Web Stings

Web-based reverse stings involve police posting online decoy ads and setting up a reverse sting operation at a hotel or apartment.  This method has been employed in more than 930 cities and counties in the U.S. since 1995.  Some of these operations target predators seeking to purchase sex from minors: the decoy ads mention that the person being sold is young, and during communications with people responding to those ads, investigators clearly state an age below legal limits.  A variation of the basic approach of investigators placing decoy ads involves police responding to real online advertising, replacing pimps and prostituted persons with police decoy and seizing their phones, and continuing to take calls and messages from johns responding to the original ads. An alternative web-based reverse sting involves women police decoys responding to online ads placed by johns, but this tactic is rarely used.

Other variations on the basic model is using social media platforms such as Facebook to place ads and facilitate communications, instead of basic online advertising sites like Craigslist and Backpage, or local entertainment magazines. For example, in April 2014,  a 15-year-old girl called the Charleroi (PA) Regional Police to report that a man with whom she had been communicating through Facebook offered her $500 for sex.  The girl showed police numerous texts and Facebook messages allegedly sent to her by the man, and in response surveillance was established at the location of the arranged meeting. He was arrested when he arrived and took steps toward completing the crime.  In a more recent but similar case, the Putnam County (FL) Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested a man in March 2018 who had solicited sex from an undercover detective via Facebook Messenger.

For more information on web-based reverse sting, please access the resources below.  If you wish to learn more about specific communities that have used this tactic, please go to the “locations” page and select “web stings” from the list of tactics, and then you can explore locations that have used web-based reverse stings by selecting from among sites shown on the map. You can also go the the “browse locations” page and select “web-based stings” to produce an alphabetical listing (which can be further narrowed to any state, community size, city versus county, etc.).

Events occurring early in 2018 suggest that publicly accessible online advertising sites may not be as readily available for use by law enforcement to conduct reverse stings.  In February 2018, a federal bill entitled “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” or “FOSTA,” was signed by both the House and Senate.  Known in a previous form as SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), FOSTA amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides tech companies immunity from most liability for publishing third-party content. Within days, Craigslist announced it would drop all personal ads, a common platform for commercial sex advertising.  In early April 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice seized the Backpage.com website and raided the home of its co-founder.

It remains to be seen whether the market will shift to other open source advertising websites, or transfer business to restricted access venues and social media platforms requiring membership fees, or where sex buyers must be invited and registered by providers of commercial sex.  History strongly suggests that if consumer level demand remains strong, the market for commercial sex will adapt and simply find other means of advertising and arranging transactions. Obvious examples include efforts to reduce illicit drug trafficking by focusing efforts on supply and distribution and paying less attend to curbing demand. Applying the same approach to commercial sex also provides no evidence suggesting effectiveness: When Craigslist had eliminated its “Erotic Services” section in 2009, the market quickly adapted by migrating from Craigslist to Backpage and other websites.  If those kinds of generic advertising websites stop carrying listings that facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking, other options that may be pursued by providers of commercial sex, pimps, and sex traffickers include focusing on developing “client lists” and closed networks of “customers,” “pop-up brothels” announced to closed client and predator networks, and using texts, emails, Facebook, Instagram, or the communication facilities of gaming systems to market and arrange transactions.

Overview of Web-Based Reverse Stings in the U.S.

 Examples of News Reports on Web-Based Reverse Stings

Articles on 2018 Legislation, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and Resulting Action Against Internet Advertisers of Commercial Sex

Articles and Reports on Web-Based Prostitution

News Reports on Internet-Facilitated Prostitution & Sex Trafficking


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