“You calling about the ad?” a man’s deep voice inquired of the caller who had just rung.
The man at the other end hesitated, maybe because he expected to hear a woman’s voice answer the call, then responded: “Yeah.”
The ad he was calling about had been posted on Backpage.com on a recent Friday night. It didn’t say much — and it didn’t need to. Just a phone number and a photo of a half-naked woman.
But rather than setting up a sexual rendezvous with the half-naked woman, the caller got an earful from the man on the other end. Most of the women who advertised for sex were victims of human trafficking, the caller was told, and many were underage.
“What now?” the caller responded, taken aback. Then he added: “Is Mark there?”
“Dude, I know you’re not calling for Mark,” the call-taker said.
“I think I have the wrong number.”
“I think you need to stay off Backpage.”
The exchange was one of 84 that night, part of an effort by a group of San Diego-based male volunteers to educate callers about the realities of human trafficking.
They call it the Bunch of Guys Cyber Patrol.
The fight against human trafficking has evolved significantly around the nation over recent years, with the most tangible efforts aimed at rescuing victims and prosecuting traffickers. Reducing demand for paid sex is a trickier proposition, one that takes a cultural shift and calls for a long-term commitment.
Public awareness campaigns are now common — in airports, at conventions, on freeway billboards — but the Cyber Patrol hopes it can be effective in another way: by appealing to individuals in a one-on-one conversation.
On the recent Friday night patrol, six volunteers gathered around a large table ready to take incoming calls and text messages from johns. They invited the San Diego Union-Tribune to sit in as long as the volunteers weren’t identified and their location kept secret, because every so often they catch the ire of johns and pimps.
The group posted fake ads that night on Backpage, a marketplace notorious for prostitution, sensual massage and hook-ups.
The website is in the middle of a legal battle with the state of California, which has accused executives of laundering millions of dollars and fronting an illicit sex trade, including offering the services of children, so it can be “the world’s top online brothel,” according to then-Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The website claims the third-party postings are protected free speech and that its ads are closely monitored for human trafficking. The site shut down its adult services section last year, although many erotic ads moved to the dating and massage sections. Credit cards stopped working with the site, so posters must use digital currency such as Bitcoin to place ads.
The Cyber Patrol used to include racy wording in the ads to entice johns, but the volunteers found that the website had been removing the overt references to prostitution, leaving only the number, poster’s age and photos up. That’s how many of the ads in the women-seeking-men section appear, along with links to social media profiles that are usually private.
The patrol’s ads that night were for nonexistent women — Katelyn, Gina and Destiny. The women depicted in the patrol’s ads are models and other women who have given consent for their bodies to be shown for the cause. (Early on, the patrol used tamer photos but found that they weren’t attracting customers.)
It didn’t take long for the text messages and calls to start pouring in. That night, it averaged one every two minutes.
The calls unfold fairly quickly. The volunteer asks if the person is calling about the ad on Backpage, and if the caller doesn’t hang up right away, the volunteer begins reading a script that asks whether the caller is aware of the painful toll of human trafficking. The message goes on to say that many of the women advertising their services are underage or were coerced into the business as minors, and that their pimps often keep all of the money for themselves.
They are warned that a conviction for solicitation of a minor could turn them into registered sex offenders.
If the volunteer makes it all the way to the end of the script, he offers the caller resources for help for sexual issues.
The volunteers are often met with silence. Some callers engage, saying they weren’t aware of the harm.
And some call back, hoping to reach a real girl.
“You’ve called us a couple times today,” a volunteer chided one caller, who was trying to reach “Katelyn.”
“OK, OK,” the caller responded. “I’m not going to call anymore.”
“That’s a great idea,” the volunteer said.
The conversations get more graphic, and the dialogues often more meaningful, over text messages.
The volunteers answer the messages and ask the caller what he is looking for.
“Sex,” one john responded candidly.
“I’m married,” another buyer said, “looking for something clean … and can be trusted.” He added: “decent with nice body.”
Johns often send photos, sometimes pornographic. One sent a picture of a pile of money on a bed.
Once it is clear the man is looking for sex, the volunteer begins to engage with the human-trafficking message.
The patrols will turn over especially concerning cases to the Human Trafficking Task Force for follow-up, including frequent callers and cases when solicitation of children is suspected. One time, a pimp tried to recruit a girl in their fake ad, and he sent a selfie with his car and license plate number in the background. That photo went to the task force.
The project was born in Portland, Ore., when a group of men asked police how they could contribute to the fight against trafficking.
San Diego was the second region to try it out in 2015, and it has since spread to Detroit, the Bay Area, Dallas, Boston and other places.
Here, the patrols have logged more than 9,200 solicitationssince November 2015, with about 3,600 of those unique callers, according to Project Concern International, which helps coordinate the patrols.
While the program is run by civilians and is not affiliated with law enforcement, it has its fans in government agencies who are fighting the same battles.
“I think this problem of human trafficking and problem of demand is a social issue,” said San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan, an expert on the issue who helped vet the program in an unofficial capacity.
“There are years of misinformation to men that buying is something that’s consensual, that these women, girls and boys want this, that this is a life they chose, that they somehow become rich and famous and live in mansions from this industry. The whole ‘Pretty Woman’ model.”
“Cyber Patrol, they are disrupting the demand, but actually at its core its providing accurate information about the damage and the harm that buying does.”