Today, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation seized the escort directory and forum MyRedBook.com.
Bay Area reporter Azenith Smith tweeted from a Mountain View home being raided in connection with the case, calling MyRedBook a “child-exploitation site.” CNN followed her lead, saying: “The FBI on Wednesday shut down a website advertising children for prostitution — a move made as part of a broader crackdown on the sex trafficking of minors, law enforcement sources told CNN on condition of anonymity.”
But as is clear from the message the FBI placed on MyRedBook.com, this investigation is one between the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, and does not appear to have anything to do with minors.
The residents of the raided Mountain View home, Eric Omuro and Annmarie Lanoce, were arraigned in federal court this afternoon: both were charged with one count of interstate and foreign travel in the aid of a racketeering enterprise, and aiding and abetting. They “used the mail and a communication facility in interstate and foreign commerce, such as the internet, with the intent to promote, manage, establish, carry om, and facilitate the promotion, management, establishment, and carrying on of an unlawful activity, to wit: prostitution offenses in violation of the State in which they were committed, including the California Penal Code Section 647(b) and thereafter performed an act that did promote, manage, establish, carry on, and facilitate the promotion, management, establishment, and carrying on of the unlawful activity, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 2 and 1952(a)(3)(A) and (b)(i)(1)”.
Omuro faces an additional 24 counts of money laundering. Per the indictment: “Defendant knowingly engaged in the following monetary transactions, in and affecting interstate and foreign commerce, in criminally derived property of value greater than $10,000, that was derived from specified unlawful activity, namely racketeering in support of prostitution offenses in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1952 Section 1952(a)(3)(A) and (b)(1)”.
MyRedBook was one of two sites that Omuro owned and Lanoce administrated. Another site is SFRedBook.com, which was also seized by the FBI. Both sites allowed sex workers to post advertisements and engage one another and potential clients. According to the U.S. State Attorney’s statement:
myredbook.com purported to provide “Escort, Massage, and Strip Club Reviews.” Instead, however, the website hosted advertisements for prostitutes, complete with explicit photos, lewd physical descriptions, menus of sexual services, hourly and nightly rates, and customer reviews of the prostitutes’ services. The website used acronyms for numerous sex acts, which were defined in graphic detail in the website’s “Terms and Acronyms” section. Although the website could be accessed for free, myredbook.com advertised fees for premier placement of prostitution advertisements and for “VIP Memberships,” which purportedly allowed customers access to “private forums” and heightened capabilities to search reviews of the prostitution services.
Nothing in the charges or State Attorney’s statement confirms claims that the raid and seizure are tied to a nationwide crackdown on the sexual trafficking of minors. In the past, law enforcement successfully leveraged the services provided by MyRedBook to identify minors incapable of consent who are involved in sex work. In 2011, police removed a 17-year-old and two 16-year-olds from two motels in the Bay Area after a MyRedBook-based sting.
Most recently, the crackdown efforts have involved 400 different agencies in over 100 cities and have removed 168 minors from their current situations. Combined efforts have, since 2008, removed some 3,600 minors and led to seizure of over $3 million in assets. But MyRedBook is a much bigger fish: busting it means the forfeiture of $5,419,791 in assets to the federal government.
According to the San Francisco Examiner, a number of arrest warrants were served throughout the Bay, but it is currently unknown how many there were, whether these targeted sex workers, or whether victims of coercion had been uncovered.
The Bay Area Chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP Bay) has been active throughout the day, lobbing for Eros-Guide, a site similar to MyRedBook, to lower its prices so that those displaced by the closure of MyRedBook have somewhere to go. A statement by SWOP Bay member Patricia West posted on the organization’s site elaborates on the increased risk sex workers face without a resource like MyRedBook:
Many Bay Area sex workers have been able to improve their working conditions by using Myredbook as the site provided a private, discreet venue for negotiations that otherwise often happen in a public venues or on the street. Now that the only free local online female sex worker ad hosting site is gone, where will people go to work? We are very concerned for those who may be forced into more dangerous working conditions at this time.
Today we also lost extensive online forums for a community of sex workers to keep each other safe, screen clients, and blacklist predators. Myredbook also hosted resource guides for sex workers who were struggling and created a venue for community counseling for those in need. Many local outreach organizations used this forum to connect with vulnerable sex workers.
While we are certainly concerned with the issue of sex trafficking, this misguided effort only pushes the most marginalized of us further into the underground. The current anti trafficking moral panic is causing so much unnecessary harm, which we will continue to see as a result of this seizure. Sex workers want to end trafficking. The answer is the decriminalization of prostitution, which would effectively end the black market, and give workers the ability to unionize and report crimes committed against and around us. It would then be much easier to see the difference between choice and coercion or force. Increasing criminalization of poor working women in the Bay Area is a dangerous move and the most marginalized of us will suffer the worst.
Header image features a shot by Alex Torres.