions facilitating the online exploitation of women and children. The Justice Department will not rest until these sites are eliminated and their owners held accountable for their crimes.”
Martono reportedly gained over $21 million from several websites promoting prostitution and sex trafficking having registered the domain names for the sites the day after federal authorities seized Backpage.com, a site that was long known for its promotion and facilitating of prostitution and sex trafficking, including the exploitation of minors.
A 2017 U.S. Senate investigation report into Backpage showed that its company staff had manipulated its content to conceal instances of criminality like child sex trafficking. Such terms that site operators automatically stripped from trafficking ads before publication included “lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” “young,” “amber alert,” “little girl,” “teen,” “fresh,” “innocent,” and “school girl.”
“This case is a harsh reminder of the ruthlessness of human traffickers and lengths to which they go, including victimizing women and children, to make a profit,” Ryan L. Spradlin, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Dallas Field Office, said of the shutting down of CityXGuide and Martono arrest.
“HSI maintains its unwavering commitment to investigate these heinous crimes, rescue victims, and prosecute the offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”
The DOJ added that it had identified a number of minor victims in CityXGuide ads, including a 13-year-old girl who was recovered in North Texas in November.
Martono could face up to 25 years in federal prison if he is convicted.
He was charged in part under a relatively new federal law that President Donald Trump signed in 2018, called the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act-Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, which occurred soon after the federal seizure of Backpage. The law enabled the federal government to prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking.
FOSTA-SESTA updated the existing law to clarify the nation's existing statutes, outlawing knowingly assisting, facilitating, or supporting sex trafficking. The law also amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from its immunity.